Belarus at sea
A review of Апошняя кніга пана А. (Mr A.’s Last Book). By: Alhierd Bacharevič. Publisher: Januškievič Publishing House, Minsk, Belarus, 2020.
The year 2020 started inauspiciously with the coronavirus epidemic still far away in China. Yet soon, before Easter, this ugly reality hit closer to 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, the author, who lives in the here and now, interwove into the narrative the theme of a plague as a premonition of the end of the world, long before the World Health Organisation actually declared this outbreak a pandemic in March. 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. It was published just in time for readers to ponder on what the future may bring; again, well before the mass protests that followed the rigged presidential election of August 2020
Stories within stories
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 Minsk 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 demonstrate his self-importance. He finds a publisher’s ear attuned to his stories and views. The publisher’s respect for the nameless writer emboldens the latter to ask for a 10,000 dollars 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.
The publisher is silently enraged when he learns about the situation. True to his character, the publisher remains well-mannered and soft-spoken. Yet, he proposes that the writer – whom from now on he dubs “Culprit” and “Malefactor” – repay the loan by delivering a fairy tale to the publisher’s family and servants after dinner every day for the next month.
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 the fairy tales from the early 19th-century novelist and poet Wilhelm Hauff into Belarusian.
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 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 elements of today’s Belarus into his stories, its urban legends and the country’s recent past (and even future).
Modern fairy tale
One of my favourites 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 Minsk. 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 centre appears to be an obvious a solution. The family wonders whether he is still alive, since 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 for money from the grandad. And second, he would not dare, under any circumstances, 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 the required paperwork. The youngster neglects his university studies and lets his artist girlfriend move in and converts one of the rooms into a painting studio. Obviously, they invade the grandad’s room and empty it of dusty old-style NKVD files which were records of culprits sentenced to death.
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 the forest. The sentence for their crimes is capital punishment. 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 panache.
Midway through, the daily tales, written and read out by Culprit, begin merging with the actual events in the capital and the publisher’s sprawling mansion. At first, like US President Donald Trump or Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the publisher makes light of the fast-spreading virus. According to him, his task is to bring out books, while the public at large should enjoy life more by reading them. Thanks to the “hallowed law and order” that keeps 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 up camp at the publisher’s mansion and then violently besiege it. The end is neigh. (Could it be seen as a portent of what may happen to Lukashenka?)
While the crowd is invading the mansion, it turns out that the publisher’s son is an extra-terrestrial on a mission. His superior civilisation 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 (Mr A) refuses to leave, preferring his newly-found love and swiftly approaching death foretold to the sad survival in a dusty extra-terrestrial museum. Instead, the spaceship, hidden in the house’s structure, takes off with a drunken 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 reserve of ideas for new volumes full of surprises.
The book with its almost hypnotic prose is a great read. It is 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 and leading language and culture is a nationally-heartening vision. The oft-invoked and praised “law and order” can be interpreted as Lukashenka’s dictatorship of a quarter of a century and counting, including the spread of authoritarian tendencies to neighbouring Poland and farther afield to Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia or Bulgaria.
The book’s multiplying and increasingly violent protesters may even be seen as a premonition of the now ongoing mass demonstrations against Lukashenka’s regime, which erupted immediately after the rigged presidential election in August 2020, which Lukashenka claims he “won”. Otherwise, a non-Belarusian reader can think about the angry crowds as climate protesters or participants of the Black Lives Matter marches. But above all, the reader is able to just enjoy the novel.
Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.