Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Moscoviad, by Yuri Andrukhovych
Reviewed by Michael Pinker
Trans. Vitaly Chernetsky. Spuyten Duyvil, 2008. 186 pp. Paper: $14.00.
Drunken, dissolute Ukrainian poet Otto von F., whose adventures in and out of the writer's dormitory in Moscow in the waning days of the USSR comprise this ribald novel, takes Baudelaire’s bibulous counsel to heart, despite occasional pangs of conscience and the knowledge that there are far more profitable associates, in terms of getting his latest effusions into print, than a bunch of old cronies out to raise hell. Here, style mimics substance with a vengeance, as the episodes through which Andrukhovych leads us each arrive in a boozy haze, the decadent sway of dying communism lending an arch sense of twisted ritual to the intricacies of Otto’s quest for self-justification. No samizdat rebel, Otto enjoys the privileges of the authorized intelligentsia, but knows no limits to his behavior, measuring all progress by the strata of booze in his gut. Much of the book recounts the events of a single day, all conspiring to ruin Otto’s plans to see his publisher and buy presents for friends’ children. Otto’s account of his antics—shagging a fetching female in the shower, barely eluding the detonation of a grenade in a louche bar, tracking a pickpocket into the depths of a building only to discover a subterranean bacchanal stoking the passions of Soviet apparatchiks, all declaiming perpetual hegemony in the dregs of their toppling regime—displays how much Andrukhovych’s art relies on contingency. One overwrought lover, a snake-venom expert, appears as if by magic to spring Otto from a KGB jail where he awaits death for killing the pickpocket—an agent, naturally. Falling in a hail of bullets while trying to escape, Otto does a double take and lives again. His true poetry is unleashed in action, his words only an extension of his riotous nature. Andrukhovych’s overheated imagination, like that of his protagonist, knows no restraint in this wild spree of a novel, merrily stomping on the grave of socialist realism.