BOOKS FROM BELARUS

Books From Belarus is a non-commercial project aimed at promoting the best contemporary Belarusan literature abroad. It presents best fiction, recently published by independent Belarusan publishers. The project is carried out within the framework of activities of the Union of Belarusian Writers.

Authors

© photo by Ivan Besser

Valiantsina Aksak

Born in 1953 near Niasvizh. She is a historian by education. She works as a journalist with the Belarusian Radio Liberty Broadcasting Service. She is the author of six books of poetry. Her poems have been translated into Swedish, Polish, Lithuanian, French, English and Russian.

The Blackthorn Tree

poetry collection

The Blackthorn Tree is unexpectedly a very tragic and bitter book: a story of a tree bidding farewell to its roots – the parents who leave forever, and its shoots – the children who grow up and leave to create families of their own. As a result, there appears a zone of colossal existential cold, in which can be sensed a hardly perceptible fragrance of garden flowers and the warmth of human understanding.

“THE BLACKTHORN TREE”

Shadow and scent
They choose
Not a person
Especially
Not a woman,
But no more than
A flutter of eyelashes
The shadow of a smile
And the aroma of fluids.
Most often –
The opposite.

Graphics
I look in the mirror
And observe,
How painting
Is transformed
Into graphics.

Troubles
I wake from sleep
in the dead of night –
troubles
unhappy
word
of evening.

Change of ganre
Death –
is when cinema
is transformed
into photography.

Translated by Hillary Sheers

 

 

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The Blackthorn Tree is unexpectedly a very tragic and bitter book: a story of a tree bidding farewell to its roots – the parents who leave forever, and its shoots – the children who grow up and leave to create families of their own. As a result, there appears a zone of colossal existential cold, in which can be sensed a hardly perceptible fragrance of garden flowers and the warmth of human understanding.

“THE BLACKTHORN TREE”

Shadow and scent
They choose
Not a person
Especially
Not a woman,
But no more than
A flutter of eyelashes







read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Valiantsin Akudovich

Born in 1950 in the town of Svislach. He is a philosopher, writer and literary critic. Since 2001 he has been a tutor on the literature and philosophy programme of the Belarusian Collegium – an independent educational forum in the field of the humanities.

Waking in the morning in a country you can call your own

essay collection

“Say what you like about the Belarusians – it will be untrue.” Akudovich is here quoting the words of a philosopher friend; he goes on to explain: the Belarusians have a tradition of viewing themselves as a nation that goes back no more than thirty years. The author is convinced that this is too short a time for them to have been able to grasp their newly-discovered thousand-year-old history adequately. Nevertheless, everything that Akudovich has written in Belarusian over the past thirty years offers the reader the fullest, most detailed portrait of contemporary Belarus – a country that the Belarusians cannot themselves see. European readers have had an opportunity to gain some insight into the author’s Belarusocentric ideas thanks to the appearance of his book: Valentin Akudowitsch. Der Abwesenheitscode: Versuch, Weisrusslandzuverstehen (edition suhrkamp), 2013. Waking in the Morning is yet another another “untruth” about the Belarusians. This “Collection of texts” –as the author himself calls his book – covers a wide range of genres: from verses in prose to philosophical disputes, memoirs and lectures delivered in a variety of occasions. In true Belarusian style Akudovich expounds his philosophy in highly poetical language reminiscent of the works of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Walking in the morning in a country you can calll your own"
Postcolonial studies
Instead of an epigraph
It’s hard to say why, but I was sorely tempted to enhance this text with an epigraph. I even knew in advance what form it would take. It would be from Milan Kundera’s essay Jacques et son ma?tre. The only thing was that the extract that I found most appropriate simply could not be compressed into the size normally accepted as right for an epigraph. I hesitated for a long time, but in the end decided to ignore all the blather associated with literary studies and go ahead with typing out as much text as I felt necessary.

It was the third day of the occupation. I was driving away from Prague… There were Russian soldiers everywhere: on the roads, in the fields, in the forests. Then I was stopped and three soldiers began to search my car. After this procedure the officer who had given the order for the search asked me: “How are you feeling?”… There was no malice or irony in the question. On the contrary, the officer continued: “This is all a big misunderstanding. But everything will turn out OK. After all, you do know that we love the Czechs, don’t you? We love you.”
A countryside ruined by thousands of tanks, the country’s future wrecked for centuries to come, Czechoslovak statesmen arrested and carted off to the USSR, and an officer of the army of occupation makes you a declaration of love. Understand me correctly: he said nothing against the occupation, nothing whatsoever. All of them spoke just like he did. They did not speak from the point of view of a rapist taking a sadistic delight in what he was doing, but from a quite different archetype – that of a disappointed lover. Why on earth don’t these Czechs (whom we love so much!) want to live under the same system as we do? What a pity that we have to use tanks to teach them what love means.
MILAN KUNDERA

The myth of the high humanistic values of Russian literature took shape back in the nineteenth century. This was a time of powerful colonial empires, and no particular objections were raised to the myth then. Later, however, when the dark side of these huge geopolitical structures was becoming increasingly evident, the myth began to seem less convincing. At the same time, given the cultural situation in which Belarus at present finds itself, it has even today lost none of its inviolability (“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”). For this reason it will be well worthwhile examining the myth through a postcolonial lens – even if the examination will of necessity be brief for the moment. The task is even more timely, given that over recent centuries Russian literature has influenced the Belarusian worldview more powerfully than anything else.
I came to feel the need for this examination with particular acuity when I had finished editing the Belarusian translation of the book by the American scholar Ewa Thompson Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism•. This academic monograph offers a systematic, detailed analysis of Russian literature, demonstrating that it was almost entirely colonial by its very nature. In other words, it was just the same Russian expansion into all corners of the Earth, except that it was by means of literature.
In the West a powerful intellectual movement has developed that engages in the deconstruction of literary works produced by famous writers from the great colonial empires, primarily English, French and American… The most prominent figures in this movement are scholars from the former colonies, who – in the words of Homi K. Bhabha – “decode the codes of oppression” that lie hidden in the works of writers from the metropolis. By contrast the majority of scholars from peoples that were previously subject to Russian domination have been slow to develop postcolonial studies of their own. This is certainly the case in Belarus, where I can recall only the powerful article by Zianon Pa?niak at the beginning of the 1990s and Russian Book by Siarhiej Dubaviec at much the same time. Of course I must mention Ihar Babkou, who has done more than anyone to spread postcolonial theories among a wide variety of intellectual circles in Belarus. However, he works in the area of theoretical discourse, whereas of greater concern to me are critical analyses of the literary output of the “bards of empire”…
There is a crucial point to be noted right at the outset. The Russian Empire adopted a widely differentiated set of global policies, depending on the specific situation in the lands that had been absorbed. Russian literature, however, always manifested identical characteristics in its rhetorical support for imperial expansion, regardless of both the political context and the social status of the author. In this regard there is no difference between the poem of the gentleman of the bed-chamber Aleksandr Pushkin• “To the Slanderers of Russia” – who pours scorn on those who sympathised with the Polish-Belarusian uprising against the Empire; the novel of the dissident Mikhail Lermontov A Hero of Our Time, in which the poet – eternally out of favour with the authorities – writes with evident disgust of the subjugated Circassians; and the poem “The Generals of Turkestan” by the professional Romantic Nikolai Gumilev, an encomium to Russian military might that had subdued the worthless asiatics and raised “the Russian flag o’er white-walled Khiva”…
By the way, as far as the lands of Belarus are concerned: it’s as if they were not conquered, but merely “reunited” with Russia. This did not, however, prevent the people’s poet Nikolai Nekrasov from penning an ode in praise of Murav’ev the Hangman, the tsarist provincial governor who “pacified” these “historical Russian lands”.
There is another question that should be asked: which came first in the creation of a mighty colonial empire – politics or literature? We can at least say that Russian writers with each of their outstanding works contributed directly to the establishment of the idea of empire uppermost in the minds of Russians. Aleksandr Pushkin had already incorporated in his verses a highly effective image of Great Russia as a country before which all nations were to bend the knee. Of course the pioneer in the field was undoubtedly Derzhavin, but in his day poetry was a local phenomenon and exerted little noticeable influence on public opinion. However, it was Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace that came to play the greatest role in the sacralization of the empire. The extent to which the novel enriched the multitude of voices in the empire can be gauged by the way in which foreigners reacted to it: they began to see Russia as a state capable of subjugating a whole host of other nations, but also of liberating them from military captivity. There were few who noticed that, behind the fa?ade of positive emotions aroused by this liberation process, even during its war with Napoleon Russian continued its wars of annexation in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Just as later there was no end to the stifling of the subjugated peoples’ struggles for liberty. During the 1863 Polish-Belarusian uprising Leo Tolstoy wrote to the poet Fet: “What do you think of the Polish situation?.. It looks as though things are going badly, is it possible that you and I together with Borisov may have to take down our swords from the rusty nails?” In another letter this great humanist observes: “It is a matter of complete indifference to me if the Poles are being suppressed.” To this there is nothing to add, except perhaps that, together with the Poles, the Russians were also suppressing the Belarusians with equal savagery…

At this point I must at last focus my attention on the chorus of voices chanting their disagreement. I am certain that they have been tracking my sceptical remarks about the high humanistic values and incomparable spirituality of Russian literature right from the outset. I can literally hear the vast quantity of examples aimed in my direction of instances of sympathy for the “humiliated and insulted”, and of criticism by a wide range of writers of the stupidity of the Russian state authorities. These voices will quote at me passages which seek to grasp the mysteries of existence and attain the highest levels of spirituality. And this is all true. There is indeed a great deal of this in Russian literature, provided you look at it through the eyes of a Russian or someone who has been russified. But what if that someone is a Chukhonets/a person of Finnic origin, a Pole or a Turkmen?...
Postcolonial theory offers a means of examining colonial literature through the eyes of the colonized. If we employ it to take a look at the “cute and cuddly” Russians, we will see a somewhat different colour spectrum. Let us take as an example Fyodor Dostoyevsky, without exaggeration a writer of true genius. It is true that his novels are full of love for humanity, but … only for Russian humanity. Poles are always disparagingly referred to as “Polacks”, the conquest of Turkestan was received by the author with enthusiasm, and God alone knows where Smerdyakov comes from…
The total deafness and indifference of Russian literature to the problems and sufferings of the “ethnically different” – then the official term for them – are quite simply staggering. In an empire which never tired of repeating with pride that it had brought together under its authority more than one hundred different nations and ethnic groups, there was for Russian literature only one nation – the Russian. Whenever we do occasionally find “ethnically different” heroes, they are usually encumbered with negative features like the reptilian Bagrov – a Jew – in Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914, or they may become the object of a Russian’s exotic adventure, like Alesya the wild girl from Palessie in Kuprin’s eponymous story.
One of the classics of postcolonial theory, Gayatri Spivak, once posed the rhetorical question: Can the subaltern speak? In our case the answer has to be: the Russian Empire locked all the subaltern peoples into total silence, permitting only one voice to speak – the voice of the great imperial Russian. From that time until quite recently no one knew how the colonized nations saw themselves. We knew only what Russian literature felt necessary to tell us about the subalterns, if – that is– it ever felt the need to say anything about them.
Putting it briefly, Russian literature is first and foremost egotistical, and only then humanistic. This is of course true of all the literatures of the great colonial powers, but even against that background Russian literature looks hypertrophically egocentric.
There is another angle to the myth of Russian literature as the most humanistic, and it can be set out very briefly. On the one hand no one in Russia will ever dare to desacrilize it while a great-state mentality is still predominant in the country. In essence this myth is the sanctified alibi of the Russian. For as long as the myth continues to persist, any Russian will be able to meet a negative comment about Russia’s fundamentally antihumanistic imperial policies with the retort: that’s as maybe, but we do have the most humanistic literature in the world.
On the other hand, the previously subjugated nations have already begun – with a varying degree of intensity – to deconstruct the myth within the framework of postcolonial discourse. As a result it is shrinking more and more with every year, like shagreen leather. There will come a time when it shrinks away to nothing.
But does that mean that there will be nothing left?
Absolutely not…
In its place there will still be a simply great imperial literature – a literature of one of the greatest colonial empires of the world.

Translated by Jim Dingley

 

 

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“Say what you like about the Belarusians – it will be untrue.” Akudovich is here quoting the words of a philosopher friend; he goes on to explain: the Belarusians have a tradition of viewing themselves as a nation that goes back no more than thirty years. The author is convinced that this is too short a time for them to have been able to grasp their newly-discovered thousand-year-old history adequately. Nevertheless, everything that Akudovich has written in Belarusian over the past thirty years offers the reader the fullest, most detailed portrait of contemporary Belarus – a country that the…

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© photo by Alena Kazlova

Sviatlana Aleksievich

Born in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk. She worked in the editorial offices of various media in Minsk as a reporter and wrote essays. Since the early 1980s she has been creating the cycle of non-fiction books Voices From Utopia: War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Lullabys (1985), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afganistan War (1989), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997), Second-hand Time (2013). She is a laureate of dozens of international literary awards and prizes, including the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her works have been translated into dozens of languages. She currently lives and works in Minsk.

