A Danse Macabre, Experiencing Death in An Out-Of-Tune Piano, An Accordion
The cat was maimed, badly wounded. Renat let out a sob, got on his knees in front of the cat—the way he did when he was pulling the heads off dandelions—and carefully pressed his forehead against the tiny skull.
"You are a strong boy, you won’t get away from us," whispered Renat (Andrukhovych).
My grandparents are dead.
Tony, 2012 | Gloria, 2018 | Antonio, 2019 | Irma, 2022.
Some might associate the passing of a grandparent with the cold, clean sterility of the hospital. Others might remember the home, familiar walls folding in as the clock ticks onward. But not me.
I wasn’t here.
It would be wrong to call each passing a surprise. They were expected, in their own way. But in another sense, of course it was a surprise. Death by the hand of nature always is. As a result, I’ve never experienced death. I’ve been there in the aftermath; I’ve held hands and cradled heads; I’ve expressed my sympathies; I’ve sat in that peculiar silence of mind that comes after the announcement but before the funeral; I’ve borne a casket and I’ve thrown flowers into an open grave.
But that all happens in the aftermath of death. I’ve never sat with a family member through the process of dying. I’ve never had to wallow in those emotions.
For me, death has always been simply: “oh.” That’s all there’s left to say, really. Oh, he’s dead. Oh, when was the last time I talked to her? Oh. Oh oh oh. “Oh,” is all I can say in response to something that’s already happened. Nothing can be changed. It can only be reacted to.
It’s that lack of experience which draws me to “An Out-Of-Tune Piano, An Accordion” by Sophia Andrukhovych. And, you should be aware, my interpretation is by no means a definitive understanding of Andrukhovych’s text, but it is how I walk away understanding it.
The Story Itself
Andrukhovych herself is a modern author, born in 1982; she is not only a writer but also a translator like her father, Yurii Andrukhovych. Her novel Felix Austria, set in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, won the BBC Ukrainian’s Book of the Year award in 2014.
“An Out-Of-Tune Piano, An Accordion” was published in English in 2017 as part of the anthology The White Chalk of Days: The Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series, edited by Mark Andryczyk.
The goal of the anthology, in its own words, is to “introduce today’s leading Ukrainian authors to as wide a U.S. public as possible.” To that end, the authors come from several generations, covering both late-Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine.
Fittingly, “An Out-Of-Tune Piano, An Accordion” has a feeling of a place out of time. It’s apparently post-Soviet (judging by one character’s storied history with yachts and champagne), but its setting at a dacha and its focus on the day-to-day, full of gardening and drinking brandy, removes it from an easily identifiable time period.
More concretely, the story focuses around two (arguable three) characters inhabiting a dacha in the countryside. First we have Renat, an older and seemingly retired businessman. Then there’s Viola, a younger (at least, relative to Renat) woman who spends her time trying to learn how to garden and effortlessly act as if part of a higher social class.
There’s little to say about the characters before this story, only that Renat’s life up to the age of 60 was relatively straightforward, if seemingly quite opulent: he was married to one woman, had three children, and now has six grandchildren. He is described in terms of the things he consumed, food, luxury trips, women. He is, as the text calls him, a Steinway piano. An old, cracked Steinway, but a Steinway nonetheless.
Viola, who met Renat at 40, is a little more complex. She is not prim and proper, her affairs are all out of order. She drinks too much and she can’t convincingly blend in with the high society Renat is used to. The text suggests this is what attracts him to her.
So Renat leaves his wife and he and Viola move into a county dacha he kept after the divorce. The day-to-day is fairly quiet. They adopt a cat whom they name Methodius. The cat, at some point, is maimed. Life carries on.
But Renat, as the text calls him, is a “diseased predator.” He’s dying. In fact, he’s literally falling apart — he loses teeth and refuses any dentures under the logic that it’s only natural for things to decay. But whatever drew him to Viola (and Methodius) holds strong. In one scene, he grips a table painfully hard so he can remain standing near “his kids,” as he calls them, longer.
