Belarus at Sea
(review of Альгерд Бахарэвіч. 2020. Апошняя кніга пана А. Менск: Янушкевіч / Alhierd Bacharevič. 2020. Apošniaja kniha pana A. [Mr A.’s Last Book]. Miensk: Januškievič, 500pp, ISBN 9789857210541, 9788090735927)
University of St Andrews
The new year of 2020 started inauspiciously with the coronavirus epidemic in the Far East. But soon, before Easter, this ugly reality hit closer home, in Belarus and across Europe. Present-day Belarus’s most inventive and innovative writer, Alhierd Bacharevič, finished his new book in February. With his sensitive antennae of an author, who lives here and now, he interwove into the narrative the theme of a pandemic as a premonition of the end of the world; before, the WHO actually declared this outbreak as a pandemic in March 2020. One of the very few independent Belarusian-language publishers, Januškievič, swiftly brought out this pleasingly crafted volume in June, or at the plateauing end of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe. Just in time to make readers ponder what the future may bring along with the apparently imminent second wave.
Eros and Thanatos constitute the axis of Bacharevič’s thinking about the world, the tension of his prose is strung between these two extremes, Love and Death. The novel’s setting is the present-day Belarusian capital of Miensk with some forays to the countryside. Mr A., or ‘Mr Author,’ as Bacharevič likes to spell out this initial, is a relatively sought-after writer who almost stopped writing. Instead, he likes mixing with the elite to ‘prove’ his self-importance. He finds Publisher’s ear attuned to his stories and views. Publisher’s respect for the nameless writer emboldens the latter to ask for $10,000 as a loan to buy a wooden house with a garden in a distant rural-like quarter of the Belarusian capital. The writer promises to repay this loan in a year’s time, but never does, due to an unexpected economic downturn that starves him of pecuniarily gainful gigs. Publisher is silently enraged, when he has learned about the situation. True to his character, Publisher remains well-mannered and soft-spoken. Yet, he proposes that the writer – whom from now on he dubs ‘Culprit’ and ‘Malefactor’ – makes up for his ‘crime’ and repays the loan by delivering each day of the following month a fairy tale to Publisher’s family and servants after dinner.
The formal device of an overarching meta-narrative as a platform for this daily story telling goes back to One Thousand and One Nights, or even more fittingly, given the ongoing pandemic, to Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. In the context of the Polish-Lithuanian origins of Belarusian culture and literature, the obvious indigenous inspiration is also Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a sprawling novel replete with intertwined stories, and stories within stories. Bacharevič began his writing career with short stories and by translating into Belarusian the early 19th-century novelist and poet, Wilhelm Hauff’s, fairy tales. Unusual, fantastic and cruel events, found in these tales, also became a hallmark of Bacharevič’s own fiction. His 2017 blockbuster Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe) is composed from six almost novel-length ‘long stories.’ Yet, in every successive book, the writer aspires to try out and excel at a new genre or prose writing technique. In the novel under review, the daily stories, along the spanning narrative, add up to 31 tales, each with a gripping plot of its own, crowned with an unexpected twist (a device perfected by the Canadian Nobel laureate, Alice Munro). Like Hauff, who drew at the realities and legends of his native Kingdom of Württemberg, Bacharevič is weaving into his stories elements of today’s Belarus, its urban legends, and the country’s recent past.
One of my favorites is the tale devoted to an old third-degree grandfather, or maybe even a great-great-grandpa. An aspiring student of Belarusian language and literature from a distant province is about to enter the Belarusian State University in Miensk. The main problem is accommodation, and how much it may cost. The half-forgotten semi-grandfather with his priceless three-room apartment in the city center appears to be an obvious a solution. The family wonder whether he is still alive, because according to what they remember he is at least 80, or maybe even 120. The not so fair fairy tale commences in earnest. They ring the grandfather up. He agrees to offer a room to his young relative. But on two conditions. First, the student would never ask money from the grandad. And second, under any circumstances, he would not dare to enter the grandfather’s own room. However, one day the grandad is taken to hospital and apparently passes away. The student thinks nothing about any funeral and just takes over the apartment without completing any required paperwork, He neglects the youngster neglects university studies and lets his artist girlfriend move in and convert a room into a painting studio. Obviously, they invade the grandad’s room and empty it of dusty old-style NKVD files, which record culprits sentenced to death by a shot into the back of their heads. Then one night, three NKVD officers in interwar Soviet uniforms, including the grandfather, knock at the door and take the disobedient grandson and his wayward girlfriend to a forest. The sentence for their crimes is capital punishment to both. The grandad, as the leading investigative officer, takes and adds the executed grandson’s lifetime of 19 years to his own, and apportions the girlfriend’s lifetime to his two underlings, nine years to each. One of these underlings complains, so the grandad shoots him right away. The other is overjoyed. He and the grandfather shake hands and look forward to working on another case, when it surfaces, as they always do. NKVD officers as undead vampires? What a stunning ‘modern fairy tale,’ like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but more succinct and with lots more of panache.
Midway, the daily tales written and read out by Culprit, began merging with the actual events in the capital and Publisher’s sprawling mansion. At first, like US President Donald Trump or Belarus’s strongman Aljaksandar Łukašenka, Publisher makes light of the fast-spreading plague. According to him, his task is to bring out books, while public at large should enjoy life the more by reading these volumes. Thanks be to ‘Hallowed Law and Order’ that keep things running smooth on the Island. But the mass media remain silent on the ocean that devours ports and coastal cities in one disaster after another. Disgruntled protesters set camp at Publisher’s mansion and then violently besiege it. The end is neigh. While the crowd is invading the mansion, it turns out that Publisher’s son is an extraterrestrial on a mission. His superior civilization knew beforehand that the ocean would soon engulf the Island-world. Rescuers were sent to preserve the best specimens of each human profession, including the best writer. Culprit refuses to leave, preferring newly-found love and swiftly approaching death foretold to the sad survival in a dusty extraterrestrial museum. Instead, the spaceship hidden in the house’s structure takes off with a drunk macho interloper writing testosterone-laden stodgy fiction. Apocalypse now. The redeemed Culprit will not write another book.
But Bacharevič shall. I am sure he has an entire store of ideas for new volumes full of surprises.
The book with its at times almost hypnotic prose is a great read in its own right. It is also teeming with historical, mythological and cultural subtexts, should one care to look for them. For a lover of all things Belarusian, the novel’s Island-world with Belarusian as its sole or leading language and culture is a nationally heartening vision. The oft-invoked and praised ‘Law and Order’ can be interpreted as Łukašenka’s dictatorship of a quarter of a century and counting, including the spread of such authoritarian tendencies to neighboring Poland, and farther afield to Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, or Bulgaria. The book’s multiplying and increasingly violent protesters may be even seen as a premonition of the now ongoing surge in popular opposition to the incumbent president across all of Belarus, including the countryside, in the run-up to ‘his’ sixth presidential election in August 2020, which Łukašenka is determined to ‘win.’ Otherwise, a non-Belarusian reader can think about the angry crowds as climate protesters or participants of Black Lives Matter marches. But above all, let us enjoy the novel.