Integrated in the cycle Voices from Utopia, books by Sviatlana Aleksievich are neither monographs on oral history, nor collections of interviews, but form a unified, musically composed text, which can be rather called a philosophical treatise on the Soviet “Red Man”. The isolated and sporadic collisions of people with the deceptive abyss of human nature caution the reader against the temptation of yet again creating "the only right idea" – the temptation that leads to loss of dignity, and then loss of freedom.

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Born in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk. She worked in the editorial offices of various media in Minsk as a reporter and wrote essays. Since the early 1980s she has been creating the cycle of non-fiction books Voices From Utopia: War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Lullabys (1985), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afganistan War (1989), Voices from Chernobyl: The…

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Second-hand Time

documentary novel

The Soviet Union itself in this last book is dying, rushing to its end and convulsively paving its way with the bodies of thousands of the disappointed. Second-hand Time is a kind of encyclopaedic reference book of all Aleksievich’s work: in addition to the central theme of this book – the collapse of the Soviet Union – the writer introduces us to themes from previous “releases” in this cycle, using keynotes, refrains and accents: the war in Afghanistan, World War II, and Chernobyl. The monologue stories of Second-hand Time are interspersed with real "voices", which sometimes are not even attributed; this seems like the nameless, but not faceless, talk of the street. This chorus of voices, quotes and fragments of overheard conversations is manifested in the fullest way in the last book by Sviatlana Aleksievich.

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The Soviet Union itself in this last book is dying, rushing to its end and convulsively paving its way with the bodies of thousands of the disappointed. Second-hand Time is a kind of encyclopaedic reference book of all Aleksievich’s work: in addition to the central theme of this book – the collapse of the Soviet Union – the writer introduces us to themes from previous “releases” in this cycle, using keynotes, refrains and accents: the war in Afghanistan, World War II, and Chernobyl. The monologue stories of Second-hand Time are interspersed with real "voices", which sometimes are not even attributed;…

read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Uladzimir Arlou

Born in 1953 in Polack. By education he is a historian. He has written more than twenty books of non-fiction about Belarusian history, short stories and poetry. Arlou’s books have been translated into twenty five languages. The winner of various awards, Arlou also holds the distinguished title “European Poet of Freedom” (Gdansk, 2010).

The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse

short story collection

This book brings together all of Arlou’s most important prose works, which can be said to have set the tone for the development of a renewed Belarusian literature since the 1990s. Two extremes can be observed in the author’s stories. Some of them are firmly rooted in a childhood and youth spent in the happy, slow-moving pace of everyday life in a Soviet province (“Polack tales”, “A Siberian story”). Others are characterised by the phantasmagorical and irreal (“Landscape with a menthol smell”, “Genius Loci”). These two extremes are balanced out by the author’s indefatigable libido, which brings his prose dangerously close to the point where it would be suitable only for readers over the age of 16. Arlou’s works all have a common starting point – his native city, Polatsk – the cradle of Belarusian statehood (first mentioned in the chronicles under the year 862). The author brings his training as a historian to bear in constantly drawing parallels between the past and the present. In 1563 the troops of the Muscovite Tsar Ivan the Terrible laid waste to Polack. The confrontation with the Eastern Empire, which still continues in Belarus to this day, is another important motif in Arlou’s prose writing. The title of the collection as a whole is taken from the ironic parable “The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse”. This tale of an arrogant king was aimed directly at the political regime in Belarus in 2001. It cost the writer his job with a state publishing house. 

“THE MOST NOBLE ORDER OF THE WHITE MOUSE”
Once upon a time there was a state that — by European standards — was really quite small. The state was a constitutional monarchy. Its population consisted of one king, of course, one prime minister, one head of the security service, one minister with responsibility for the police, and one public prosecutor.
The country had just one criminal, a single political prisoner and a lone political refugee.
The army was made up of one general who commanded one colonel, a lone major, and a single captain.
Needless to say, there was just one trades union; on its books there was one builder and one specialist in demolition, one professor and one student, one academician and one completely illiterate citizen.
It was just the same in every other area of life. The country counted among its inhabitants just one alcoholic and one drug addict, one pimp and just one professional lady of the night, one AIDS sufferer and one who had gone down with syphilis.
Next to the only individual in the country to own a really luxurious villa lived the only homeless man — in a large rubbish skip. The country did indeed have some ethnic minorities — the census returns reported a single Jew, one Tatar, one Pole and a person from the Caucasus region, one Russian and a lone Albanian. So it was with the paraphiliac minorities: just one gay man and a Lesbian.
The appropriate forces of law ‘n’ order – no more than one man in each, of course — kept a close watch on the country’s only paedo, as well as on the one guy who had a secret fondness for bouts of bestiality. The same strict balance could also be observed in the arts. The country was quite happy with its only composer, it needed no more than one artist, one actor and one writer. One journalist wrote for the one newspaper. There was employment for just the one architect.
There were — it should perhaps be pointed out at this stage — vague rumours circulating to the effect that not everything had always been quite so perfect in the country.
For example, people were saying that apparently there were at one time several professors delivering lectures to several students, and then these students got it into their heads to shut themselves in one of the lecture halls together with their professors and draft an inflammatory petition.
But that’s another story. Our story took place in a country where there was just one of everything. There was proof aplenty that this is indeed just how things were; it was all there in the secret reports, the bugged phone conversations, the photographs made by a hidden camera, the letters that were steamed open and all the audio and video materials that were examined. The author used them all to reconstruct the events that he describes here.
Once a day the head of the security service would appear before the King to make his report. He was a short, stout man with a boxed beard, looking more like a doctor with a lucrative practice and a penchant for fine wining and dining than a representative of his deadly serious profession.
His early morning reports always stressed the stability of the situation in the country and the total absence of negative tendencies of any kind. Everything was permanently on the rise – the volume of industrial production, the level of education and the consumption of beneficial foodstuffs (including alcohol). The birth rate was increasing and – in order to ensure the maintenance of stability – the mortality rate was keeping up with it.
Normally the King would stop his head of security without hearing out his full report. However, on one occasion he broke with well-established tradition.
The fact of the matter was that the King had ordered the country’s only jeweller to fashion a badge for an Order of Chivalry he had founded, the only such Order in the kingdom, and one that would have only one Knight.
The Order was called The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse. Only a foreigner totally unschooled in the country’s history would be puzzled by such a name. Every native-born citizen had been told while still at school that the white mouse was the ancient symbol of their country’s statehood. Historical records prove that the rodent with the high-pitched squeak and long tail first appeared on the state coat of arms over five hundred years ago, during the reign of one of the present King’s distant and most illustrious forebears. It was his customary practice to conclude all his decrees with the traditional formula: “and as for the people of my country, they are to sit quietly, without rumour, as does the church mouse before the broom that comes to sweep it away”. The only thing to have changed on the state coat of arms over the centuries was the actual colour of the mouse. From originally being grey it gradually acquired ever brighter hues, until – in the last century – it turned a most noble white, a colour known in heraldry as argent, signifying purity, goodness and independence.
The badge of the Order lay before the King on a tiny pillow of purple silk, with its enamels and diamonds gleaming merrily.
As was his normal practice, the King did not bother to listen to his security chief’s report right to the very end, but on this occasion he did not dismiss him to go off and do his job. Instead the King asked him who he thought should be the holder of the highest award the country could bestow. The boss of the country’s most important agency scratched his boxed beard a few times in what may have been a sign of slight embarrassment, He had long been a staunch ally of the King’s and doubtless knew full well who actually deserved the honour more than anyone else, but nevertheless decided to hold his peace.
Either the King had not yet finally decided on the individual most deserving of the award, or was still entertaining certain doubts, because he was scrutinizing the list of inhabitants of his country very closely. He was so deeply immersed in thought that he even shifted his wig slightly and his bald patch began to shine in the rays of the early morning sun – although not as brightly as the badge of the new Order. It has to be said here that, in spite of the bald patch, the King was still quite a young man, physically attractive and full of strength. He played tennis regularly and, donning a bullet-proof vest in order to lose weight, would go jogging round his residence.
At length the King tore his eyes away from the document and gave voice to his thoughts:
What if we were to install our Writer as the Knight Commander First Class of our Order?
The security chief stroked his beard again. The question was now beginning to take on the kind of precision that he loved; it made him feel like an eel in a field of peas covered in the dew of early morning.
“That would be an excellent choice, Your Majesty,” said the owner of the boxed beard, “but…”
The King raised an eyebrow, and the security chief continued speaking in a firm voice:
“there isn’t a single Reader in the country”.
“Is that right?” – the monarch couldn’t believe it. He took up the list again and, sure enough, he found one Astrologer, one Cannibal, one Fascist Thug and one Village Idiot, but there really wasn’t a Reader.
The inhabitants of the country had every reason to believe that the King’s resolve could not be shaken once he had made up his mind.
So it was that the next words the security chief heard were these: “What makes you think that that has any bearing on the matter? After all, we intend to bestow the award on the Writer, not the Reader. And in any case the Writer presumably reads his own works, at least while he’s writing them.
The security chief glanced at the badge of the Order, and once again decided to keep his own counsel.
“I’ll invite the Writer to supper this evening”, said the King.
That evening the King and the Writer sat facing each other across an exquisitely laid table. They were both about the same age, somewhere between forty and fifty – an age when men are in their prime. The King wore a wig of chestnut hair, whereas the Writer’s well-coiffed head was covered in natural hair of the same colour, flecked here and there with noble touches of grey.
The Baroque interior of the chamber used for intimate suppers with special guests was illumined by large delicately-scented candles in antique silver candelabras. The hearth exuded fragrant warmth. An elegant marble side table stood close by, and on it lay the badge of the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse awaiting its Knight Commander.
The feeling of well-being and comfort that permeated the whole room was enhanced by the presence of a beautiful young woman who was also seated at the table but at some distance from the King and the Writer, so that she could both hear what they were talking about and lose the thread if the host and his guest chose to lower their voices. Her thick fiery red curls tumbled down freely over her bare shoulders, in a quite miraculous way complementing the deep aquamarine of her eyes The King diplomatically addressed the woman as ‘milady’, leaving it to his visitor to guess what her real status was, bearing in mind that the King had been a widower for many years.
“I’m hoping that you will make me a present of your most recent books”, said the King.
There was nothing insulting in the familiar way in which the King spoke to the Writer; he spoke in exactly the same way to all the people who lived in the country he ruled, and everyone was accustomed to it, just as they were to the regular failure of the harvest in summer and the poor state of the roads in winter.
“No, Majesty, that’s something I won’t do”, replied the Writer, draining his glass of Bordeaux with relish.
“And why is that?” the King inquired, with no hint in his voice that the Writer’s response had affected him in any way. He gave a sign to the servant to fill the Writer’s glass.
“It’s been a long time since any of my books were published”, answered the Writer. He raised his glass, looking in turn at the Monarch and the red-haired woman.
A question was forming on the tip of the King’s tongue — since when have none of the Writer’s manuscripts been turned into published books? — but His Majesty was endowed with the qualities of a true statesman and so what the Writer actually heard was:
“But all the same, you are still a writer, aren’t you?”
“Maybe I am”, replied the Writer. “I do still write, but what I write is not for publication”.
“That’s even better”, and the King was clearly pleased with the direction the conversation was taking. “That is exactly how a true writer should live. As the Ancient Romans put it: Habentsua fata libelli. Books have their own destinies. I am glad not to have been mistaken in you. I intend now to sign the decree admitting you as Knight Commander to the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse”.
These words were uttered by the King in a solemn tone. He raised his glass, expecting his guest to do the same. The Writer was, however, in no hurry.

translated by Jim Dingley

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This book brings together all of Arlou’s most important prose works, which can be said to have set the tone for the development of a renewed Belarusian literature since the 1990s. Two extremes can be observed in the author’s stories. Some of them are firmly rooted in a childhood and youth spent in the happy, slow-moving pace of everyday life in a Soviet province (“Polack tales”, “A Siberian story”). Others are characterised by the phantasmagorical and irreal (“Landscape with a menthol smell”, “Genius Loci”). These two extremes are balanced out by the author’s indefatigable libido, which brings…

read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Ihar Babkou

Born in 1964 in Homiel. He has a PhD in philosophy and is engaged in postcolonial studies. He is the author of three poetry collections, two books on philosophy and two novels. His novel Adam Klakocki and his shadows (1999) was short-listed for the Angelus Central European Literature Award of the city of Wroclaw in 2009. Part one of his novel Chvilinka [Moment] won the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award in 2013.

