Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, originally written in Russian, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here
Strange things are afoot in the cosmopolitan city of Lviv, western Ukraine. Seagulls are circling and the air smells salty, though Lviv is a long way from the sea. A ragtag group gathers round a mysterious grave in Lychakiv Cemetery - among them an ex-KGB officer and an ageing hippy he used to spy on. Before long, Captain Ryabtsev and Alik Olisevych team up to discover the source of the ‘anomalies’.
A person’s walk almost always gives away their age. A child, when young, has a laughing, curious gait. Sometimes they’ll tippy-toe mid-stride, to see anything their own height keeps from view. Usually nobody minds until the little one reaches about a metre and a half tall. Once that height is reached, the short-lived gait turns a little wild and proud, or perhaps quite the opposite: taut, with a barely noticeable forward lean. This is, of course, already too much for some; for certain passers-by it may even carry an air of danger: just think of the damage a person could do with a gait like that! From then onwards: to each their own. Some walk straight for twenty years, some a little skewed – it depends by that point on one’s way of life and how much anxiety they carry. But all of this applies only in daylight. At night, one can walk with no regard for one’s day-gait, or one’s age. Night is empowering. Especially the night between the seventeenth and eighteenth of September.
On that particular September night in 2011, the sound of footsteps drifted in from Hrushevskoho, from Zelena, from Fedorova, from Zamarstynivska and from the edge of Stryiskyi Park, where at night the trees had long since housed heavy clouds of heavy crows, who ate away their days at the city landfill near the village of Hrybovychi.
These steps were the “solos” of those who walked alone, forever unable, even during the eternal Soviet era, to keep in formation. Were any little drummer boy to now try and bring their steps in order, he would quite quickly receive some “actual bodily harm”. But these were people positively incapable of any “grievous bodily harm”. Even if they were to find out that this “little drummer boy”, now in some other, non-literal sense, turned out to be someone recently taken into their narrow social circle. The circle would only have truly narrowed very recently. Before then, twenty-five, perhaps thirty years ago, it would have exceeded fifty people, and every mid-September it would have swelled considerably, bolstered with arrivals by bus and train, and even some like-minded people who came here on foot.
They stopped at an iron crucifix, which seemed to be deliberately hidden from view by the trunk of an old tree and two overgrown bushes. There were no railings here. The long-haired and mature gathering crowded around the unassuming grave.
The person who was passing the Monastery of St Alphonsus Most Holy Redemptorist had steps that sounded a little skittish. This person was in an audible rush. Zamarstynivska Street, down which he was rushing, could probably once have stretched its brick-built arm all the way back to Bryukhovychi, but for some reason it never had. Its length, even as it currently stood, would make any Parisian boulevard jealous, and if you cut it into equal sections, and arranged these sections into a proper intersecting grid, you would get a full-fledged German district centre, with a rich history. After all, over the course of its long and still very much ongoing life, was there anything Zamarstynivska had not been through? Streets live a long time, outlasting the humans that populate them, one generation after another. Zamarstynivska had always held many praying people, and many making –then drinking – vodka and liqueurs; there had been films in the local rental shop, and the same films had been played just next door at the Shevchenko Cinema; people had learned to tend gardens and grow vegetables, they’d learned to drive cars, and they’d treated sick and wounded policemen. They still treat them on this road to this day. And for those they can’t get “back on track”, they see them off in the hospital chapel. Everything must follow rules; any process must contain an indication of its future end, in much the same way as any sentence, no matter how many commas it contains, must eventually end in a full stop, an ellipsis, or a more emotive punctuational alternative. This pedestrian, who had lived at the far end of this street for all his fairly eventful years, carried Zamarstynivska with him wherever he went. He had a feel for it, like a good driver’s intuitive feel for the size of their car: an immediate sense for which gaps it can enter and which it can’t. The pedestrian’s face was hidden from the sky by a brown leather hat with a wide brim. Long, grey-streaked hair fell from the hat to his shoulders. The other details need not be mentioned. Except perhaps the tall, seemingly military boots: ruthlessly laced, Ukrainian-made, a dependable model that for the last fifty years had been known as “shit kickers”. The Chinese never learned to make boots like this. They thought it required too much plastic of a certain firmness and quality, and too much coarse leather. By now the last bastions of shit-kicker production were Belarus and Transnistria. But there were still lone craftsmen here in Lviv who were able not only to pierce the thick, thick slab of hog leather by hand with a gypsy needle, but also to bind the boot’s upper section tight to its lower counterpart, tighter than the Soviet government had ever quite managed, over almost fifty years, to bind Western Ukraine to the East. Those same craftsmen can tell just from the sound of the wearer’s steps if the cobbler has struck a wrong note, or if the shoe has been made by a true virtuoso. Both soles, after all, should ring out in unison. And in Lviv, a city with a subtle sonic culture, that takes on a particular importance. The left heel cannot hit the cobblestone sounding like a left heel, nor the right heel like a right heel! They should sound like a pair. Like a pavement-loving pair.
The pedestrian’s phone rang in his pocket.
“Alik, you close?” asked the voice of an old friend.
“What’s the rush? We’re not Germans,” replied the pedestrian. “Where are you?”
“Alright,” said Alik. “Be there soon.”
Once Alik reached the closed gates of Lychakiv Cemetery, a group of about ten appeared from behind the row of trees lining the road. They appeared in no hurry, and gathered around him as he retrieved the key to the gates’ lock from his pocket.
The key had already been slid into the keyhole’s turning mechanism when someone’s hurried footsteps approached the gathered group from behind. Alik turned to see a slouching giant, almost two metres tall. His long grey hair seemed to say: “I’m one of us.”
“Lãbas vãkaras!” he puffed quietly. “Apologies for being almost-late!”
“Audrius?!” Alik voiced his surprise, taking the measure of the giant with a quick glance from head to sharp-toed shoe.
“Yep, via Kyiv.”
They all rushed over to give Audrius a hug.
“You’ve not been in ages,” Alik said. He looked back to the gates to finish turning his key, watching as the steel bolt jumped from its chamber. They walked through the graveyard in silence. At the top of a hill, they surveyed their surroundings. Alik waved them all over and led them in single file between graves and railings.
They stopped at an iron crucifix, which seemed to be deliberately hidden from view by the trunk of an old tree and two overgrown bushes. There were no railings here. The long-haired and mature gathering crowded around the unassuming grave. Neither first name nor surname were legible on the rusty plate affixed to the centre of the cross. One of the group squatted before it, his knees pressing into the edge of the burial mound, and pulled a plastic bag from his jacket pocket. Unfolded it. Placed a small tub of white paint down on the grass. A paintbrush appeared in his hand.
His steady hand splayed oily white letters over the plate: Jimy Hendrix 1942–1970.
A twig snapped in the windless silence. Somewhere very nearby. Alik strained his ears. The cracking noise repeated itself. Fallen leaves were making sad little rustles under the feet of an approaching stranger.