Jaroslaw Anders, New York Review of Books, issue for 10 June 2021
In the months following its disputed presidential election last August, Belarus—often referred to as ’the last dictatorship in Europe‘—was the scene of enormous protests. The election predictably confirmed the continuation of authoritarian rule by the country’s first and only president, Alexander Lukashenka, who has remained in power since 1994. Many of the protests were organized and carried out predominantly by women, including the now exiled pro-democracy leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had run against Lukashenka after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was barred from doing so and imprisoned. Despite the rigorously nonviolent character of the demonstrations, they were met with police brutality. Thousands of people have been arrested and there were hundreds of reports of torture and other forms of mistreatment.
The events in Belarus stunned international observers. Under Lukashenka the country has had the reputation of being a passive, compliant society, with civic activism and democratic aspirations limited to a small group of ‘professional’ dissidents. But there has long been a surprising amount of social energy despite the country’s seemingly monolithic authoritarianism. When I visited in 2015, I was immediately reminded of the twofold reality of my youth in Communist Poland in the 1970s. On the surface were carefully preserved Communist symbols, the sense of constant surveillance, crude propaganda, and dreary state media. Down below, scores of people were involved in independent art and literary scenes, passionate political discussions, and civic activities conducted defiantly without the required government permission: a whole alternative society quietly self-organizing.
As was the case in Central and Eastern European countries during the revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Belarusian literary community is today in the forefront of the pro-democratic movement. Practically every writer of note has registered support for the opposition, including the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich—the chairperson of the Belarusian PEN Center and a member of the opposition Coordination Council—who, like many other prominent leaders, has had to leave the country. This is hardly unusual in a part of the world where, at least since the Romantic era, literature has played an important part in public debates, and writers have often doubled as moral authorities and political guides of their nations.
As in other small countries in the region, the Belarusian national idea—the concept of a distinct Belarusian history, culture, and language—began in explorations of local folklore, myths, and dialects by mid-nineteenth-century poets and ethnographers. In the 1980s, just before Belarusian independence from the Soviet Union, several prominent writers were among the founders of the first democratic political party, the Popular Front, whose candidate, Zianon Pazniak, ran unsuccessfully against Lukashenka in 1994. (The election was generally considered fair and free, the first and last such election in independent Belarus. Shortly afterward Lukashenka started to consolidate power and dismantle democratic institutions.)
Under the Lukashenka regime, despite mostly unfavorable political and economic circumstances, independent Belarusian literature continues to flourish. Much of it is written in the Belarusian language, which may sound like a tautology, except that the language has a minority status in the country. Closely related to Russian and Ukrainian but also showing considerable similarities to Polish, it was declared the sole national language of Belarus in the 1994 Constitution. In 1995 Lukashenka, who often denigrates it as a ‘poor language’ inferior to Russian, called a referendum that restored Russian to equal status with Belarusian while making it de facto dominant in official communications. As a result, over the past few decades speaking and writing in Belarusian have become forms of protest against the Lukashenka regime.
For most Belarusian writers Belarusian is not their first language, as many of them grew up in Russian-speaking families. Modern literary Belarusian is relatively young—its grammar was codified only in the early twentieth century—and it is still evolving, developing new registers, expanding into new spheres of social reality. Some Belarusian writers say that it is exactly its freshness and malleability that gives them the sort of artistic freedom they do not find in Russian.
Unfortunately, very little is known about this rich Belarusian literary life in the West, especially in the English-speaking world. In the United States Belarusian writing is rarely translated and hardly studied in our Slavic departments. Vasil Bykau’s war novels, written in Belarusian, have been available in English since the 1960s (some in bowdlerized Soviet editions). In recent years, there were several translations of books by Svetlana Alexievich, who writes in Russian. American readers might also have chanced upon work by the popular fiction writer, commentator, and scholar Victor Martinovich, whose political thriller Paranoia was translated from Russian in 2013; or by the excellent bilingual (in Belarusian and English, neither of them her first language) poet Valzhyna Mort, whose most recent book of poems, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, was written in English and came out last fall.
The rest is mainly a scatter of translations of individual poems or fragments of prose in small poetry magazines and online publications.
The newest addition to this literature in English is Alindarka’s Children, a dark fantasy by one of Belarus’s most original contemporary writers, Alhierd Bacharevič. It opens with a scene that is simultaneously idyllic and menacing. Two children, a sister and brother, are frolicking in the woods and gorging themselves on bilberries. But a voice in the brother’s head, or coming from ‘the smooth swaying of pine trees,’ or maybe from something in those tasty berries, warns him of danger. The girl’s name is Losya and the boy’s is Lochchik, which sounds almost like ‘aviator’ in Belarusian. They have just been rescued by their father and his lover, Katsya, from a prison-like institution called the Camp, in which the obsessive Doctor tries to cure children of what he considers a speech defect called Mova that prevents them from properly pronouncing the sounds of the official language, Yazyk. Since yazyk and mova mean ‘language’ in Russian and Belarusian, respectively, we can guess that Yazyk stands for Russian and Mova for Belarusian, and the task of the Camp is to brainwash young Belarusians into forgetting their native tongue and their national identity.