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Born in 1964 in Homiel. He has a PhD in philosophy and is engaged in postcolonial studies. He is the author of three poetry collections, two books on philosophy and two novels. His novel Adam Klakocki and his shadows (1999) was short-listed for the Angelus Central European Literature Award of the city of Wroclaw in 2009. Part one of his novel Chvilinka [Moment] won the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award…

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A Cafe called Moment

novel

“Moment” is the name of a real cafe that existed in Minsk in the 1980s at the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Since then the Belarusian capital – both externally and internally – has changed out of all recognition. Belarusian society has also changed. For this reason the novel enchanted readers who were already thunderstruck by all the changes happening around them. To them the book seemed like a time capsule. The book tells three stories of three regulars of the cafe called Moment; they went in thirty years ago and since then have been unable to find their way out. The heroes are a poet, a political activist and a singer; each of them remains loyal to the way of life they have chosen whatever happens. In spite of all the planners’ visions for the future development of the city the cafe called Moment has been at the same address for decades, and the barista grows no older. 

“A CAFE CALLED MOMENT”

This place was already in existence in Miensk back in our prolonged cold spell. Even now, when literally everything has changed, it’s still where I arrange to meet up with a few people on special occasions.
Its name was simple enough for an era obsessed with plastic and silicone:
Moment.No one knows why it was called that. Some said that it was simply a translation of the Franco-Russian bistro, while others saw metaphysical undertones in it. “A human life,” they said, “is just a moment in time. There is no grandeur about the way we come into this world, no fanfares. There’s no obvious purpose. And we all try to find something that we can call our own.
”Indeed, for the majority it came down to this: tantalising smells, anticipation of possibilities, attempts to make a choice. Then the lengthy queue. Then the till where you have to pay for everything. And then…
But that was not the main thing.
It’s somewhere where you can go and chill – this is what we used to say.
It was an odd kind of place.
To be perfectly honest it wasn’t a proper caf? at all. It didn’t have a separate entrance, there was no cloakroom with the obligatory mirror, no tables to sit at and no waiters. All it consisted of was a counter and three tall bar tables that you stood round, tucked away in a corner at the rear of one of the first pizzerias in Miensk. In this corner there stood a real coffee machine – again, one of the first in the late Soviet epoch – producing what was probably the best espresso in the city.
Ultimately, this does not of course explain anything. There were obviously other places. There were real caf?s, there were quiet corners with coffee machines in the larger food stores, and in some of them the coffee wasn’t too bad. Take, for instance, the one called Beneath the clock, or the one on Red Street. At times everyone would head off in that direction in search of something new and out of the ordinary. Once there they would find themselves in a completely different kind of setting. It was probably because sitting for a long time tires you out. This was how a very good friend of ours put it when he was asked what it was that drew him all alone away from India and towards China in the sixth century of our Common Era.
Other possibilities were certainly available. There was the Cold Cafe in the basement of the Palace of Art. They had no idea how to make good coffee there, but you could at least read and talk for hours on end until you froze to death. Another place was the Barmy Cafe on the first floor of a building in the Trinity Suburb, where they only made Turkish-style coffee. It was impossible to hold a conversation here; everyone would be talking at the tops of their voices and all at once. Some would even be shouting.
Even so, the Moment was special.
What was so special about it was – first and foremost – the space it occupied.It was situated at the highest point of the city. And, what’s more, it was the central point from which our varied urban landscapes radiated.

***
It was here that something of vital importance rose to the surface.
On the left-hand side of The Avenue, where the Moment stood, was the Upper Town. Now half-ruined, it immediately dropped down to the Niamiha, the metaphysical river with the blood-soaked banks, the starting point of the history of the people who live on these lands. This was a river that flowed through numerous texts and from there entered our consciousness. The river of insomnia, the old Baltic peoples called it.
The people who lived here were in one way or another cast out from the everyday cheerful bustle of a city of more than a million inhabitants, with its trolleybuses and buses, exhibitions and cinemas, and new districts where the spirits of the age proudly soared. They looked as though they had already lived out several lives and were simply tired of life’s intrusive carnival.
In any case shades of the past lived here alongside people. At times you felt as though they were the true inhabitants of the Miensk ruins, that they were the only ones to have the right to a loneliness devoid of human habitation.
The park-girded river Svislach meandered melancholy through the ruins. It gathered the old city into a single whole, collecting together the different landscapes, washing away all the grievances and suffering, and leaving behind a sense of icy, pure calm.
And – at times – of hope as well.
***
You could scarcely notice where the streets of the old part of the city began.
They behaved very strangely; it felt as if they wanted to tear themselves away from the names bestowed on them by different eras in an attempt to tame them. The streets threw those names off like cheap garments.They rebelled, they argued, at times they ran in parallel to reality. At others they became entangled, jostling and criss-crossing both reality and each other, and then going their separate ways in unknown directions.
In any case, there weren’t many of these streets, but they quite happily got themselves muddled in the mind, so that later on no one could say exactly what had happened and where we had ended up. Were we on Underhill Street? Or Dominican Friars Street? Or Engels Street?Or Castle Street? Or Revolution Street?
So immersed in their reticence were they that they stopped responding to casual passers-by.Sometimes it seemed as though this reticence concealed a silent kind of disdain, not only for the new districts of the city, but also for reality itself.The Avenue – on which stood the Moment – itself existed a little apart from reality. This was not immediately apparent, but to the close observer was perfectly obvious.
The Avenue was not simply the longest thoroughfare in the city; it cut right through the city from west to east. The Moment had a precise address on The Avenue: building no. 22. The city guidebook makes reference to it, and I did once actually look it up, just to make sure that I hadn’t dreamed it – that the Moment really does exist, or at least existed. In one of the cities in one of the countries of the world.
To the right of The Avenue and running parallel to it ran Karl Marx Street, lined with old trees and modern buildings of a modest size. This is the city’s quietest, most respectable and most bourgeois street. It was good to take a stroll along it. But for some reason nothing significant ever happened there.
All the same this was the street that offered the best way to approach the Moment. Turn left by the Art Museum and plunge into the still waters of the patch of greenery on Lenin Street. When you surface, you will already be on The Avenue, right next to the entrance.
Go through the bistro; when you reach the tall tables in the bar find a place on the left, by the window.
There’s a really special view through the window; you can see what’s going on inside the bar and in the world outside.


The bistro used to open at eight in the morning, but the bar didn’t start work until eleven. So, when customers started gathering in the Moment after eleven, the air was already thick with the smell of burnt pizza, thin, watery soup for eight copecks and other humble gastronomic delights of the late Soviet period. At this point I should say that there were some who failed the trial by odour and turned tail, trying to block their ears and noses. However, those who made it to the end were amply rewarded. Admittedly, not straight away.
The first thing to do was to look around and take stock of the place.The bar counter was to the right. Behind it stood a short man looking attentively at all those who had made it.This was the man who ran the bar, the barista if you like. You could see at once that there was something odd about his appearance, but there was no making out exactly what. A few little details: his three-piece suit sat on him too well – it gave him a sort of professorial air. He eyed his customers closely, but without passing judgement. By the time of your third visit to this place you had somehow already discovered that his name was Lea – not by being formally introduced, but from snippets of conversations and certain vague forebodings.Half-an-hour before the bar opened he would make a grand entrance into his territory and switch on the coffee machine to let it warm up. Then he would sit himself on a high stool behind the bar and settle down to reading a book or writing something in a large notebook which he kept in a safe.
Most people reckoned that what he wrote in his notebook had something to do with the bar accounts, but the more careful observers guessed that it wasn’t so, that some strange events were lying in wait for us up ahead.On the left were three long, tall bar tables with shelves below. You could stand at them only by leaning on them or by hanging over them a little.The most outstanding feature, however, was the huge window along the whole length of the wall, with a low, wide sill. The window ran at right angles to the bar tables, so that you could sit on the sill with your cup of coffee perched on the corner of the lower shelf. You could say that this was not a window at all, but a glass wall, beyond which there was always something going on. There were some who were bold enough to give names to those goings-on, but we simply knew: on the other side of the window lay the magical theatre of the world. The only thing we couldn’t quite grasp was what the play was about, and which side of the window the audience was on.It was normal to order a double espresso for twenty seven copecks, even though the single wasn’t bad, and a double cost almost as much as lunch in a cheap factory canteen.
A double espresso really did serve as a VIP pass; all those who took one formed the elite of the Moment. Of course, no one would have said anything if you ordered just a single, but a double demonstrated that you were one of the chosen, it was your introduction, it connected you…Although what precisely it connected you to was not immediately clear.Was it to those who dropped in for a quick coffee, and then stayed on?Or to those who, simply by standing at an old well-worn bar table, had glimpsed something in the world and in their own lives and realised its significance?
That seemed so little… But all the same…
If everything was going well, Lea would be smiling in a friendly manner, the coffee would taste great, autumn would be playing its usual crazy tricks outside the window, next to you there would be the familiar faces of close friends, gathered together here as if from other lives in which we had not had a chance to look at each other as much as we wanted or had left too much unspoken…
At moments such as these the people who had found their way here realised that this was not simply one of the places in one of the cities in one of the countries…
Something of extraordinary importance does indeed happen here. Something that will remain with you for the rest of your life. Something that will comfort you and bring some light into your life when there seems to be nothing left to hope for. When things are really bad.

translated by Jim Dingley

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“Moment” is the name of a real cafe that existed in Minsk in the 1980s at the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Since then the Belarusian capital – both externally and internally – has changed out of all recognition. Belarusian society has also changed. For this reason the novel enchanted readers who were already thunderstruck by all the changes happening around them. To them the book seemed like a time capsule. The book tells three stories of three regulars of the cafe called Moment; they went in thirty years ago and since then have been unable to find their way out. The heroes are a poet,…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Alhierd Bacharevich

Born in 1975 in Minsk. He is a writer and translator, and was frontman of the 1990s rock-band Pravakacyja. He is the author of fifteen books of prose, including novels, short stories and essay collections. His novel The Magpie on the Gallows has also been published in German (Die Elster auf demGalgen, Leipzig, 2010). He is the winner of the Hliniany Viales literary award (2002). His novel Dzieci Alindarki won the Belarusian PEN-centre award Kniha hodu (2014) and was short-listed for the Jerzy Giedroyc literary award in 2015. His books A Concise Medical Encyclopedia and The White Fly, Killer of Men won second prize of the Giedroyc award in 2012 and 2016 respectively. In 2007 he left Minsk for Hamburg, but since 2013 has been living in Belarus.

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Born in 1975 in Minsk. He is a writer and translator, and was frontman of the 1990s rock-band Pravakacyja. He is the author of fifteen books of prose, including novels, short stories and essay collections. His novel The Magpie on the Gallows has also been published in German (Die Elster auf demGalgen, Leipzig, 2010). He is the winner of the Hliniany Viales literary award (2002). His novel Dzieci…

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Lilac and black: Paris seen through the lens of Belarusian literature

novel-essay, guidebook

There are two dimensions to Bacharevich’s latest book. It is a description of the time he spent in Paris on a literary grant, interwoven with an account of the image of Paris and France in 20th- and 21st-century Belarusian literature. The author uses a simple device to bring the two elements – diary and literary essay – together: the book reads like a story he is telling his beloved wife Julia, who shared his travels and at the same time became the book’s main hero. The black-and-white photographs taken by the poet Julija Cimafiejeva are an intrinsic part of the book. They transform it into a guidebook to Paris as a Mecca for writers. The title of the book is a quotation taken from a verse by the Soviet Belarusian poet Pimien Panchanka, who was in Paris at the end of the 1950s during a cruise along the shores of Western Europe.