I’ll refrain from over-explaining the plot here (you can check out the podcast for that, or read it for yourself here), but I do want to zoom in on this process of dying. Renat is not dead, but his death looms over them all.
“...then you can rest assured—the wandering ghost camp is already here, close by, in our forests” (Andrukhovych). Although what a “ghost camp” is is never clarified by the text, we could understand it to be an awareness of a death-to-come. It’s always there, always unpleasant. The coming sun only makes it quiet down, powerless to make it actually go away.
Each character understands this death in their own way. Renat, for his part, doesn’t acknowledge this fact out loud. Through his actions, though, we can understand that he seems to accept that his body is falling apart; but he holds on for the sake of staying around Viola and Methodius. When Methodius is found badly injured, Renat assures the cat that he’ll be okay. That’s his apparent driving force.
Viola experiences his coming death through fear and anxiety. She wants comfort from Renat that he doesn’t seem ready to give to her. It is his death to die, after all. Still, it’s her reaction that I’m interested in focusing on.
What I said at the beginning of this piece isn’t 100% true. I have experienced a little bit of the process of death. Not long before my grandmother Gloria passed, maybe a month or two, my family and I visited her. What was to come was obvious at that point.
The thing I remember most isn’t actually the visit. Her and my grandfather’s apartment was small and overcrowded with the family there, so eventually I ducked out and walked to a nearby corner store to get a drink. That’s mostly what I remember. The cold breeze ever-present in Daly City, the Red Bull I bought, standing in the parking lot and drinking it while I watched cars pass by. I’m not sure what was on my mind, if anything was at all.
Perhaps it wasn’t the danse macabre that Viola experiences after her frustration with Renat that drives her into a midnight walk. But I wonder if that strange emotion which led to that was — in essence — the same as the one which drove me to want time away from someone whose time was already short enough.
Andrukhovych’s characters in this story aren’t stand-up, moral characters. They’re people. They’re messy and they have problems; they love each other; they have moments of glory and moments of doubt; they drape blankets over each other; they argue; and they don’t always understand each other.
In an interview, Vitaly Chernetsky, the translator for the piece, said the inspiration for these two characters came from watching tourists in Kyiv some years ago. They’re “perhaps damaged or not normative on the mental health spectrum,” he added. “But she [Andrukhovych] is loving towards her characters. We get to know these people and empathize with them.”
It is sometimes tempting to engage with media as if the characters in it are real people. You or I may want to give a character advice so things turn out better for them. You or I may want to criticize this or that action. And we may even want to judge these characters for wrongs they commit.
It’s also tempting to lambast that tendency when we see it in others. After all, it’s just a piece of fiction. But I want to defend it. A little bit. I mean, I’m still going to encourage people to engage with media in a more 3-dimensional manner, but I don’t think the tendency is without value. Feeling empathy is only natural. And if a character seriously pushes your buttons or even makes you uncomfortable, I think that’s an incredible reminder of the power of fiction. It’s something to be embraced on the whole.
So you can judge Viola and Renat. You can, as I initially did, even make a joke about her experiencing anxiety and demanding comfort from Renat. He’s the one who’s dying! But then, I would have to overlook how I’ve done something similar in the face of death. I would have to deny that the range of emotions Viola displays roughly match some which I’ve felt in my own time.
I would invite others, as I try to do myself, to not treat our empathetic reactions to fiction as the end-all-be-all of media criticism. We should also be careful not to cut ourselves out from those reactions. Andrukhovych does a masterful job conveying the emotional landscape of this couple. It’s one that made me reflect on my own life more than most fiction has.
At the end of the piece, Renat assures a sleeping Viola that the two will never leave each other. Then, after a moment of reflection, he adds: “It’ll come soon, kids.”
It’s something that all of us, one day near or far, will also have to deal with. We may be stand-up in how we deal with it. We may be messy in how we deal with it.
Life, art. Art, life.