LVIV, Ukraine » Taras Demlan was out for a quiet drink with friends in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, a beguiling jewel of Hapsburg architectural splendor, and his companions persuaded him to try the specialty of the house.
A waitress took off his shirt, tethered his hands behind the back of a chair and began dripping molten wax from a burning candle on Demlan’s chest. Then came a rubdown with ice cubes followed by lashings of a whip across his bare back.
"That," Demlan said of his ordeal at Lviv’s Masoch Cafe, "was really uncomfortable."
Discomfort, however, is exactly what Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the 19th-century writer from Lviv in whose honor the cafe is named, would have wanted. His best known work, "Venus in Furs," features lengthy philosophical ruminations on and descriptions of sexual pleasure derived from pain, and led a Viennese professor of psychology, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, to coin the term "masochism" as a description of what he viewed as a deviant clinical condition.
As a gimmick to attract attention, the writer’s legacy would seem unbeatable for a city eager to attract foreign tourists to the western edge of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic better known these days for its political turmoil, struggles with President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and general post-Communist angst.
"He is world famous; he put our city on the map," said Yuri Nazuruk, creative director of the company that runs Masoch Cafe and a string of other theme restaurants inspired by local history.
But the link to masochism brings little pleasure to guardians of Lviv’s image as a cradle of Ukrainian nationalism that survived the miseries of the Soviet Union to reclaim its position as one of Europe’s great, inventive and most seductively beautiful cities. They prefer to celebrate other aspects of Lviv’s creative spirit, like the introduction, in 1853, of Europe’s first streetlights.
"People here treat Sacher-Masoch as a joke, not as somebody serious," said Petro Kolodiy, chairman of Lviv’s regional legislature and a local leader of Svoboda, a dour nationalist party that bars atheists and promotes nationhood built on common "blood and spirit."
"I have never studied him myself," Kolodiy added.
Lviv’s young have no such hang-ups and have turned the Masoch Cafe into a popular spot for dates and group outings. On Friday evening the whipping, which is free, started hesitantly on a coy young woman who was out for a drink with three girlfriends. A male waiter dressed all in black stopped beating her after a few strokes when she complained of the pain.
In general, however, female customers are far less squeamish than their male counterparts, Sasha Bankovich, a waitress at the cafe said, cradling a whip in her hands.
"We’ve noticed that men scream a lot," she said, adding that requests from customers for a whipping had remained constant throughout Ukraine’s months of tumult. "In this respect, things are very stable in our country."
Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, an open-minded former electronic engineer, said he has nothing against Sacher-Masoch, but noted that the city has had a "very long and complicated history" that needs to be celebrated as a whole without undue attention to a writer of such narrowly idiosyncratic tastes.
The city is dotted with monuments to more wholesome heroes, like Taras Shevchenko, a poet hailed as the founder of modern Ukrainian literature, but the local government has put up no tributes to Sacher-Masoch. The cafe commissioned a bronze statue of the writer, but even that modest, privately funded memorial, located at the cafe’s entrance, drew complaints from members of the City Council.
"He is too provocative a figure for a place like Lviv," said Ihor Podalchuk, a Ukrainian filmmaker from Lviv. "It is a conservative city by religion and tradition."
Podalchuk, a big fan of Sacher-Masoch, a writer he sees as standard-bearer for taboo-breaking artists, began lobbying for Lviv to embrace its most famous native son soon after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s emergence as an independent nation. He set up the International Masoch Fund and campaigned to get a street named after the writer. His efforts, however, got nowhere.
Even the Masoch Fund, added Podalchuk, does not bother much these days with promoting Sacher-Masoch, and works instead simply to encourage free-thinking artists.
Taras Voznyak, the editor of Ji, a Lviv cultural journal, said he understood why "Venus in Furs" is not required reading in local schools and raises eyebrows in some quarters. But he says the city is missing out on a lucrative branding opportunity by not making Sacher-Masoch the city’s trademark, like Mozart is for Salzburg, Austria.
"He was not Mozart, but then practically every language in the world has the word ‘masochism.’"
Nazuruk, the Masoch Cafe’s creative director, said the hesitancy toward Sacher-Masoch was a sign of Ukraine’s "difficult birth as a nation" and the difficulties that a country caught between Russia and Europe has faced in dealing with the sometimes uncomfortable nuances and complexity of its history.
"Over the past 100 years, power, language and culture have changed many, many times in Lviv," he said. "For a society to talk about difficult themes involving morality it needs to be secure and mature. We are still on that road."
Nuzuruk noted that Sacher-Masoch wrote about much more than just painful sex and, in works like "Galician Tales," provided "brilliant descriptions of this small part of the world." (The Masoch Cafe, of course, focuses on the sex stuff, its walls strung with whips, chains and bras, its menu a sophomoric compendium of double entendres.)
A big part of the problem with Sacher-Masoch, aside from the sex, is that he wrote in German, a language that barely any of the city’s residents today speak or read. "Venus in Furs" has been translated into Ukrainian, but the work is still far better known in New York — thanks largely to the Velvet Underground ("Venus in Furs" inspired the band’s 1967 classic song of the same title, written by Lou Reed) and a 2011 Broadway production, "Venus in Fur," by David Ives — than in the author’s hometown.
"Venus in Furs" also has many fans in France, where Roman Polanski last year made a film inspired by Sacher-Masoch’s work and a Paris theater this summer put on a French version of Ives’ play.
Another problem is the confusion that has surrounded the identity of Sacher-Masoch.
"There are so many legends and myths about his background that nobody really knew who he was," said Halyna Svarnyk, a Lviv scholar and librarian who has spent two decades digging into local archives for information about the writer’s forbears.
His family has been described by other scholars as being of Jewish, Ukrainian and Spanish aristocratic descent, but, said Svarnyk, such claims "are all just legends."
Sacher-Masoch spoke Ukrainian as well as German, and probably Polish as a boy, but "was definitely not Ukrainian or Jewish," or descended from an ancient noble family, Svarnyk said.
His real origins, she added, are far more prosaic: Austrian bureaucrats. His grandfather moved to Galicia, as the region around Lviv was known, as a servant of the Hapsburg Empire, working there on tax reform and managing salt works. His father headed the local police.
But for a family tragedy, she noted, the phenomenon known around the world as "masochism" would have been "sacherism," which doesn’t really work, as that implies sugary sweetness like sacher-torte. The writer’s surname at his birth in Lviv 1836 was simply Sacher, but this was changed to Sacher-Masoch in 1838 after the brother of his mother died and her father, distraught at losing his only son, asked the Sacher family to add his family name, Masoch, to its own.
She said she had not studied how the writer’s family background might have shaped Sacher-Masoch’s fascination with rough sexual practices, but dismissed speculation that his father, the local police chief, had been a cruel brute.
"He was a very cultured man" with a keen interest in music and other arts, she said, noting that his mother’s family was also deeply involved in local culture and academia.
Andrew Higgins, New York Times