LILAC AND BLACK. PARIS THROUGH THE LENS OF BELARUSIAN LITERATURE

City folk think in terms of streets.
Not always, of course, but that’s how they tend to think. The very act of thinking means you’re going somewhere. Going up a side street, going through an archway to see what’s there, going down steps, meeting people you know – living and dead, hurrying along, stopping and not believing your eyes. Streets are one long deja vu.
Not so very long ago my close friend Siarhiej Shupa posted a piece on one of those very social kinds of media where Belarus thrives – and to all appearances will continue to do so for ever – about all the streets on which he has chanced to live in his lifetime. The list was really rather beautiful, like a poem in fact. Inevitably all those who read his post immediately felt like compiling one of their own.
It was then the thought occurred to me that if you start recollecting all the streets you’ve ever lived on, you’ll end up with something like a virtual city.
This would in a very real sense be your native city, one in which you could never lose your way. A true model of the world, a city for living in. Why would it be virtual? These streets have always criss-crossed each other; at the corner of a street in one city there’s another waiting for you in a completely different city. Never mind that it is in the nature of streets to come to an end – they have always brought you somewhere and will carry on doing exactly the same thing. We imagine that we choose the streets, whereas it’s the streets that choose us. We own only those streets on which we have lived – streets where we have all the information we need: addresses, passwords, places for secret assignations, that kind of thing. If you live your whole life on just one street, it means that your password is too simple.
City folk think in terms of streets. Not always, of course – sometimes they think in terms of books. Now that would be a good book, wouldn’t it? A book about the streets on which you’ve lived.
If I were to write a book like that, I would have to begin with Tajha Street. It’s in the Drazhnia district of Miensk, as well as in that non-existent city made up solely of my streets.
The building we’re living in houses both an Arts Centre and an architects’ association. It is situated on the corner of the rue du Faubourg-Saint Martin and the rue des Recollets. The canal Saint-Martin is not far away and through the windows we can see the Jardin Villemin. It was at one time a military hospital; when I shut my eyes I can picture it, even hear the hoarse coughing of wounded First World War officers and the soft shuffling of the Sisters of Mercy as they make their rounds. When you fell ill — you had a temperature of 39 and felt like a drowned fish — this huge old building joyfully echoed your dry cough as though recalling the olden days. The whole place began to remind me of a hospital — the windows, the white walls, the corridors, the echo…
This magnificent edifice was built in the 17th century, but since then it has obviously undergone major reconstruction work on several different occasions, each time giving it a new lease of life and altering the layout of staircases and walls. We live here surrounded by high walls which cut us off from the noise and restlessness of the 10th arrondissement — full of immigrants and of the Maghreb, full of the Parisian greasepaint that has rubbed off on streets that are no longer entirely European, streets that resound to the clamour of a different way of life, full of opportunities for your photographs, and noise, noise, noise. Whenever we sit around at home for a long time and then go out, we’re amazed by the fact that everyone around us is speaking French. Did they study it at school, or what? Then, oh yes, right, we’re in Paris, aren’t we?
The rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin. I really don’t know what street it’s going to cut across next. Until now I have always believed in the impossibility of returning.
….
Without you I’m sick.
Without you my back aches, my head aches, I’ve got toothache. Your absence sets all my innermost demons off: my snakes hissing, my mules braying and my wolves all howling. My Paris is also hurting. Three days of sickness and I don’t know how to cope with it. Just stuff myself with kebabs, drink wine and wait for it to pass.
So, yesterday you flew off again to that Sweden of yours. I remember when I was younger reading one of Heinrich B?ll’s stories called “Too many Trips to Heidelberg”. There we have it: you make too many trips to Visby. There’s a story to be made out of that as well. Three days turn into three hundred boring pages that any reader will want to get to the end of as soon as possible. So as finally to be able to breathe again. Visby is closer to Miensk than it is to Paris. It could turn into a story about jealousy, jealousy towards cities. Jealousy towards a woman and cities. Those who have a home of their own will never be able to understand. Neither will those who are taking a break from love. Day after day, city after city, winter after winter, and I still cannot say that you are getting to be a habit with me. I will never tire of you. Because you are my loneliness.
I took you to Orly and then just stood for ages watching you go through all the checks. Suddenly I noticed the black label on your cardigan sticking out at the back; I so much wanted to go and tuck it back in that I could even feel my arms beginning to grow: long, thin hairy arms stretching out through all the barriers and across all the heads to the metal detector where you were standing. I was too late. I stood and watched you take off your shoes and use your English to talk to the people who work there. How businesslike and dignified you looked. You move further and further away from me into a travelogue of your own. As you pass through the metal detector I can see you only in profile: your nose and cheek, your shoulder and hair, the colour of your grey cardigan. Then I lose you from sight entirely. I go downstairs, thinking that I have to be harsh with myself, restrained, old, wise and just a little rude. Such is the law of parting.
OK, she’s gone. So what? She’ll come back, where else would she go? This is Paris talking to me as the city releases you into the sky. As if it had opened the palms of its hands, even though no one had asked it to.
I went back on the bus as far as the Denfert-Rochereau metro station where the Paris catacombs are. Sitting next to me the Paris winter sun was trying to seduce me with all sorts of childish pranks, conjuring with glints and sparkles on the bus windows, then running right across my retina, then hiding playfully at the end of the world. I was in a foul mood when I arrived, flushed with rage. I set off to walk past gilded Paris, along the empty streets by Les Invalides, then took the rue de Grenelle right to Les Halles. From there I walked home along our boulevards. A black melancholy was driving my legs forwards. I sat down and began to write, and black poison dripped from my mouth.

translated by Jim Dingley

 

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There are two dimensions to Bacharevich’s latest book. It is a description of the time he spent in Paris on a literary grant, interwoven with an account of the image of Paris and France in 20th- and 21st-century Belarusian literature. The author uses a simple device to bring the two elements – diary and literary essay – together: the book reads like a story he is telling his beloved wife Julia, who shared his travels and at the same time became the book’s main hero. The black-and-white photographs taken by the poet Julija Cimafiejeva are an intrinsic part of the book. They transform it into…

read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Alena Brava

Born in 1966 in Barysau. She is a writer and journalist. She is the author of several books of fiction. Her first novel Curfew for Swallows won the Hliniany Viales award in 2004.

 

Curfew for Swallows

travelogue, diary

Underlying the story “Curfew for Swallows” is the diary that Aliena Brava kept when she was living in Cuba. She left for there with her Cuban husband and young daughter. She abandoned her husband one year later and returned to Belarus with her daughter. The reasons for this were ideological differences within the family, differing views of the role of women, and the poor living conditions on the “Isle of Freedom”. All this finds a place in a travelogue that is rich in its portrayal of everyday life in Cuba, giving the reader a picture of life there in 1989. The story is told by the author’s alter ego, the Belarusian girl Aliesia. Brava reflects on the freedom of women in a totalitarian society. She also records the life stories of Belarusian women who have married Cuban men. The author compares them with birds for which Fidel Castro’s Cuba has become a cage. In the view of the researcher Tacciana Ficnier Brava’s heroine conducts her struggle in two guises: the first is the woman-as-lover who is helped by another culture to discover her own sexuality, and the other is the woman-as-mother who decisively rejects a socialist future for her daughter.

“CURFEW FOR SWALLOWS"

.....

Today is “Water Day”. Felipa and I are standing in clouds of steam, struggling with the bloated snake of a sheet. We don’t have a bathroom or shower in our house; instead, in the corner of what we have to call our bedroom there’s a sort of niche in the wall right next to the bed which we can’t cover up. Anywhere this is where the water - cold, of course – comes out once every three days when you turn the tap on. This is the famous “Water Day” that the whole of Cuba eagerly awaits. You drop whatever else you’re doing to make a start on the most important thing of all – washing the bedclothes. It’s just that down in the cellar there’s quite a big hole in the floor – no fine wrought-iron drain cover of course – where the dirty water can run away. Felipa has a rusty Soviet “Eureka” washing machine which spits foam and rattles like a tractor. In our house the bedclothes instantly turn black with the smoke and soot, and it takes a lot of effort to get them back to looking respectable again. Yuck! Is this what I went to university for? What am I wasting my life on? Cuban wives are a long way from entertaining such thoughts – as, indeed, are Belarusian wives.
“Felipa. my daughter!”
Margo is banging loudly on the door. Her hair is cut short and, like all Cuban women, she’s tightly packed into a pair of trousers made of some kind of synthetic material. There’s a sports bag labelled Dynamo-Minsk slung over one shoulder. For some reason my cu?ada, my sister-in-law, is very displeased. Incidentally, “my daughter” is simply the local way of addressing any female, no matter how old she is or how closely she’s related to you. This is how the neighbour’s kid talks to me and there’s no point in being upset by it. Just think what would have happened if I had addressed my mother with something like “Halina, my sweet little girl”! No, I can’t even begin to imagine what the reaction would have been. Or take the way the locals address a man they don’t know – ‘oye ’. They say it with the first syllable really drawn out long. When we were still in the USSR Reynaldo at first morphed it into something that sounded something like a provocatively threatening ‘oi, you’. Whenever Belarusian lads heard it they instantly squared up for a fight, and he – the silly sap – just thought they were being super-aggressive. It took me a long time to get him out of the habit.
Ah, so that’s the reason why my husband’s sister is so cross: fish had been on sale in the shop this morning. Felipa was so busy with the washing that she had missed this truly unique opportunity. Margo works and has to keep her ration cards at her mother’s. Not every woman can afford the luxury of standing in queues every day for four to five hours. I feel sorry for my sister-in-law, so I ask in a sympathetic voice:
“Why doesn’t Margo do her shopping in the free-trade shops?”
“Only the bourgeoisie goes shopping there. They’re the only ones who can afford the prices,” Felipa snaps back in reply. “Is there really a bourgeoisie in Cuba?”
“There is. They’re the ones who aren’t satisfied with the state-fixed levels of food consumption.”
My poor brain was utterly exhausted by the stifling heat, the stench given off by the paraffin stove and by the feeling of never having enough to eat – whenever I bend over I can see sparks flashing in the darkness before my eyes – but even so, I was sufficiently aware to grasp the unambiguous meaning of what she was hinting at.
“This is a difficult time for the Revolution,” Felipa went on, and there was a distinctively didactic tone to her voice, “and we have to be satisfied with very little. It’s good if you have a bowl of rice today, but it’s also good if you don’t. Everything else – meat, eggs, butter – is just bourgeois luxury. The Comandante calls upon us to tighten our belts to the last hole, and that’s exactly what every Cuban is obliged to do!”
“And what if the Comandante demands that you shouldn’t eat anything at all?”
Felipa throws her head up in anger. (Her head is covered with paper curlers, so why on earth did I bring her the best curlers from the USSR as a present?). “The Comandante only has to give the order! The only thing I want for myself is to die before the Comandante! What amazed me most was the striking contrast between the Cubans’ obvious love of life on the one hand and their willingness to die for a dead scheme of things on the other. Death is mentioned all the time here, and always in a political context. The great slogan “SOCIALISMO O MUERTO” hangs on the front of the school opposite our house. I see it when I’m walking to Carina’s at six in the morning to fetch milk; it makes me shiver inside and walk faster. This is the most popular slogan in Cuba, a country which has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. You can see it everywhere: on the first pages of the newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde, even above the entrance to the “Los Angeles” maternity hospital (by the way, the name of the establishment means “Angels”). It’s the slogan on the banner schoolchildren carry on demonstrations, together with its twin brother “MARXISMO-LENINISMO o MUERTE”. They’re hardly likely to grasp the bloodthirsty nature of the alternative they propose. I want to scream out loud whenever I look at the children’s little hands raising the crudely made banner aloft with pride towards the orgiastic sun. Don’t they really understand – no, not the children, but the adults who teach them to chant in unison “Nu-es-tro de-ci-si?n – so-ci-alis-mo o muer-te!” – that we’ve already been through all this? The flames of two words burning side-by-side, the regular thump-thump-thump of marches, flags the colour of blood waving above the crowds, and the sea of blood that has soaked the earth in honour of these flags! If trees could drink blood, just think of the monstrous greenery that might spring from the black soil and the clay, from the snow and the permafrost of what once was the Soviet Empire – and it would be capable of smothering the lush tropical vegetation of Cuba as well. Rey dismissed my concerns out of hand: “Nothing like that could ever happen here,” but, as if reading from a Martyrology, all I could do was to repeat phrases that filled any textbook of Belarusian history: people stabbed to death with bayonets, people beaten to death with rifle butts, people cut to pieces with swords, people hanged, and then the endless shootings. The slogan itself smelled of blood, just like that copy of the 1938 edition of the Concise History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) ¬– a well-worn volume in an appropriately crimson binding I had somehow fished out from the bottom of the bookcase where my mother kept the old papers that held such fascination for me. Yes, there is probably such a thing as blood memory. It was in the bones of the baby girl who had her cradle in a little room in a house in a quiet street of a small provincial town, it flowed through her veins. It was in this same room that the baby’s great-grandfather, ten years before her birth, had lain dying, coughing blood, after serving time in a Siberian labour camp. I used to ask granny over and over again to tell me the story of what had happened to her father, and she did so, although she clearly did not want to. He was, by the way, an exemplary collective farm worker, but had on one occasion been late for a Party meeting – there was something urgent he had to do around the farm. It was thirty five degrees below. He entered the room where all the farm workers were gathered beneath a portrait of the “Leader of the Peoples”, listening in deathly silence to a report from the latest Party Congress. He blew on his frozen hands, surprised at how cold it was in the room and muttered “Some right nasty weather we’ve been having the last few days”. They came for him that night. Each time this tale reduced me to tears of anguished protest. “How is it you don’t understand,” I used to shout at the adults, “ this is a human life we’re talking about, not just any old thing, a life pointlessly trampled as if it were no more than a weed growing in the kitchen garden.” I would shake granny by the shoulders and try to get her to confirm that such a thing simply could not happen in the country where I had been born to be joyful and happy, and where – as I learnt from my literature classes – every human being is born to be happy. Could they just destroy someone, for nothing?! But granny kept a sorrowful silence, and I had to reconcile myself to the fact that this really did happen, and the rivers didn’t dry up, the forests didn’t moulder away, and the heavens didn’t fall on the earth. In my model of the world a huge crack opened up beneath my feet; I could feel the chill of non-existence seeping through it like a draught. Somehow I had to patch the crack at once, otherwise I could not go on living. But what with? What would be the most suitable building material? The marching cadences of the Young Pioneers, the flags, the thoughtless phrases uttered by the girls I went to school with about how prepared they were “to give their lives for the Party”? But there I was – incapable of feeling such preparedness within myself. This is exactly what I said at the time to my class tutor after a girl from Class G had shopped me. On one occasion during my lonely walks around the town I found myself quite by chance in a wondrous place – the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lord. I stepped through the wrought iron gates and a feeling that I had never known before enveloped me – a feeling of something genuinely real. It came from the waxen faces of the Great Martyrs on the icons. Nothing dull was being drilled into me here like in school; there were no boring domestic arguments, none of the everlasting insincerity of adults. I became very fond of going there. I don’t know whether I felt some degree of sympathy for her or not, but I once took a girl from the parallel class with me; I wanted to share with someone the sheer joy that I had found. This was the girl who told the class tutor on me. Later on I was standing on the bridge between the old and the new town. You could see the cupolas of the cathedral shining in the old town and my school nestling in the new town. I stared down at the river Bierazina, all black and as if baring its teeth now that it had freed itself of ice. The slogan “Socialism or death” seemed to offer me no kind of free choice; it was no more than a harsh, set formula – either you are with us, or you DO NOT EXIST. Of course you do exist somewhere, with a pick-axe or a broom – as the class tutor explained to me – but you may as well forget about actually fulfilling your potential. So it was that on that bridge I weighed up each element of the alternative the slogan presented to me, and rejected both. I chose a third component that was totally absent from the formula: LIFE.

