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Jimi Hendrix Never Played Lviv

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A review of Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Reuben Woolley.

I am a great admirer of Andrey Kurkov – he’s minutely knowledgeable about Ukraine, Russia, the former Soviet Union,  and a whole host of other things.   He writes with a gentle, compassionate humour, his characters are long suffering to the Nth degree and even when nothing is happening, as in large swathes of the Hendrix book – he is still readable.  But I really struggled to finish this.  I found myself suffering from constructive disappointment that this is not a new book.  It is a new translation of an old book which is not the same thing at all.

When I wandered into the bookshop and saw Jimi Hendrix: Live in Lviv wrapped in its yellow and blue cover, placed among all the other recent releases,  I had no reason to question its credentials as the latest book from one of my favourite authors.  But as I started reading I quickly realised something was wrong!  Where was Putin’s war? Not a single mention of it anywhere.  Kurkov lives in Kyiv – he wouldn’t write a new book about Jim Hendrix’ guitar and leave out the war!  In fact the story is set in 1970 which google tells me is the year Hendrix died.

It also doesn’t require a lot of imagination to think why the author might not be churning out hundreds of new novels at the moment.  But I found his last novel Grey Bees so helpful in my understanding of the Donbas region – the grey zone– and its warring factions of separatists, pro-Russians and few remaining permanently impoverished residents,  that I thought the Hendrix book would be something along  similar lines.    In many ways this ‘new’ book does feel bittersweet, the recent past in which it is set having already been eradicated and replaced by a violent present.  But in that respect it also feels a bit irrelevant.

According to the story, the KGB spread the rumour of the imminent arrival of Hendrix in order to root out undesirables and radicals.  I’m not sure how they planned to do that – I suppose if you showed an interest in witnessing a live performance of the legendary singer, then you were marked out as potential trouble.    One of the characters in the novel – a Captain Ryabtsev –  is a former KGB officer.   Now retired,  he spends his time looking after his doves and hangs out with the people he was once paid to spy upon.   My summary of the plot is as follows:   Take one retired KGB officer, add doves and some crazy seagulls,   mix with characters from The Last of the Summer Wine ( a British sitcom from the 1970s) set in Lviv and you’re pretty much there.

In the novel the characters get together, they drink coffee, down a shot or two, they talk,  maybe someone gets a haircut or fixes a creaking stair.   A cake is baked.    Once, a seagull crashes through the window of a flat and requires veterinary assistance.    Not a purple haze in sight.

But it has been suggested that the very aimlessness of the characters is the novel’s point.

Boyd Tonkin wrote in the Guardian (22nd April 2023):

“History, as Kurkov’s fiction reminds us, never moves in straight lines or at an even pace.  Here 20 years after the Soviet empire fell and Ukraine claimed its freedom, his characters still inhabit a sort of interregnum.  They dwell in an in-between space of shifting boundaries…they wait for change, for love, for miracles…”

And I am waiting for Andrey Kurkov’s new book, although I realise that he has quite a few other things to worry about at the moment.  I wish him the peace that he needs to write it.

4 responses to “Jimi Hendrix Never Played Lviv”

  1. Tom Ball’s review in the Times ( 8 April 2023) seems to agree with much of this and sums up
    “The characters are lovingly drawn and exude warmth…… You enjoy the time spent in their company, but are never quite sure why it is you’ve been invited to the party”


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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