Relic of Jimi Hendrix in Ukraine

Andrey Kurkov, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, translated from the Russian by Reuben Woolley; MacLehose Press, 2023. First published in Russian 2012.

A friend of mine lent me his copy of this novel by Andrey Kurkov; it was also on his recommendation that I read the same author’s Grey Bees, which I posted about recently.

Written with the same deadpan dryness of tone, it has an air of magical realism that resembles Bulgakov’s in The Master and Margarita: a central feature is the bizarre way one of the central characters, Taras, makes his living – he drives men suffering from painful kidney stones over bumpy cobbled Lviv streets, which makes the stones drop out. Taras retrieves them and adds them to his collection.

He’s loosely associated with the group of ageing hippies who gather at the start of the novel round the putative grave of the legendary musician Hendrix. Was the ex-KGB man who approaches them and tells them he was instrumental in arranging for one of the great guitarist’s hands to be transported to Ukraine and buried there in Lviv telling the truth? Rather like the cult surrounding saints’ relics, the ‘truth’ is less important than the faith they inspire in believers.

The other main character is Alik, who joins forces with the ex-KGB man to trace the origin of the ‘anomalies’ that are causing the weather to misbehave and the seagulls to become savage – elements of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ seem to be referenced at times. When they find the cause, it’s one of the strangest parts of the plot.

There’s a tender love story involving Taras and a young woman who runs the all-night currency exchange booth where he takes the cash he’s earned from his (usually Polish) passengers. Her allergy to banknotes seems to be a metaphor for ‘dirty money’.

It’s an enjoyable novel, with some interesting insights into life in Ukraine shortly before the Russian annexation of Crimea and some eastern parts of the war-torn country, which was the setting for Grey Bees. Even though Jimi Hendrix is not set in wartime, the presence of the former KGB officer, who tells the hippie group that he used to spy on them as their adoration of the Western rock star was considered dangerously subversive by the Soviet regime, is a sinister reminder of Ukraine’s troubled past, its attempt to break free of Soviet domination, and to align itself with the culture of the West. The central image of Jimi Hendrix’s grave signifies the rebellious, anti-establishment ethos that these ageing Ukrainian hippies always subscribed to. There’s also a foreshadowing of the disastrous invasions that were to come, first in 2014 and then far worse last year.

I read recently that Ukrainian literature written in Russian has been banned from Ukrainian bookshops in protest against Putin’s current cruel military assault. I can understand the reason for this, but it’s a shame that the local people will therefore possibly miss out on Kurkov’s decidedly anti-Soviet satire. He was born in Soviet Russia, and Russian is his first language, but he’s lived in Ukraine much of his life.

4 thoughts on “Relic of Jimi Hendrix in Ukraine

  1. That’s interesting about the censorship which will deprive people of a book that fits their side of things. My friend Gill bought Grey Bees a few months ago with a book token I gave her so I’ll have to check what she thought of it.

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