Translated by Jim Dingley

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Underlying the story “Curfew for Swallows” is the diary that Aliena Brava kept when she was living in Cuba. She left for there with her Cuban husband and young daughter. She abandoned her husband one year later and returned to Belarus with her daughter. The reasons for this were ideological differences within the family, differing views of the role of women, and the poor living conditions on the “Isle of Freedom”. All this finds a place in a travelogue that is rich in its portrayal of everyday life in Cuba, giving the reader a picture of life there in 1989. The story is told by the author’s…

read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Julia Cimafiejeva

Born in 1982 near Brahin. She is a poet and translator. She has published two poetry collections. She translates prose and poetry from English, Spanish and Portuguese. She is one of the founders and editors of the internet magazine of translated literature “PrajdziSvet”.

Circus

poetry collection

Julia Cimafiejeva's second book is thoroughly imbued with her involvement in gender issues. The author speaks in metaphors of corporality and employs symbols and terms that she takes bodily from feminist criticism and bends them to the purposes of her poetry. Cimafiejeva displays her true poetic talent in the way she handles metaphor; her poems possess massive energy. The central nerve of this collection is the poet’s recognition of herself as poet, and awareness of herself within the poetry and of the poetry within herself. 

The Circus
I was born with a traveling circus
inside me.
Just imagine, a circus
in a marshland village:
jugglers, acrobats,
a bearded lady.
How embarrassing!

The traveling circus
grew with me,
demanded meat and fireworks,
demanded better roads.
But here -
fields of beets,
potato beetle,
indigenous knowledge.

I flattened my circus,
like a herbarium,
between book pages,
jugglers, acrobats,
bearded ladies,
yet they grew fat
under the blankets of pages,
yet they grew mighty
on high-calorie letters.

They learned
circus tricks
from piglets and chickens.

When they were ready,
they got a wagon,
they scribbled a map,
they did what they had to do.

They kidnapped me.
They ate me.

Then they set up
inside me
their traveling circus.

Translated by Valzhyna Mort


You enter the room
It looks empty
Table, bookcase
Bed made up.
Some withered flowers
Have faded in water
The one last fly
Is expiring
On the windowsill

You stand in the room
It looks empty
The hands of the clock
Sound like a pulse
In the temples.
Welcoming blankets.
A pure white pillowcase
With blue embroidery on it
Smells of sweet jasmine.

You lie in the room,
It looks empty.
You lie in the room,
It looks empty.
Someone’s hand beneath the blanket
Comes to lie on your belly.

….
I think about my last days

If I live to be old and I’m still me
What will be left for me to do?
To sit
On the red park bench
Under the willows
And there feed
A lonely bird
With last
Crumbs of words
Shaking them
From the hem of memory

But even the birds
Will not want to eat them

Translated by Hillary Sheers

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Julia Cimafiejeva's second book is thoroughly imbued with her involvement in gender issues. The author speaks in metaphors of corporality and employs symbols and terms that she takes bodily from feminist criticism and bends them to the purposes of her poetry. Cimafiejeva displays her true poetic talent in the way she handles metaphor; her poems possess massive energy. The central nerve of this collection is the poet’s recognition of herself as poet, and awareness of herself within the poetry and of the poetry within herself. 

The Circus
I was born with a traveling…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Andrej Fiedarenka

Born in 1964 near Mazyr. He is a writer and editor. He is the author of about ten books of prose. In 1995 he won the Ivan Mieliezh Literary Prize for his novel Smuta (Discord). He was awarded the “Zalataja Litara” (Golden Letter) prize in 2009 for Nichyje (No one claims them), and the “Hliniany Vialies” prize in 2014 for Cisha (Quiet).

The village

short story collection

Andrej Fiedarenka is regarded as one of the youngest “old school” prose writers, an author who consistently adheres to realism, the dominant trend in Belarusian literature in the 20th century. He is an outstanding literary stylist, and his prose is considered exemplary in its use of the Belarusian literary language. After the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 the area around the town of Mazyr – where Fiedarenka comes from – found itself in the zone affected by radioactive contamination. It is not by chance that the Chernobyl disaster is central to the author’s work; it is something that he took very much to heart. The story Bliacha [literally ‘tin-plate’] concerns the lives of those who decided to remain in the “zone”, from which most of the people had been resettled. It focusses in particular on the life and death of a man living on the margins of society, nicknamed “Bliacha”. He is a “little man”, so typical of Soviet literature. Fiedarenka’s treatment of his life raises it to the proportions of Greek tragedy. Bliacha has been translated into several foreign languages. There was a curious incident in 2010: a translation of the story into Japanese was published in a collection of “fantasy fiction” short stories; murky events that could indeed have occurred in the Chernobyl zone at the end of the 1980s were presented to readers at the other end of the world in a completely unrealistic manner. 

BLIAKHA

Мisfortune makes everyone equal.
It was only after Chernobyl that Bliakha recognized that he too was a human being. Who would ever have imagined that the old man himself, at one time the best farmer in the village, would limp over to ask Bliakha to help him slaughter a pig tomorrow? And the way he put it: "Vic, I'm already done for, you see it yourself... I've had my day..." He even remembered my real name, Bliakha thought.
The farmer had brought a bottle of wine with him. Of course, Bliakha might have reminded him of something, reminded him that when he was a little boy the old man would not allow him to sing Christmas carols in his house, while letting others perform and paying them more than anybody else did — a ruble to each of them. To him, the old man had said, "What, you're still crawling around under foot?" Bliakha might also have reminded him how his wife had fabricated stories that he had stolen some buckets or something from her, when he had not even been at home at the time but at the dentist's in Naroulia. Yes, he might have reminded him, but, well, he didn't. He only patted the old man on the shoulder and said, "Oh bliakha, I'll come, what else is there to do..."
Bliakha was a gentle, harmless man who, before Chernobyl, when the village was still alive, would do any kind of work for anyone in exchange for a drink. In the village, however, people avoided him and disliked him, as they generally dislike failures in Belarusan villages. How could you get along with someone like that: a puny, drunken convict? He had grown up without a father, never listened to his mother, had done poorly in school, and in the eighath grade had stolen a moped and been put behind bars for a year and a half. While he was in prison, his mother had died. It seems he had had some problems in jail; he may have been beaten, because he was declared disabled upon his release. Bliakha got along somehow on his meager monthly pension of sixteen rubles. He lived by himself — no girl would marry him, and he was afraid to get too close himself.
Bliakha came back to life when, after Chernobyl, the military came to his village and started dousing houses with water from fire engines and sinking concrete posts into the ground on the outskirts of the village to stretch barbed wire between them. Bliakha came back to life when buses began rolling from behind the wire from neighboring villages as if fleeing a war; when trucks, loaded with people and livestock, started moving; when villagers, however slowly, began leaving voluntarily. He helped people load the trucks, saw them off, visited the cemetery with them to say goodbye to the deceased, and listened to their crying, wailing, and cursing. He even put in an accusing word of his own: "There, they did it..." The people readily offered him drinks. They looked at him and talked to him as if he, a stranger, were their closest relative. For the first time he read in their eyes not disdain, but something more like guilt, and the very love that he had missed so much in his life.
By winter, only an old man with his wife and a single old woman, a paramedic whom Bliakha helped eagerly because she offered him pure alcohol to drink, remained in their village, which had been small to begin with. Bliakha's neighbor was the last to leave. After seeing him off that day, Bliakha climbed over the fence in the evening, pulled the boards from a window, removed a window pane and entered the neighbor's house, without even realizing why he was doing it. First, he sat at a table, the same table at which the landlady had cried recently while he shared a drink with the man of the house. There was a wardrobe with both doors open, two empty beds with patched mattresses, and two armchairs turned over along the wall — a sign for a good and speedy return. Bliakha did not look for anything, nor did he want to steal anything. It was simply interesting: There had been people living here, and, suddenly, the place was empty. Later he would break into other people's houses, but he never took anything.
In the evenings he occasionally ventured into the "zone", the neighboring abandoned villages. It was even more interesting there. There were houses with decorative rugs on the walls, with television sets, refrigerators, and wardrobes full of clothes... If not for a strong odor inside, one would think that people were still living here, that they had just stepped out to the garden.
From these visits Bliakha brought back a radio set (even though he had a similar set of his own), a bottle of vegetable oil, and a nylon jacket with snap fasteners. Later he stopped his visits; they were no longer interesting, they had become frightening. Once he barely saved himself from packs of dogs, which of late had begun roaming wild through the villages, tearing up everything in sight. Recently they tore the farmer's dog Tuz to pieces, right under the old man's window. Another time, soldiers caught Bliakha near the barbed wire fence and punched him. And still another time, while returning from the "zone" at dusk, he saw two cars with their lights out near a house, and heard some muffled voices. Bliakha sat in the bushes, afraid to make a sound. He saw men carrying items from the house and loading them into their cars. After that he lost the desire to visit the "zone."
So it was that, after Chernobyl, a drunk nicknamed Bliakha became a man. And now, as if he were a real solid, practical family man, he was asked to help slaughter a pig.
He woke up late, looked out the window, and only then realized why he had slept so well: It was snowing. Bliakha dressed, put on his coat, pulled down his winter cap, finished on an empty stomach the rest of the wine the old man brought for him yesterday, and shuffled outside. There was so much snow that he could barely open the door. It was still falling, with a pleasant smell, white, thick, and fluffy. The street, as lifeless as it was, with no tracks upon the roadway and no smoke above the white roofs, was winterly festive, with white trees along the fences and wires on poles sagging from the weight of the snow.
At the intersection of the street and the Naroulia highway, Bliakha saw a car with both front doors open. A young man wearing a brown leather jacket and athletic pants was standing at the car, shamelessly watering the snow. Military automobiles, police cars, and several other types of vehicles were running along the highway every day now, so this was nothing new for Bliakha. Looking down at his feet and feigning disinterest in everything around him, he let the car slip away from his sight.
"Hey, man, just a minute," he heard, in Russian, from behind him. He turned and saw the young Russian buttoning his jacket and coming toward him. The man had a buzz cut that he probably got before he joined the military. He came closer, staring with round blank eyes, so that Bliakha shrank in fear from his gaze. He had seen a lot of people in his life with such eyes. These people always needed some warming up. They always wanted to hit somebody for no reason at all, beat up somebody and watch what happened. Bliakha remembered similar eyes from his interrogations, from the jail, railway stations, and from the Naroulia joint.
Without a word, the young man kicked Bliakha in the chest. Bliakha was spun around and flung headlong into the snow toward the fence. Despite the blow, he managed to jump quickly to his feet and run to the nearest house. Luckily, the gate was unlocked. He went in and, gasping for air, hid behind a gate post. Then he heard the engine of the automobile.
Bliakha sat down right on the snow with his knees trembling. It was lucky for him that the man did not follow him. He could have been killed here, and nobody would even have looked for him. Still, it turned out well — only his chest was hurting and his neck was hard to turn. Bliakha did not harbor much of a grudge against the man. He was a little hurt because it all happened at home, in his own village, on his own street.
A hungry young hog was knocking against its feeding trough. The heavy snow was coming down and Bliakha had not yet arrived. The old man's wife had jumped out of bed early, at about five o'clock in the morning, fired up the stove, washed her cast-iron kettles, steamed the pork tub, rinsed the trough for the intestines, gone up to the loft and thrown down a bundle of straw. And now while shoveling the snow around the pigsty, she kept running to the street after each shovelful, cursing not only slaughterers like Bliakha but also snow that falls when nobody needs it. The old man, feeling a little better today, was also hobbling around. He crushed some salt in the box with his hammer, put in the shed sharpened knives, a rope, and a bucket with a cup to collect blood, and filled the blowtorch with gasoline. He saw that the old lady was nervous. She didn't even want to talk, so he too was guiltily silent.
But, come to think of it, why was he guilty? Was it because he had become ill, or that the snow was falling and they would have to come up with a way to burn off the pig's bristles — that is, if somebody would still slaughter it today? Had the old man always been like this? No, during his life he had kept his distance, wouldn't come within a mile of people like Bliakha or any other kind of "helpers." Would he ever have slaughtered his pig on a snowy day like today? No, he always selected a quiet frosty day with a little snow on the ground. He would talk to his pig, scratch its belly and behind its ears, loop a cord over the pig's hind leg, tie the cord carefully to the gate post and then push the pig down. He always aimed at the "apple," the center of the throat. His pig would never squeal like other people's would; it would only wheeze and choke, each time producing more blood. He burned off the pig's bristles by himself. First he burned some straw to impart a pleasant aroma to the skin, and then used a gasoline blowtorch or a gas burner, making the pigskin nice and yellow. It did not matter that he did it all by himself.
By this time of the day the pig would have been cleaned of bristles, thoroughly scraped, washed, and ready for butchering. But then again, properly speaking, who would ever slaughter such a small summer hog if it weren't for Chernobyl, which before the disaster was a place no one had even heard of. It was good that we were smart enough not to move anywhere, the old man thought. They used to come and ask him and his wife to move to their son's town, promising to register them to obtain any size dwelling, and then threatening to move them by force sooner or later. It is a good thing that we didn't listen, the old man thought, because they have stopped coming now — nobody needs anybody any longer.
Naturally, the old man and his wife never believed in any Chernobyl disaster or radiation; 90 percent of the people who were moved or left on their own didn't. One couldn't believe in such nonsense.
Radiation, which had been neither heard nor seen before by anyone, did not come by itself; it was something produced by people, directly related to them. It wasn't radiation that drove people from their homes, invented the "zone" and put a fence around it; it wasn't radiation that kept farmers from making hay and rejected their milk, cows, and pigs. All this was done by people, people like the old man and his wife.
They had gotten used to defending themselves from others — before, during, and after the war. They had to live quietly, not bother anybody, and endure everything silently. Then nobody and nothing would bother them, neither people nor radiation.
There was one bad thing: Their son and their granddaughter stopped coming from the town to visit them. Their son never invited them to see him as he did before. It wasn't that he thought radiation might harm the granddaughter, but because everybody acted that way; nobody ever came to see them. The old man and his wife pointed out that even the paramedic's niece came with a little girl to visit her on October holidays.
How could they not see their granddaughter, now that the old man had physically gone to pieces? Now he says openly that this is his last year and the old lady will not live forever, either.
So they seized upon a reason to visit their son and granddaughter; not empty-handed, but with fresh pork. "Besides, what the devil do we need the pig for? First we have to feed it, and then we don't even know what to do with it. Life has passed us by, we don't need our little farm. It's enough to keep the three chickens we still have, and who knows if they'll pull through. Look at our Tuz, killed by wild dogs... the only thing left was the doghouse and a rusted chain attached to a post...