Surprisingly, the children are less than thrilled about being liberated. They miss the tablets they were given in the Camp, which enhanced their memory and intellectual abilities. They never liked their visits to the Doctor’s examination room, but miss the institution’s good food. And unless you were as oblivious as their campmate Tolik, you could avoid the sadistic ‘troop leaders’ and their elaborate punishments.
Losya and Lochchik’s reluctance to embrace their regained freedom may also have something to do with the fact that the father had been conducting a linguistic-pedagogical experiment of his own. Religiously devoted to Mova, he seems to be trying to raise Losya as the first true native speaker. Since her infancy, he had forbidden her to utter a word in Yazyk, and everyone at school thought she was mute. For the father’s nosy neighbors and for a young, attractive school psychologist, this amounted to mistreatment. The psychologist had seen Losya’s scribblings in Mova and was sure the girl feared and despised her father.
Lochchik was not part of the father’s experiment, because Lochchik does not really exist—at least not in the way that Losya does. When authorities, summoned by the psychologist, arrived at the father’s apartment to “save” Losya, the boy was found on the balcony, having emerged just then like a golem from a lump of clay bestowed on the father by a Jewish peddler. When both children were being shipped to the Camp, Losya seemed to accept his presence as perfectly natural, although doubts about his origins troubled her occasionally.
Unwilling to accompany her father to a hideout in the countryside once he has reclaimed her from the Camp, Losya steals his old German road atlas and decides to go to ‘Bremen,’ one of the places where, her father used to tell her, life is as it should be. Eluding the Doctor’s zombie-like messengers and their father’s chaotic, half-hearted attempts to find them and bring them home, the children try to escape from the woods and get ‘on the map,’ where the real world presumably begins.
The children’s predicament brings us to the core of what can be called the Belarusian dilemma. The country, in a constant drift between cultures, languages, and identities, suffers from a case of invisibility. Its peculiar history makes it particularly hard for outsiders—and a good many Belarusians—to decipher. Its territory, initially home to a constellation of East Slavic tribes, had by the thirteenth century been absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1385 united with the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Poland. After the dual Polish–Lithuanian state was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the former Grand Duchy fell to Moscow. Between the two world wars part of the Belarusian lands fell under Polish control, with the rest eventually becoming the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. After both parts were ‘liberated’ from the Germans during World War II, the formerly Polish-controlled lands were incorporated into Soviet Belarus; the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 led to the creation of the Republic of Belarus.
It can be argued that because of those historical and political vicissitudes (which seem far from finished), Belarus is still a work in progress, still in search of itself and its place among European nations. Even writers who seem to steer away from national or political subjects must tackle this problem in one way or another.
Bacharevič was born in 1975 in Minsk and grew up in the Shabany district, a typical Soviet development of identical apartment blocks in a decrepit part of the city. Bacharevič’s family was Russian-speaking, and his given name is Aleg. He later took his nom de plume from Algirdas, one of the warrior rulers of medieval Lithuania.
He attended a local high school that, like practically all Belarusian schools at the time and most today, was entirely Russophone (Belarusian was taught as a foreign language). Switching his primary language to Belarusian was Bacharevič’s first act of rebellion. For the young people of his generation the language was less an expression of nationalistic feelings and more an expression of group identity. It was definitely not the language of their parents, teachers, official media, or government.
After graduating from high school in 1992, Bacharevič joined the philological department of the Belarusian Pedagogical University. While studying to become a schoolteacher (which he had no intention of becoming), he watched the sudden if short-lived eruption of political, intellectual, and artistic energy in the early 1990s. ‘Walls were covered with political leaflets and slogans,’ he writes in his 2018 autobiography, My Nineties. ‘Next to class schedules hang posters of various political parties…. And nobody tore them down. Freedom!’ In step with the spirit of the times, the future author started his career as a punk-rock musician. He was also a cofounder of a performance-poetry group known as Bum-Bam-Lit that combined serious poetry with wild pranks and aesthetic épatage.
