Like Blood in Water
by Yuriy Tarnawsky
Fiction Collective 2, 2007
“Nelson Fitipaldo stands at the window of his kitchen-apartment and looks outside. An unhealthy reddish color tinges the world like blood dissolved in water.”
From “Former Pianist Fitipaldo”
Yuriy Tarnawsky, who, according to the back cover of Like Blood in Water, has authored “19 collections of poetry, seven plays, nine books of fiction, a biography, and numerous articles and translations,” came as a revelation to this writer, who had never heard of his work before. Tarnawsky’s collection of “five mininovels,” which he dedicates to his parents and terms “memories of my childhood,” is an oneiric, fragmentary journey through one man’s subconscious, and makes him a good candidate for inclusion as a modern-day surrealist; in fact, according to the biography at his website, he is a founding member of the New York Group, “a Ukrainian émigré avant-garde group of literary writers.” His background in electrical engineering, theoretical linguistics (his Ph.D. dissertation dealt with Noam Chomsky’s Extended Standard Theory/semantics), Artificial Intelligence, and Ukrainian literature seems to have left its indelible imprint on his work, as has the fact that he is a poet and playwright whose original language is not English. A rude awakening awaits the reader who comes to this collection with the expectation that s/he is going to encounter linear “stories” with all of the elements of conventional fiction intact (plot, arc, characterization, etc.). Those who are a bit more daring in their literary tastes, however, are likely to find the challenge of deconstructing Tarnawsky’s enigmatic work a welcome one.
From the get-go, one senses that this is not to be a regular collection of tales (as if the cover art, depicting a glass of blood-laden water against a gray and white background, wasn’t already a strong enough indicator.…). The first “mininovel,” which is also the shortest, entitled “Screaming,” is divided into six parts. This peculiar fiction focuses on a character named Rilke Roark (named for the poet, while the surname recalls the protagonist of The Fountainhead), and a one-armed woman, Alba (named for “the duchess of Alba that Goya painted”). The two meet at a sort of cult gathering, replete with yoga mats, where participants scream their brains out in ritualized fashion. Their uncanny dialogue in the second section, as with all of the uncanny dialogues in all of the uncanny fictions, is told in a format suggestive of reading the script of a play; indeed, it appears as though many of these pieces are meant to be read as quasi-plays, as sub-headings such as “the final scene,” “prologue” / “epilogue,” and “a dress rehearsal” (the latter consisting of a bizarre conversation between two parents concerning the colors of their daughter’s costume) would seem to indicate. In the third section of “Screaming,” Roark and Alba’s bizarre dreams are limned, while in the fourth we are presented a matter-of-fact description of their apartment (they have, in the space between sections, gotten married). For example:
It is one very large room in a former factory building with windows along the entire outside wall. In the middle of it stands a toilet bowl without a seat. An old black quilt lies in a heap next to it. You can cover yourself with it when you use the toilet if you so desire. A large, old-fashioned sink with two basins is attached in the center of the wall opposite to the one with the windows. It is used for washing up as well as for doing dishes (p. 21).
The nouveau roman-like description continues in this fashion, to include details of a lithograph of Munch’s “The Scream,” a large, rusty-edged cube inside of which screaming sessions are held, and seven glass jars with fetuses inside of them. In the fifth section, one such screaming session is described in absurdist fashion—Munch’s lithograph literally screams along with the couple, turning back the hands of the grandfather clock in the room and making the fetuses dance and twirl like Olympic athletes—and appears to correspond with section nine of the fourth mininovel, “Pavarotti-Agamemnon,” in which the protagonist sings so loudly and forcefully that he breaks the window, the mirror, and his wife’s collection of glasswear. (Many themes are echoed and reechoed throughout the five mininovels, such as the “primal scream,” the appearance of clocks, rust/decay, the death of loved ones, etc.) Finally, in section six, images of a rushing river containing various large objects (e.g. houses, furniture, vehicles, etc.) coalesce with the final, resonant über-image of a person putting “quarters of light” into the rift between the horizon and the earth, as though it were a “slot in a pinball machine.”
As this all-too-brief overview of the shortest of the five fictions will perhaps indicate, despite the volume’s modest length there is a lot of “stuff” packed into each mininovel to merit, as well as reward, multiple readings. A few of the many highlights from the remainder of the collection include when, in the second mininovel, the protagonist Nelson Fitipaldo, who has enjoyed a humble career as a pianist for some years, loses the cooperation of his right hand during a live performance, as if in a classic Freudian anxiety dream, and gives up the instrument—and his career—with somewhat less regret than one might normally expect. In the fourth mininovel, “Pavarotti-Agamemnon,” mentioned above, a most hilarious dialogue about regional, home-cooked foods between the tailor/actor Pavarotti—who is to play a hirsute Agamemnon—and the producer/director of the film ensues at the former’s apartment; the bizarre conversation reflects a communication breakdown whilst the men try, apparently, to translate between Italian and English. (This sequence literally had me laughing out loud on the light rail—you’ll just have to read it for yourself to confirm its bone-tickling efficacy; see pp. 103-7.) In the third mininovel, “The Joys and Sorrows of R. York,” there is a wonderful scene wherein the dream R. York narrates to his psychiatrist appears to describe the painting to which the segment is apparently an homage. And in the fifth, and perhaps most accomplished, mininovel, “Surgery,” the paraplegic Dr. Kax’s dream of mowing down plants with his skates is one which is sure to remain in memory long after closing the book.
If the reader chooses to give these five mininovels, which should be read and considered as a whole, a fair chance to ferment in the subconscious, focusing on the imagery and language first and leaving logic and forced interpretation behind (are the mininovels autobiographical, as the author suggests in the dedication? are they derived from his own dreams? or are they simply nonsensical pieces, penned to frustrate the Cartesians among us?), there is much to be savored—and indeed learned from—this wonderfully opaque, yet at times surprisingly lucid and tender, collection of lapidary absurdities from Planet Tarnawsky.
was born in 1934 in the town of Turka in Western Ukraine, at that time under Polish rule. His mother was a school teacher and father a principal. His childhood years (1934-1939) were spent in Poland, near the town of Rzeszów, and then in Ukrainian ethnic lands, near Sanok and in Turka. read more >>
Fiction Collective 2
University of Alabama Press
Yuriy Tarnawskys website