“The unusual descriptions and raw imagery stain the mind”
Virtuoso, the second novel from Ukrainian-born artist and author Yelena Moskovich, is an entrancing work of literature that will suck you into its dreamlike world and consume you for days afterwards.
The book is primarily set between Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia and modern-day Paris, while also having brief dalliances with America and the virtual world of an online chatroom. The predominant characters are a group of women whose lives have all interconnected at one point or another. Jana, our major protagonist more or less, was a “simple Czech girl” for the first ten years of her existence until the rebellious Zorka, or the Malá Narcis (the Little Narcissus), appeared and awakened a deep sexual desire within Jana which leaves her questioning her identity. Jana eventually ends up working as an interpreter in Paris where she meets Aimée who has been living out a seemingly happy marriage with her actress wife Dominique. The stories of Jana, Zorka, Dominique and Aimée slowly spiral inwards, dipping in and out of the past and present, flirting upon the lines of fantasy and reality as they struggle to find their places in the world: “I spent my childhood waiting. Waiting for a significant sort of pain like a starting point. To begin. I wanted to finally begin.”
Written sometimes in first and sometimes in third person perspective, Moskovich’s original style and penchant for peculiar metaphors challenges the reader and often demands sheer patience. Virtuoso is broken up into short chapters which are either diverging from and/or commenting upon the main storyline following the four women. Some stories clearly intertwine while others do not, and this perpetuates the sense that the novel is in fact a series of interweaving streams of consciousness. The pace of the novel can be both unhurried and then suddenly brisk, which results in the reader being gripped by a certain dramatic tension that is comparable to a Euripides tragedy or Tarkovsky film. “Sadness like a language dubbed over our lives, to which we are moving out of sync, our feeling swaying outside the lines of our thinking and doing.”
When reading Virtuoso one feels as though they are part of an elaborate dance, perhaps due to Moskovich’s own background in movement composition, and although we can’t predict the next step, the flow of the prose never slips out of time with its natural music. This makes the seemingly confusing swings between past, present, people and place surprisingly easy to follow. There is a clarity to the writing even when one has little idea where the story is actually taking us. And the unusual descriptions and raw imagery stain the mind, leaving their imprint long after the final few pages of the novel have been concluded. “Everyone danced like bodies being resurrected in gunfire.”
The artistic character of Virtuoso will certainly not be everyone’s cup of chai, and its ending is disappointingly inconclusive. However, if you allow yourself to be enchanted by its bewitching strangeness, Moskovich provides a surreal and provocative exploration of love and longing, of identity and belonging.
Words: Ciara Haley