 

Translated by Russell and Alex Zavistovich

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Andrej Fiedarenka is regarded as one of the youngest “old school” prose writers, an author who consistently adheres to realism, the dominant trend in Belarusian literature in the 20th century. He is an outstanding literary stylist, and his prose is considered exemplary in its use of the Belarusian literary language. After the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 the area around the town of Mazyr – where Fiedarenka comes from – found itself in the zone affected by radioactive contamination. It is not by chance that the Chernobyl disaster is central to the author’s work; it is…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Adam Hlobus

Born in 1958 in the town of Kojdanava. He is the author of about twenty books of fiction and poetry. In his books he develops different genres of short story and works with contemporary folklore.

Just Don’t Tell My Mum

short story collection

In Just Don't Tell My Mum the author as protagonist raises topics of which his mother would certainly disapprove. Hlobus takes the reader through his first kiss at school, an attempt to kill a cat and his first visit to a prostitute. He talks to the reader like a friend about all the forbidden joys of his Soviet childhood and post-Soviet manhood, revealing subconscious fears and phobias in a soothing voice. The readers wind their way through Belarus' newly gained independence in the 1990s in a book that is generously flavoured with humour and irony. The book first appeared in 1995 and became an instant sensation. It had previously not been possible to talk about sex in Belarusian literature because of the Soviet ideological principles that had been foisted upon it. Hlobus was one of the first to break the taboo.

JUST DON'T TELL MY MUM

Triangle – a tale of first love

I’m telling you, there was nothing special about it, no one shot themselves. Other people have something terrible happen to them, and they end up in hospital, or they take poison, or they hang themselves, but in my case… Well OK, if you insist, I will tell you: I was seventeen at the time.
An indolent age, especially in springtime, it’s May, you’re seventeen and every girl is pretty. And the girl that’s closer to you than all the others is the prettiest. The one closest of all to me was VolhaPakrouskaia. We sat at the same desk in lessons. She was in the sculpture department and I was in painting, but we were together for chemistry, physics and stuff like that, except I sat alone in English lessons because she was studying French. And she didn’t come to Belarusian literature classes either; kids from army families didn’t have to study Belarusian literature or language. So she didn’t. But for everything else – like civics, mathematics and technical drawing – we sat side by side.
This was the second year of our sitting together, and I was finding it surprisingly easy to chase away the various thoughts that came into my head. There’s no end to the things you feel you want to do or simply dream about in the compulsory military training classes, watching Major Mukhin dismantle and reassemble a Kalashnikov for the umpteenth time, who then makes each one of us do the same thing in turn. And there’s only one Kalashnikov. And when your turn comes you catch the stink of booze on Mukhin’s breath. I usually did some reading in these training classes. Mukhin didn’t like people who read. He didn’t like girls either, or anyone with a beard. Anyone with long hair he positively hated. He – Major Mukhin, an infantryman – liked vodka and his AK-47. I on the other hand liked reading about artists like Rodin and C?zanne. And when I read about how Auguste Rodin used to make his models walk around his studio completely naked… He, Auguste, was unable to paint his models sitting or lying down. Man is a cathedral in motion, that’s what he used to say. And I could just picture these models in my mind, wandering around his studio surrounded by carving stands and unfinished pieces of sculpture.
When you’re seventeen you can picture a whole load of other things as well. Like in the flat in the next block right opposite ours where there was a guy who made his wife clean the floor – not just like everyone cleans their floors, but he got her to strip naked and then do it. He would sit on the sofa and watch her bent double scrubbing the floorboards. I had a pair of binoculars trained on them from behind the curtains. Later – before she had even finished cleaning the floor – he would do all sorts of things with her. Bloody exhibitionists. I was afraid of meeting the pair of them on the street. There’s this decent-looking couple walking along, they pop into the baker’s and buy some black bread and a white loaf. It’s all done politely, smiles all round, and nobody can see anything wrong, and I’ve gone red as a beetroot. Naturally – that’s how it seems to me – everyone is now looking at me as if they know I spy on people through my binoculars from behind the kitchen curtains. And I have to run out of the shop without buying anything, blood pulsing in my cheeks. And those nudists from the flat opposite couldn’t give a damn. It’s just as well that I was only blushing; just think what would happen if there were people who could read your mind or see your dreams.
Take that bloke in charge of the military training classes, Mukhin; can you imagine it? He simply looks at me and sees Rodin’s studio full of naked women wandering among a collection of bronze thinkers or citizens of Calais. And instead of Rodin there I am, sitting on a chair producing honey watercolour sketches. Mukhin would have gone crazy with rage. If I had been reading a book about war, even a historical one – perhaps one about the 17th-century Belarusian-Russian war – he wouldn’t have got so worked up, but as it is, women with no clothes…!? After all there’s no way he could have known that the woman who sculpted the thirty-metres high statue of the Soviet working man with colossal hammer and peasant girl holding an equally massive sickle, shared the same surname – Mukhina. What sickle? What hammer? A Kalashnikov now – that’s the real McCoy! I loathed Kalashnikovs. Anyway, sod the things. They’re not what I want to talk about. I’m talking about my first love for VolhaPakrouskaia, who I sat next to in military training classes at the same desk with all those rude remarks gouged into the surface.
“Mukhin’s thick!”, “The military are cannibals!”, “I hate war. Love is our banner!” - and all that sort of pacifist stuff. Our whole college consisted of long-haired pacifists. At that time my hair was long too; it was curly and sticking out in all directions. A terrible sight, and uncomfortable as well. But then how could I do without long hair? Long hair is also a pacifist banner. The student with the longest hair in the college was SiarzhukShavets. Like Volha, sculpture was his main subject. He came from Homiel and told everyone that his town had the prettiest girls. He was making it up. At seventeen all girls are pretty. Siarzhuk had no idea about girls. He would meet one, bring her to the studio, sit her down and call me over to ask if she was pretty or not. There were times when he would bring one in and you had to ask yourself what kind of stone they had crawled out from under. But I never said that his birds were all butt ugly. Only once, when we had picked up four young ladies of easy virtue on the railway station at eleven o’clock at night, was I unable to stand it any longer and said: OK, when it comes to drinking I don’t mind if I do, but anything else I’m happy to leave to those really in need. Siarzhuk stayed behind and caught a dose of the clap, aka Cupid’s itch. You should have seen the size of the tart he caught it from! She had knees like – well, a truly horrific sight! They were the kind of knees that, if they made contact with your backside, would send you flying for about seven hundred metres. Honestly, they weren’t knees at all, more like the clean-shaven napes of soldiers’ necks. And it was between these knees that Siarzhuk had got his jollies. So he comes to me and asks if I can pop down to the chemist’s to get some bicillin because they wouldn’t give it to him. In the chemist’s I burbled a lot about a sick aunt of mine and a creased doctor’s prescription because auntie’s hands shake, and how she couldn’t come to collect the medicine herself, she would simply mash it all up, she can’t read at all, her head trembles too much, and that’s why auntie does nothing but listen to the radio. That’s all true, except it’s not my aunt I’m talking about, but the mother of Sveta Sukhodolskaia, a girl in the same class as me. Sveta’s mother had Parkinson’s. She lived less than a year after this awful disease was diagnosed. The whole class went to her funeral…
But what does Parkinson’s disease have to do with bicillin? I’ve no idea, but even so they gave me a pack of ampoules of the stuff and told me not to come back, ever. Siarzhuk cheered up no end and set about giving himself a jab right there in the sculpture studio. Once he had finished with the syringe he said he had a bottle of wine that he could let me have because he mustn’t drink for a whole week. I told him I wouldn’t drink it all on my own – three quarters of a litre of plonk was too much for me. He suggested going halves with VolhaPakrouskaia. I’ve already told you that they’re both studying sculpture, so they work together in the same studio. So there the three of us were, surrounded by clay Venuses wrapped in cellophane and strips of cloth. The wine had a strange effect on me: I suddenly noticed how beautiful Volha was. I had not really seen her eyes before, or her shapely feminine figure. It had always been just a matter of me thinking “there’s a pretty girl sitting next to me”, nothing more than that. Now sitting in the studio with a bottle of wine, I realised that Volha looked very much like the Venus de Milo. And that’s how VolhaPakrouskaia became my very own Venus.
Maybe it was the effect of the bicillin, but sitting with us was making Siarzhuk feel sorry for himself. He left. We finished off the wine and I asked Volha if I could see her home. This was the first time I had ever asked the girl. I don’t want you to think that I’m some kind of retard when it comes to seeing girls home. I’ve done it hundreds of times, and I’ve even kissed them – and I knew how to unfasten a bra. It’s just that it now seemed I had been doing it for some other reason, to overcome adolescent complexes or as a means of self-assertion. On this occasion I got the feeling that I was not the only one who would find it pleasant.
We strolled through the city at night, just talking about nothing in particular. We stood by the entrance to the block where her flat was. A daft, even slightly mad situation, like something out of a TV soap opera. I looked up at the windows. Volha’s were on the fourth floor. Next morning I returned to the same spot, but now I was sober and in a bad mood. And I promised myself not to go out with Volha ever again. It was all rather weird: to sit next to Volha at the same desk and not meet her outside college, but that’s what happened. In the evenings I would go and look up at her windows, and during the day we sat together and I would pretend that nothing was going on. Volha was also pretending – she told me so later on. We sat at the same desk and pretended. Idiots. We suffered. I’m not lying. It was May outside, both of us were seventeen. And there we were, feigning indifference. For the whole month of May we hardly said a word to each other. We maintained our silence right through to the summer. After the exams we went our totally separate ways.
That summer a lot of nasty things happened to me, especially in my dreams. I dreamt of bodies joining, all that kind of biological, animal-like stuff connected with the human anatomy. Summer, however, is capable of curing anything you want, so by the time autumn came I was not upset when I learnt that Volha and I would be going to different villages on compulsory potato harvesting duty. There were some pretty girls in the painting department too. Out in the countryside everything was so much simpler than it was in the city. Hay, straw, horses, camp fires, booze… They were things I could understand, things I could touch. Unlike the windows on the fourth floor. I didn’t have to make any demands on other people, or on myself. Word of honour, I would never have gone to Vuhli, the village where Volha was working in the kitchen, if HeliaAstravets hadn’t injured her tailbone. We were all sliding on our backsides down a straw stack, but her luck was out. Her tailbone struck a stone. How come there was a stone in the straw? And she lands right on it with her tailbone. Everyone bursts out laughing. One of the lads – I think it was HenadzChekh, he’s a great joker – says “Astravets, your tail’s snapped off, you’ve become human. Be happy!” And Helia herself starts laughing, shamelessly displaying her slightly rotten front teeth for all to see. She always tried to hide them behind her lips whenever she said “oh”. She had this habit of saying “oh”. So she said “oh” when her tailbone struck the stone. And everyone’s laughing, and she’s lying on the straw laughing along with them, her predatory brick-coloured teeth are on show, and her eyes are shedding crocodile tears.

translated by Jim Dingley

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In Just Don't Tell My Mum the author as protagonist raises topics of which his mother would certainly disapprove. Hlobus takes the reader through his first kiss at school, an attempt to kill a cat and his first visit to a prostitute. He talks to the reader like a friend about all the forbidden joys of his Soviet childhood and post-Soviet manhood, revealing subconscious fears and phobias in a soothing voice. The readers wind their way through Belarus' newly gained independence in the 1990s in a book that is generously flavoured with humour and irony. The book first appeared in 1995 and became…

read more
© photo by Ivan Besser

Paval Kasciukievich

Born in 1979 in Minsk. He is a writer and translator. He studied psychology in Tel Aviv and spent more than 10 years in Israel. He has been living in Minsk since 2008. He translates prose from Hebrew and English. He has published two short stories collections and a novel. His first book Зборная Беларусі па негалоўных відах спорту [The National Team of Belarus for the lesser types of sport] (2011) won the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award in 2012.