As Bacharevič remembers in My Nineties, his generation, growing up in the fascinating, chaotic, and soon disheartening first decade of independence, was a typical ‘in-between’ generation: ‘Between Russian-speaking friends and the Belarusian language. Between the desire to run away and the need to do something right here. Between “no future for you” and “Belarus in Europe!”‘ They were looking toward the West, especially Berlin, soon to become a mecca for Belarusian bohemians, but their rebellion was also a response to the general post-Soviet sense of disorientation. They read, or at least read about, Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault and lived in their very own postmodern moment with a distinctly Belarusian flavor. Indeed, with its mixture of Soviet and Western cultural artifacts, and conflicting historical narratives, Belarus in the 1990s must have appeared like ‘God’s postmodern project,’ to quote Valancin Akudovič, a Belarusian philosopher who influenced the generation of the 1970s.
Now in his mid-forties, Bacharevič is the author of eighteen books (eight of them translated into other languages), which include fiction, memoirs, and essays. His loud, anarchistic years behind him, he is known as a maverick of Belarusian letters, scoffing at literary hierarchies, factions, awards, and every kind of groupthink.
Bacharevič’s books challenge historical myths, ideologies, and national pieties. As he states in My Nineties, he rejects any concept of Belarusian identity that does not include ‘the wonderful and tragic diversity of my unique and unhappy fatherland.’ In 2017 he published a monumental nine-hundred-page novel (composed of six tangentially connected novellas), The Dogs of Europe, which takes place in the near future—when the Russian ‘Reich’ stretches over much of Asia, Belarusians seem to live in a state of feudal servitude (though with obligatory cell phones), a mad Belarusian nationalist rules over an island (in fact, a toxic dump) somewhere in the Mediterranean, in ‘liberal’ Europe writing poetry is considered an amusing mental condition, and the darker demons of the European past are again tugging at their chains.
Alindarka’s Children was published in Belarus in 2014. Alindarka is not a character in Bacharevič’s novel but the protagonist of a nineteenth-century poem, ‘Things Will Be Bad’ by Frańcišak Bahuševič, considered the father of Belarusian literature. In the poem—which Bacharevič weaves through his book—Alindarka is a poor, illiterate Belarusian peasant whose non-name (alindarka is a corruption of z kalindarka, ‘from the calendar’) and unclear legal status (he is an ‘undocumented’ orphan) are the cause of endless troubles and eventually land him in a Russian jail. The characters in Bacharevič’s novel, it seems, and perhaps all Belarusians, are his symbolic descendants.
Bacharevič’s murky if occasionally hilarious novel takes place on several levels of unreality. The story of the children’s peregrinations through the woods is told as a mock-macabre Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. Some of their adventures resemble bizarre reenactments of familiar Belarusian literary tropes and national myths—a forced peasant wedding, a belief in the mystical powers of the Belarusian landscape, the endless remembrance of the nation’s wartime ordeals. The Doctor’s Camp is an Orwellian utopia, in which people are enslaved presumably to help them attain a higher form of freedom. The novel’s world outside the woods, in which the children’s father spends most of his time, and which the Doctor visits to lobby for resources and political support, is often grotesque but much more rooted in present-day Belarusian reality. Nearly all that happens there—the abuse by the authorities, the suspiciousness and hostility permeating human relations, the gratuitous malice toward everybody who stands out, the sadness and ugliness of the surroundings—can be found in today’s Belarus. Those different domains occasionally blend together, or characters float from one to another.
All of the main characters display a peculiar duality. The Doctor, the mad scientist of the story, is a despicable person, yet he treats his wards, especially Losya and Lochchik, with genuine tenderness. He seems honestly to believe that by promoting Yazyk—the language of power and order, but also, as he reminds himself, of ‘great books of a great literature’—he is lifting people to a higher level of humanity. The father, the brave defender of Mova and the Belarusian identity, is clearly an idealist and a victim of the system. But we see his selfless passion decay into a madness that engulfs not only him but also the women who become his allies—his wife (Losya’s mother) and Katsya, who succumb to their own bizarre fixations.
The Doctor and the father never meet, but they seem almost mirror images of each other. Their fight over the children may symbolize the fight of the two political concepts battling for the souls of today’s Belarusians: one looking up to Russia with its power and allegedly superior culture, and the other worshiping the idealized but ill-defined Belarusian national essence. Both men reject Belarusian complexity, and their clashing beliefs leave very little room for real life. The Doctor feels safe only at his Camp in the middle of the woods. The father, a graduate of a philology department, drives a cab, drinks, and hides from the world.
The deepest enigma concerns the two children wandering through the woods, falling into traps, living through true or imagined nightmares. When alone, they talk to each other in Mova, but they also show a measure of respect for Yazyk. They are naive and innocent, but sometimes speak with the wisdom of sages and the cynicism of grown-ups. They see runic symbols in traffic signs and believe their berry-stained T-shirts contain hieroglyphs that need to be decoded.
