New novel by Yuri Andrukhovych: When the night is darkest

The novel “Radio Night” by Yuri Andrukhovych resembles a deep sigh about the tragic situation in many Eastern European countries.

Portrait of Yuri Andrukhovych standing at a railing

Yuri Andrukhovych in Berlin in the summer Photo: Sabine Gudath/imago

It’s almost as if you could hear the stillness of the night, as if you could hear every inhalation and exhalation, every rise and fall of radio presenter Josip Rotsky’s voice, as if the loneliness of the people at night in front of their radios was palpable crouch, share with the host of this music show. His show is called “Radio Night”, it runs from midnight to eight in the morning, and it seems to herald a lost world in which the blue hour in front of the receivers created its own magic, its own blues.

“Radio Nacht” is also the title of the new novel by Yuri Andrukhovych, and if you didn’t know a lot better very quickly, you could believe that the famous Ukrainian author has presented a genuine music novel here. The nightly broadcasts form the background story; the 15 songs, which Rotsky epicly moderates chapter by chapter, are not only well curated (you can read them in a listen to the playlist created for the novel), but they are also biographical companions of the protagonist.

But the backstory of the main character is just as significant: Josip Rotsky becomes famous in an unnamed Eastern European country as a barricade pianist in the riots on a Poshtova Square, he is “directly involved in the mysterious liquidation of the dictator, the penultimate one in Europe”, as we learn . A gang of thugs breaks the opponent’s fingers so that he can no longer make music himself. He is put on a shooting list and has to go into exile as a dissident.

The award-winning writer Yuri Andrukhovych, next to Serhiy Zhadan probably the best-known author from Ukraine, tells of a post-Soviet country in which the revolution failed. At a book premiere in Berlin, the author recently said that he was describing a state that had gone from a soft to a hard dictatorship and was more like Belarus in that respect. The references to the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv and the parallels to “Piano Extremist” on the Maidan are of course still clear – if you will, Andrukhovych describes the Ukrainian story with a different ending.

The narrative sophistication is impressive in this book. There is a superordinate narrator who is to research Rotsky’s life story for an “International Interactive Biographical Committee (IIBC)” and makes a kind of Faustian pact with a character named Meph.

A raven as a companion

The narrative levels are consciously and skilfully blurred when the IIBC stipulates “that the biographer, when he has placed himself sufficiently deeply in the life of the described other, is given the ability to change it, this life, and sometimes even directly in it different periods to invade and operate there. Also – to change your own life in such a way that it is sometimes exchanged for the life of others.”

The novel also has an enormous wealth of references. With an ominous raven accompanying the protagonist, Andrukhovych is probably referring to Edgar Allen Poe. A character Rotsky encounters in prison is named after the unpaid labor service in the Soviet Union (Subbotnik), and how elegantly the content and linguistic references also work in the German translation is shown by a passage in which of a “still weak and immature Maid Democracy” is the speech.

In an interwoven drama, Andrukhowytsch takes the whole thing to the extreme, in which his never-ending humor shimmers through despite all the anger and sadness. Anyone who wants to be served the German attitude, which can at best be described as naïve (or rather hypocritical), on a literary platter before February 24 should read this drama intermezzo. Before the “penultimate dictator of the Eastern Partnership” and the “masters of democratic dialogue” meet in a hotel for talks, a paper circulates in which the excellent, value-based West-Eastern relations are highlighted: “Foundations of our coexistence, bla-bla- blah … for peace, security, stability and growth, for the undisturbed flow of goods and capital, the guaranteed transit of energy sources …”

In an interwoven drama, Andrukhowytsch takes the whole thing to the extreme, in which his never-ending humor shimmers through despite all the anger and sadness

The minor key that this novel (also) uses currently sounds like a deep sigh in view of the tragic situation in many parts of Eastern Europe. If you read the passages about the nightly radio broadcasts, if you listen to the fantastic soundtrack (with Tom Waits, Soap & Skin, Klaus Nomi, among others), this tragedy comes to life. The only question is whether the range of topics in the novel isn’t too broad, because the pandemic, climate change and MeToo are also discussed in places. That looks overused and constructed.

For Josip Rotsky, who is squatting somewhere out there in his studio, the night is the time of melancholic tones. A time of flight from the world, contemplation, self-assurance. In Yuri Andrukhovych’s country, night is the time when bombs can fall at any time.

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