 

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Born in 1979 in Minsk. He is a writer and translator. He studied psychology in Tel Aviv and spent more than 10 years in Israel. He has been living in Minsk since 2008. He translates prose from Hebrew and English. He has published two short stories collections and a novel. His first book Зборная Беларусі па негалоўных відах спорту [The National Team of Belarus for the lesser types of sport] (2011)…

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The Perseus Syndrome

novel, family saga

The main hero of the family saga The Perseus Syndrome is the young psychotherapist Iharok, who has no choice but to live in a dormitory district of Minsk in a flat with three generations of women – his great-grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. In order to create an opportunity to head westwards away from his joyless, post-soviet, humdrum life, he and his German girlfriend Roni devise a means of “selling Belarus” at European cultural fairs by creating a distinctive brand out of the medical condition known as “Polish plait”. In the nineteenth century “Polish plait” (Plica polonica) symbolized just how backward and downtrodden Belarusian peasants were, because they believed that matted hair held magic properties and refused to allow themselves to be cured of it. Anyway this topic is no more than a trap for the reader who is destined to have to follow a whole course of grandchild therapy, Iharok’s own method of psychoanalysis which consists of clarifying the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.

THE PERSEUS SYNDROME

One
This is her
So, here she is then. This is her, glaring out at God’s world from the oval yellowish-grey photo plaque on her headstone. There’s the Cupid’s bow of her lips, and there are her eyes – a veritable firework display still spewing out sparks of righteous rage. The photographer, the enameller or whoever has got the proportions a bit wrong. Her eyes have come out too big, like they’re bulging, while the rest of her face is all shrivelled. All the same this makes her look like Her Downstairs – the neighbour from the flat below, the one who stands on your landing trying to peer suspiciously through the peephole in your front door (you, of course, can see her from inside your flat). The door bell is incandescent with her constant ringing; on the other side of your door you can hear her moaning about how you’ve flooded her kitchen, or her complaints about the noise of the party you’ve got going on, or else she’s announcing to the world how she’s “going to do ‘em over good and proper for all the grief they give me, those slobs who live over me”. All just like Baba Rosa, on guard and staring fixedly from her photo plaque. And it really does seem as though I am at any moment going to be at the receiving end of one of her tirades: “What do you think you’re doing, eh? What are you up to now? I’m going to come crawling out from under the ground and get you, just you wait, you idle good-for-nothings. Heathens, goys, the whole lot of you. I’ll make it so hot for you that you’ll think you’re in a Turkish bath.”
Now, on Forefathers’ Eve, standing in the Jewish section of the Eastern Cemetery, I recall my previous visits to this place. In those days Granddad would always bring an old towel or piece of cloth with him and instantly throw it over the photo plaque. Even after the death of his mother-in-law Granddad was unable to work up the strength to face her staring eyes. Baba Rosa’s hand weighed too heavily on him. And on me? No doubt about it, on me as well...
My very first memory. I am sitting in my pushchair. At some point I crapped myself, but I don’t let on. Most probably I’m thinking that ­– in all the bustle of the street and the masses of different smells around – no one will notice the sin I have just committed. I feel fine, quite contented. And then Baba Rosa is bearing down on me like a gigantic storm cloud. Wearing some kind of loose-fitting shapeless garment, the type she was very fond of. I now know that this was very much in the “puttin’ on the Ritz” style of the 1977-78 season, a raincoat of artificial fibre made in Finland. Baba Rosa called it her “mac”.
Cupid’s bow is gleaming with a virulent ripe redness. Baba Rosa looks at me. I smile at her and she smiles back. All of a sudden the smile fades. Cupid’s perfectly ripe bow goes sour as the lips pucker up into a faultless tube. Baba Rosa’s face is almost touching mine, her eyebrows raised high. I am too small to understand the words she is uttering, but this living, breathing face right in front of me is saying something along the lines of “What are you grinning at like a cat that’s got the cream, eh, Ihar, sweetheart? You’re no more than knee-high to a grasshopper, so what have you got to be so pleased about? What is there that’s so funny in your pathetic little existence, eh? I can just feel it now – it’s all going to end in tears for you!”
Meanwhile I continue to beam at her like an idiot, as if nothing is wrong.
At that moment, now that she’s right up close to me, Baba Rosa gets a whiff of something that’s not right. Her enormous nostrils begin to twitch like the gills of a mirror carp. Her pupils dilate and form a complete ellipse. And finally I hear her falsetto scream, a sound that cuts right through me. The scream surrounds me on all four sides, reaching as far as the horizon. The area covered is at least the ZialionyLuh district; it’s quite likely that the whole of the city of Miensk can hear it.
Living with that scream is quite impossible. Baba Rosa has a polyphonic way of wailing, in the full and certain knowledge that her prophetic predictions have so quickly come to pass. In response I burst into uncontrollable sobs. I feel awful, terrified and utterly alone. And down below I’m all wet and smelly. Curtain.
... I am eight years of age. I’m not in school today because I have – for the umpteenth time – picked up a bug in the “dubious back alleys” that has given me a sore throat. Baba Rosa is looking after me. Last night my temperature went right off the scale; she undressed me completely and rubbed me all over with oil. My mum protested at this, saying that vinegar was the best thing to bring down a fever. This upset Baba Rosa, who retorted that the only people who behaved like that – like the Gestapo – were the Roman soldiers when they offered vinegar, that liquid from Hell, to Christ on the cross. “After all,” she added, “it was divine oil that the prophet Samuel used to anoint David as a sign of his favour, and to give the future king confidence in his ability.”
I somehow doubt that tossing and turning in an oily bed added to my confidence – although, sure, it wasn’t as bad as for a sardine in a tin full of oil – but by the morning my temperature really had come down.
I hear Baba Rosa talking to me. “Ihar, love, come over here and look at this. It’s so beautiful I can’t take my eyes off of it.”
Slowly I unpeel myself from the oil-infused blanket and go over to the window. We live on the eighth floor. A white mantle of pure, virgin snow stretches as far as I can see, right to the Kurapaty forest. True, the sparkling virginity is sullied here and there by men with carpet beaters and flower-patterned carpets, and soon the total whiteness will dissolve into a chessboard pattern with dirty, ash black squares, but there is still about half an hour to go before that happens. For the moment I cannot tear my eyes away from the perfect sight before me, but eventually I do. I want to share my feelings with Baba Rosa. I want to thank her for bringing my fever down and for calling me over to the window to witness such a beautiful start to the day. However, I hear the front door slam shut. Baba Rosa has gone out.
I soon have the pleasure of seeing her lanky figure through the window. She’s as tall as a TV tower. Hurriedly dressed in her mangy wolfskin coat and holding a brownish orange carpet beater and our scarlet rug under her arm, Baba Rosa is striding straight across the snow. There’s a lot of free space on the white expanse, but the sound of her loud screaming pierces the thickness of the window, This is Baba Rosa’s siren call to battle, the choir of falsetto voices that she employs to scare the men away from her rightful heritage, just as she does when she frightens the cockroaches away from the sideboard. Her vehement thrashing of our rug right on the spot where there’s the most snow is truly a sight I cannot tear my eyes away from.
... Baba Rosa’s sing-song screaming is capable of inducing paralysis. She works on the nervous system, and obviously has some link to that business with the weapons of mass destruction. Your hair stands on end – even if you’re wearing a cap – when you hear her ecclesiastical falsetto. It has the effect of the Jericho Trumpet. Your legs turn to either lead or cotton wool. The tongue in your mouth swells and refuses to budge. The victim’s entire vocal apparatus sinks down into the stomach and from there emits the jammed broadcasts of a government in emigration.
This is us. We’re standing in the kitchen, heads bowed like we’re school kids brought before the deputy head. We’re muttering pathetic excuses. We’re swallowing tears and snuffles. Baba Rosa is giving us a good telling off because of a burnt frying pan or an insufficiently watered plant. Her daughter, Granny Hrunia, and my parents, Halia and Andrei, turn into the older brothers and sisters I never had. In such moments all of us – my parents, all my grandparents and me – find ourselves bound together in a single children’s league. Her harsh, body-piercing falsetto voice ties us together like a spider wraps up flies in its web.
Baba Rosa, already as tall as the Miensk TV tower, grows even taller and mightier. She reaches the kitchen ceiling where the fancy pendant lighting is, and beyond that, the clouds. In this highest possible adult league she alone – terrifying and unimaginable – soars like a free spirit. From here she rules our world.
Graciously bestowing her favour upon us – the twenty people seated round the table celebrating a birthday – she forbids us to put any of the “Leningrad” cake in our mouths. She grabs the little plates with cake out of our hands. The chocolate cream, she says, seems to her to be a bit on the sour side.
We’re all sitting watching the TV together. Asserting her authority she turns the set off in the middle of a love scene. “It’s just a load of soppy drivel, Halia darling.”
I seem to recall actually being a witness to an occasion when she made her daughter’s son-in-law, my father Andrei, go and stand in the corner. At least he shuffled around for some time sniffing and snuffling in the gap behind the sideboard. Meanwhile Baba Rosa was angrily rattling the crockery in the kitchen, repeating:
“Pee-haitch-dee indeed... Don’t give me none of your pee-haitch-dees!”
Totalitarian matriarchy, with no right to send or receive letters. Baba Rosa’s authority holds sway over even the furthest corners of her domain. Over the cockroaches in the kitchen cabinet and that capricious spider in the living room (“Who knows, Ihar, perhaps she even controls every atom,” whispers my mother).
Let’s say that people, all manner of animal life and material objects immediately spring to attention whenever Baba Rosa hurtles into the flat like an enraged dybbuk. You can actually see how the whirlwind of her impending arrival makes the plates on the drying rack stand rounder, and the drinking glasses tinkle from shock. Whenever Baba Rosa raises her voice the electricity in the light bulbs intensifies; sheer terror makes it glow orange.
Her right arm – long as a snake – delves deep into the freezer and extracts a chunk of meat-bearing ore. Her left arm – just as active and snake-like – counts the chocolate sweets in the kitchen cabinet opposite. I cannot see her wrists and fingers so it looks to me as though Baba Rosa’s sinewy arms are stretching further and further out with no end in sight. Somewhere into the guts of the hoary past, or the reverse – groping the distant future by the balls.

translated by Jim Dingley

 

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The main hero of the family saga The Perseus Syndrome is the young psychotherapist Iharok, who has no choice but to live in a dormitory district of Minsk in a flat with three generations of women – his great-grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. In order to create an opportunity to head westwards away from his joyless, post-soviet, humdrum life, he and his German girlfriend Roni devise a means of “selling Belarus” at European cultural fairs by creating a distinctive brand out of the medical condition known as “Polish plait”. In the nineteenth century “Polish plait” (Plica polonica) symbolized…

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© photo by Alena Kazlova

Nasta Kudasava

Born in 1984 in Rahachou, in the Palessie area of the Homiel region. She authored the collections of poetry The Leaves Of My Hands (2006), Fish (2013), and Majo Nievymaulia (My Unuttered Infant) (2016). Her works have been translated into Russian and Bulgarian.