Lochchik seems to possess magical powers and acts as his sister’s servant and protector, but he has no past and no personality of his own. Losya, the unquestionable leader of the duo, bears little resemblance to the frightened, submissive daughter who cowered in her father’s apartment. The two suspect they may not be entirely real, but rather apparitions in dire need of incorporation. ‘Where are we?’ asks Losya. ‘And even more important, who are we?’ Perhaps they are the spirits of true freedom, of the wondrous irrationality and unpredictability of life that has been forgotten, or abandoned, by adults pledged to their competing orthodoxies.
The reader has the impression of peeking into the Belarusian subconscious, full of mirages of the past, vague visions of a yet unfulfilled future, and an oppressive sense of living, in the father’s words, ‘east of culture and north of history.’ At the end, the father’s world collapses and he perishes, abandoned by his faith and his dreams. The Doctor continues to ‘treat’ his patients, apparently with little success. Lochchik, having saved his sister one last time, returns to the inanimate state from which he had emerged. And Losya, on the brink of surrender, reaches her Bremen. Is it a happy ending, of sorts? In the last scene we see her still rebellious and defiant, sticking out her tongue at the artificial civility of her new home. There’s no rainbow at the end of the dark road. But at least there’s a chance to be a naughty girl.
The translators of Alindarka’s Children, Jim Dingley and Petra Reid, faced a formidable challenge. Most of the novel is written in literary Belarusian, but there are frequent passages in Russian, in nonstandard forms of both languages, and in a Russian-Belarusian mix known as trasianka (chaff). Dingley and Reid made a bold decision to render the book in two separate, if related, languages: standard English and Scots. Reid, the Scots translator, says in a preface that she does not speak Scots, and her rendition of it is “both variable and fabricated,” deriving from a variety of linguistic and literary sources. She hints at parallels between the parts played by the Belarusian and Scots languages in their respective national movements.
In Alindarka’s Children, Belarusian dialogues, internal monologues, reminiscences, and fragments of the father’s journal are all in Scots, while the voice of the novel’s narrator (originally in Belarusian) and the Russian passages are in English. This approach adds a layer of difficulty that does not exist in the original. Bacharevič wrote the novel for Belarusian readers, who, being almost without exception bilingual, can read the Russian sections with ease. For the average English reader, getting through rather extensive and important dialogue and narrative passages in Scots is not impossible, but it will require some effort and perhaps the use of the online resource Dictionaries of the Scots Language. The translators provide helpful footnotes and a glossary of more difficult Scots words.
Dingley and Reid realize, of course, that no Belarusian character could say something like ‘Whaur’s yon bestie? Yon pudgie wan!’ Therefore, Losya becomes Alicia, and Lochchik becomes Avi (short for ‘aviator,’ but the Jewish name must be the translators’ hint at the boy’s origin). The father is renamed Faither. Instead of Yazyk and Mova, we get the Lingo and the Leid. But some of the characters keep their Slavic names, and the settings and situations are unmistakably Eastern European. So where are we, exactly? In Belarus, in Scotland, or in both at once?
Dingley and Reid embrace those inconsistencies. After all, Bacharevič’s novel is a fable. His characters fight with ghouls and can drive cars by willpower alone. Why not make it even stranger and throw some Scottish oddness into the mix? They even underscore the ‘Scots dimension’ by inserting into Bacharevič’s text numerous fragments of Scottish poetry. Those additions give the book the feel of a melancholy Scottish ballad, which is not exactly the mood of Bacharevič’s work. What we get is a book that is both a translation and a collage—an independent, multilingual literary work.
It is an ingenious response to the novel’s polyphony and a tribute to the Scottish language that echoes the tribute Bacharevič pays to the Belarusian tongue. It remains to be seen how well it serves the more pragmatic purpose of introducing Bacharevič to the general English-reading public. Virginie Symaniec, the editor and publisher of the French translation, said in an interview that, faced with the same problem, she decided against using Breton, Basque, or Occitan as a substitute for Belarusian. She worked with the translator Alena Lapatniova to diversify the French to preserve the polyphonic effect, but to keep it fully comprehensible for a Francophone reader without the knowledge of regional languages.
Let us hope that the Dingley-Reid translation will attract not only fans of the Scottish Leid or readers interested in linguistic peripheries. Though a fantasy, Alindarka’s Children presents a relevant insight into today’s Belarus and captures the depths of frustration, grief, and resolve that have been building up for decades under the deceptively placid surface of Belarusian life.
The latest protesters’ battle cry, Ukhodzi! (Go away!), is obviously aimed at the man at the top. But it also resounds with impatience about the sheer anachronism of their lives, the narrowness of their choices, the rigidity of the ideological roles available to them (conformist, dissident, internal or external émigré), their own fears, former passivity, and many compromises and self-denials—the whole distorted, claustrophobic world that Bacharevič evokes in his novel. Losya-Alicia makes one think of the thousands of intrepid Belarusians who are struggling today to break out of the political nightmare—to leave the troubled woods and get on the map.