Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv

Andrey Kurkov

Translated by Reuben Woolley

MacLehose, £16.99



In a graveyard in Lviv, a group of die-hard hippies descends at night-time to pay homage at an iron crucifix. One of them touches up the white paint on the lettering. It reads: Jimi Hendrix, 1942-1970.

Since the musician’s tragically early death, these admirers have been bound to him spiritually, artistically and politically. Far-fetched though it sounds – like so much in Kurkov’s drolly surreal fiction - they believe that his hand was removed from his body after burial in the USA and lies beneath their feet in Ukrainian soil.

This annual anniversary reunion seems to be going to plan until a stranger joins them. He is Captain Ryabtsev, a former KGB officer whose job it once was to monitor the city’s hippies. His prime target was Alik, the leader of this long-haired group for whom grubby denim is a second skin. Now, belatedly, he has come to apologise for spying on him, at the same time revealing that all along he had been secretly in sympathy with those he monitored.

The opening pages of Andrey Kurkov’s novel are inimitably his: a pleasantly meandering, low-key gathering of one-off characters who fit no mould, but who will be tasked with carrying a whimsical plot to its unlikely but satisfying conclusion.

Ukraine’s best-known contemporary novelist, whose melancholy comedy Death and the Penguin (1996) made his name, Kurkov has been described as “the Ukrainian Murakami”. His last book was a day-by-day record of the present Russian invasion – Diary of an Invasion (2022) – and before that came a novel, Grey Bees (2018), set in the no-man’s-land between the pro-Russian and Ukrainian nationalist parts of the Donbas region. With Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, however, he has gone in a different direction.

As he explains in his acknowledgements, the Mayor of Lviv invited Kurkov to write a novel about this enigmatic city. The result is a foray into the gently magical-realist contemporary world in which Kurkov thrives, a realm where animals and fish and imaginary characters hold their own alongside his human cast.

While the setting is modern, no reference is made to Ukraine’s current predicament. The sense of unease and dread that suffuses the plot, however, feels like a nod to the fragility of civilisation, and the many unforeseen ways in which hostile forces can destroy it.

Alik, who strikes up a friendship with the former KGB officer, is one of two central protagonists. The other is a young man called Taras. His profession, if it deserves that title, is to rid men of their kidney stones. His methods are unconventional but well-suited to the cobblestones of an old and potholed city. Taking patients on hair-raising drives around the city’s worst roads after midnight, he is usually guaranteed to shift the stones. Like a trophy hunter, he collects these specimens in a jar, fingering them as if they were jewels. In time, as they become the means by which he meets and cures a young woman with a rare allergy, their value becomes priceless.

Most of Taras’s customers are Polish, a shorthand for well-off. Kurkov makes the most of the long-standing rivalry between these nations, as when Taras and his clients discuss “when Ukraine would finally catch up with Poland, repeatedly coming to the intermediate conclusion of ‘never’.”

There are many amusing and even romantic touches to this tale, although Kurkov retains an Eastern European respect for what you might call kitchen sink detail: the carefully thought-out furnishings of spartan homes, the making of coffee or meals, the importance of food and alcohol. His depictions of his characters are similarly precise. Taras’s best friend Oksana, for instance, is pinpointed in a sentence: “though she was an actress, nature had given her the air of a director”. Even a residential block is endowed with a personality, with “wooden stairs, each of which gave its own particular sound, like the keys of a worn old grand piano.” Most strikingly of all, the city’s many homeless are given a stage, peopling its night-time streets like a faded  mirror-image of their daytime compatriots, and offering a new angle on what makes this city tick. Kurkov’s cameos of poverty and the kindness of strangers feels like a peephole on the real rather than fictional Lviv.

But beneath its closely observed interiors and everyday characters, the underlying plot is sinister. “Something’s not been quite right with Lviv,” says Ryabtsev, “a particular sensation, like some sort of catastrophe is just about to occur”. This manifests itself at night when in various parts of the city he – and others – have suddenly been aware of peculiar vibrations, accompanied by the smell of iodine and rotting seaweed, and of the inimical cries of seagulls overhead. As salt water begins to flow through people’s taps and starfish and crabs scuttle through the streets, it seems that Ryabtsev’s crackpot theory might be right: that the pre-historic Carpathian sea, on whose bed Lviv was built, is trying to reassert itself. Should it succeed, the city will be engulfed.

This being Kurkov, there’s no fear of the novel turning into a horror story. This being Kurkov, however, also means that every twist and turn carries political freight. “Justice is integral to history, and history is the highest judge,” thinks Ryabtsev, pinpointing its fundamental theme.

With characters straddling today and the old Soviet era, Jimi Hendrix (and his fans) stand out as a symbol of the westernisation Soviet leaders dreaded. By comparison with Hendrix’s liberated, experimental and unpredictable work, writes Kurkov, “in every Soviet song you could hear the concrete task the authors had set themselves”. This music was intended to inspire nation-building activities, whereas Hendrix’s led to the dangerous territory of contemplation and enlightenment.

A novel about the past and its lingering reverberations, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv is a multi-layered, Chagal-like picture of modern-day Ukraine. Entertaining and poignant, it manages to convey the spirit and plight of the place without once sullying its pages with the names of those presently intent on its annihilation.