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Recreations by Yuri Andrukhovych

Recreations is a Ukrainian novella, filled with local allusions and references (usefully glossed in the accompanying endnotes). The central event is a ‘Festival of the Resurrecting Spirit’, held in Chortopil (literally: Devilsburg), the main characters four poets who have been invited to participate. Written as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Recreations is a novel of turbulent times and national (and artistic) identity, characters fumbling their way about in a mysterious and unpredictable fun-house world rich in historical alusion and reference but also threatening the completely unknown.

The central characters are poets, and there’s certainly a good deal of poetic excess. Opportunities arise — notably a free table at a popular restaurant — and they take full advantage. Consumption of food and alcohol are top priorities — though they don’t forget they’re poets (even if one, called upon to recite a poem, recites one by Andrukhovych instead …). The search for love and sex is but one of the many tracks the novel moves on. (Changing perspective, and in part presented in the second person, Recreations fluidly and repeatedly shifts focus.)

Among those they encounter is Dr. Popel, “citizen of Switzerland”, familiar with the poets he takes for a ride in his fancy car and a not-quite typical example of the wealthy emigr?s set to descend upon the old country. It’s also Popel who invites one of the poets, Nemyrych, to a fancy get-together; there the first secretary of the local Communist Party Committee was invited to serve as a servant, while the scene inside is straight out of E.T.A Hoffmann.

The festival itself is also quite ambitious, and it (and the book) culminates in a disturbing but very successful piece of theatre. It’s staged and thus without real consequences, suggesting times may have really changed, but it still hits very close to home. Indeed, though there’s a lot of light humour and fun throughout this romp of a novella, there’s also a consistently sinister undertone.

Recreations offers a good glimpse of Ukraine in transition. Littered with allusions to the past and present, both historical and literary, it offers a surprisingly realistic look at the state of the state (anno 1990), while also indulging in fantasy and surreal fun. It’s a playful exercise rather than a completely rounded work of fiction, but certainly amusing and often surprising fun.


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