Nasta Kudasava’s lyrics of the early 2000s stood out due to their accentuated desire for musicality and inspirations from Marina Tsvetaeva, albeit preserving a certain distance. At the same time, this modernist musical tradition was confronted with the anarchic imagery of 1960s and 1980s ‘rock idol’ texts, giving Kudasava’s poetry a certain non-local colour.

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Born in 1984 in Rahachou, in the Palessie area of the Homiel region. She authored the collections of poetry The Leaves Of My Hands (2006), Fish (2013), and Majo Nievymaulia (My Unuttered Infant) (2016). Her works have been translated into Russian and Bulgarian.

Nasta Kudasava’s lyrics of the early 2000s stood out due to their accentuated desire for musicality and inspirations from Marina…

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Majo Nievymaulia

poetry collection

The collection of poetry Majo Nievymaulia seems to be painted in watercolours: it consists of small-format sketches of a person’s mental state. Nasta Kudasava’s meditations are focused on identifying the language itself, on an ecstatic echoing of the word forms with the internal state of the author – both disturbing and encouraging.

© photo by Alina Krushynskaya

Viktar Marcinovich

Born in 1977 in Ashmiany. He is a writer and journalist. He holds a doctorate in art history and works as a professor in the European Humanities University in Vilnius. He has published five books of fiction and one non-fiction book. He won the Maksim Bahdanovich Debut Award for his first novel in Belarusian Sciudziony vyraj [Migrating to a Cold Country] in 2012. His first novel Paranoya (2009) was written in Russian and later translated and published in the USA, Finland and Germany.

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Born in 1977 in Ashmiany. He is a writer and journalist. He holds a doctorate in art history and works as a professor in the European Humanities University in Vilnius. He has published five books of fiction and one non-fiction book. He won the Maksim Bahdanovich Debut Award for his first novel in Belarusian Sciudziony vyraj [Migrating to a Cold Country] in 2012. His first novel Paranoya (2009) was…

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The Lake of Delight

novel

In a note to the novel The Lake of Joy the book is described as a ‘road movie’. The novel tells the story of Jasia, a graduate of a Belarusian university, who is all at once smothered by an avalanche of misfortunes. Her family rejects her, and she is compelled to go and work off her compulsory post-graduation work assignment in a village called Malmyhi. Unable to tolerate the awfulness of provincial life, she returns to Minsk where she learns that by law she has to pay the state for her five years of university education. The only place where she can earn the necessary amount is Moscow. The Lake of Delight is Marcinovich’s fifth book and, as the author himself asserts, is “the most candid and most adult of the novels [he] has written hitherto”. He also describes it as “an attempt to remove the filters that exist between the heart and a literary text”. It is also an attempt to sum up the development of Belarus over the past twenty five years. The pages of the book reveal an entire epoch, albeit a brief one, and anyone who has lived through it will unavoidably grow more mature. This process of maturation is accompanied by disappointments, delusions and the bitter blows of fate. People should strive for the Lake of Delight on the Moon, for only this lake is capable of helping them not to lose themselves entirely in the problems thrown up by everyday life.

THE LAKE OF DELIGHT

....

“There’s one thing we’re all short of. All of us who live here,” he says with fervour. “You, me, every single one of us! We’ve somehow never managed to take delight in anything. There’s plenty of misery around, and as for indifference, envy and every other kind of black emotion ¬– we have so much of it that we can afford to give it away for free. And it makes no difference whether we’re talking about now or the period after the Kreva Union. But when it comes to joy – pure joy, the delight that should be part of childhood – well, even children don’t have it! Just look at their faces!”
“I’ll tell you a story, just a short one,” the student announces in a confidential tone. “Whenever you happen to think about your mother, just remember this story, OK? So, right then. Take a look up there!” and he points to the sky where the yellow disc of the moon is hanging, brighter than any streetlight.
“Can you see there’s a spot on the Moon like a little pockmark? It’s easy to find it because it’s darker than all the others. It’s the Sea of Serenity. On its low shore, higher and more to the left of the Sea of Tranquillity lies the Lake of Delight, or Lacus Gaudii. It’s very easy to reach; all you have to do is get in a boat and row diagonally from the Lake of Dreams. The main thing is not to hurry and not to lose your way, otherwise you’ll end up in the Lacus Doloris, the Lake of Sorrow, and it’s very difficult to escape from there, because your oars will be weighed down by all the sadness; you’ll want to go to sleep and simply give up. Do you remember what I said?”
The girl nodded: row diagonally from the Lake of Dreams.
“Where can you find a boat on the Moon?” and she furrowed her brow.
“All the people on the Moon travel by boat, because the surface is nothing but seas, bays and lakes. Can you see that dark bit over there, like a little headland? That’s the Bay of Love in the Sea of Tranquillity. And on the edge to the east there’s a tiny dot – that’s the Lake of Summer. Right here is the Lake of Softness, and on the dark side we have the Lake of Solitude. Those who go over to the dark side don’t want to see anyone any more.
“What can you do there, by the Lake of Delight?”
“You can go swimming in the lake, you can dive into pure Delight right from your boat. There are other things you can do: put up a tent, make a campfire, settle down in your hammock and listen to Delight lapping the shore.”
“Is there a lot of Delight there?”
“There’s enough for everyone. For all of us! The lake is a hundred kilometres long.”
“So it’s like the Minsk Sea?”
“It’s bigger. Much, much bigger!”
Yasya loses herself in dreams, and says not a word.
“So what’s it like, Delight I mean, in that lake?” she asks at last.
The student thinks hard, almost rubs himself a scar above his eyebrow. Finally he speaks:
“It’s like jelly. A sweet, blue jelly. You walk right into it from the shore, and it seems to hold you up on the palms of its hands. You lie on your back and above you is the whole universe.”
The girl tries to picture to herself what it would be like, to rock gently on her back in the jelly-like waves of Delight and see the stars, while all around there’s nothing but peace and the twinkling of the Milky Way.
“Is it paradise?” the girl asks.
“No,” and the student shakes his head. “There’s no paradise any more. Only the Right Believers believe in it. Paradise means God and the angels. Here we have Delight. No pain. No worries. No fear. Joy and happiness are the other shore of Sorrow. Paradise isn’t for me. I want to splash about in the waves of Delight and look at the stars.”
….
Every city is on the move somewhere. It crawls downwards, right into the bowels of the Earth now that it has reached its limit on the surface of the planet – that’s Tokyo for you. Or it reaches for the sky, ever upward, higher and higher on the stairways of its flyovers, highways and pneumatic train routes – this is Kuala Lumpur. Or it spreads out like a drop of coffee on a new white tablecloth – Paris. Or there’s dreamy Berlin that grows in two hemispheres that are forever divided by a Wall of the brain. Or like elegant, refined Vienna, it can slip into a wonderful dream of its past.
Some cities are actually going places. San Francisco is forever descending the hill to the sea on an old, wooden cable car. Istanbul moves upwards from the Golden Horn to Beyo?lu on the funicular railway. In fits and starts heat-stricken Djakarta attempts to tear itself free from the everlasting traffic jam on its eight-lane city roads. Like a romantic sailing vessel St Petersburg slithers across the marshes to the Baltic.
Without even knowing anything about these great cities, Yasya can feel that Malmyhi isn’t going anywhere at all as she wanders through the place in search of the hostel where she is to stay. Even the streetlights don’t look as they normally do – brightly-lit bulbs that challenge the night. No, here they resemble more the tongues of flame that flicker above stagnant water in swamps. People passing by are all sluggish and dreamy – either because of alcohol, or because of the existential exhaustion of trying, year after year, to turn over with their own hands the frozen earth that refuses to budge.
Malmyhi certainly isn’t a city, it’s not even a town. It’s no more than a shtetl. If it had been upgraded to town status it would have started to move off somewhere, and that very act of motion would have made it a real town. No, Malmyhi is a stone lying on the bottom of a lake smothered by water weeds. Just like many (if not all) provincial shtetlakh.
Yasya wanders through the dense air, fearful that she’ll turn into a mermaid at any moment.

translated by Jim Dingley

 

 

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In a note to the novel The Lake of Joy the book is described as a ‘road movie’. The novel tells the story of Jasia, a graduate of a Belarusian university, who is all at once smothered by an avalanche of misfortunes. Her family rejects her, and she is compelled to go and work off her compulsory post-graduation work assignment in a village called Malmyhi. Unable to tolerate the awfulness of provincial life, she returns to Minsk where she learns that by law she has to pay the state for her five years of university education. The only place where she can earn the necessary amount is Moscow. The…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Maryja Martysievich

Born in 1982 in Minsk. She is a poet, translator and literary critic. She is the author of two books: one combines poetry and essays, the other contains her own poems and translations. She is well-known in Belarus for her provocative writings about contemporary literature.

The Embassy

poetry collection

In her lyrical poetry the author displays her preference for social topics, but she also reflects on culture and traditions, and the role they play in people’s lives. She is a close observer of the clash between old and new, western and eastern, male and female, high and low, and describes the tragicomedy of this clash. The title of the author’s second book is taken from the name of the long poem “The Embassy” in the collection. The poem consists of the telephone conversations of Belarusians with a woman who works in the call centre of the consulate of a small European country called Polabia. The country is a member of the European Union and its officials issue Schengen visas. For many Belarusians a Schengen visa is synonymous with personal freedom, and the refusal of such a visa may be perceived as a major tragedy. The poem comprises dialogues in prose and monologues in verse. Each call begins with a standard automated reply. This explains why the author chose to classify the genre of her polyphonic work as a “serial”. In the final season of the “serial” the system redirects the phone call of one of the heroes to the other world. 

Hipster Easter
Give me the wifi password
And I will turn the world upside down
I will subjugate the heavens
I will conquer space
I will plug black holes
I will overthrow Newton’s third law
Only give me the wifi password

I’ll be good
I’ll finish what I’ve started
I’ll pass my retakes
I’ll pay back loans
I’ll straighten out deadlines
Only tell me how to log in.
I will create night and day
Lights in the firmament and stars
Waters and dry land
I’ll name the beasts and the serpents of the sea -
If I find an accessible network.
I’ll save the universe
I’ll restore Eden
I’ll put an end to Armageddon
I’ll cancel the Second Coming
But I need wifi
And two cappuccinos to take out.

….
Fill the seams
Of this poem with sealant
Like a crack
Between bath and wall.
For how bad it is
When water overflows
Straight on to the heads
Of the neighbours below.
What do they need that for?
They’ve only just had the bathroom redone
Laid rows and rows of nice pink tiles
Fitted a luxury “Lada” loo
Had a suspended ceiling put in
To hide the wiring.
After all, it has no truth
The poetry flows
In a Roman fountain
Slowly, solemnly
On to antique marble
From the jaws of Jupiter
This poetry is for
No one anywhere
Nothing of any kind
Only the white basin
Where peacefully splashing
In the white foam
Is a jolly
Little
Yellow duck

My son is
An ambassador for all children on earth:
For the abandoned
For foundlings
Cast up upon a shore
Blown up by mines.
For that little Afghan lad
Who made a Lionel Messi football shirt
Out of a plastic bag
And especially for that Korean boy
From the film of 2008
Whose father
Having fled to the South
Paid a broker
To get his son out of the North.
Running across the frontier of China and Mongolia
The little boy lost his guides,
Perished in the steppe
Didn’t reach people,
Didn’t manage
To escape.
My love for you is
Hot and unbounded
Like the Mongolian steppe.
And I want very much
For you to escape.

Translated by Hillary Sheers

 

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In her lyrical poetry the author displays her preference for social topics, but she also reflects on culture and traditions, and the role they play in people’s lives. She is a close observer of the clash between old and new, western and eastern, male and female, high and low, and describes the tragicomedy of this clash. The title of the author’s second book is taken from the name of the long poem “The Embassy” in the collection. The poem consists of the telephone conversations of Belarusians with a woman who works in the call centre of the consulate of a small European country called Polabia.…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Tacciana Niadbaj

Born in 1982 in Polack. She is a poet and translator. She works as a cultural manager on various projects. In 2006 she was arrested in Minsk for participation in post-election protests and had to finish her philological studies in Poland. She came back to Belarus in 2015. Her first book of poetry The Sirens sing Jazz won the Maksim Bahdanovich Debut Award in 2014.

The Sirens sing Jazz

poetry collection

This book is essentially a love story told in verse. The reader has an opportunity to experience the story alongside the author, from the beginnings of love to the time love dies, to follow the author as she passes through the waste land that comes after parting, and then finds peace and recovery. Niadbaj’s poetry is clearly inspired by the writers Uladzimir Arlou and Liera Som, who also come from Polack, and by the Society of Free Writers which too is based in that city. The intellectual and aesthetic climate of the 1990s exerted an influence on the young woman, before whom the whole world lay open in the following decade. The allusion to the Odyssey in the title of the collection is deliberate – the leitmotif running throughout the book is travelling, for the most part along the road between Warsaw and Minsk.

“THE SIRENS SING JAZZS”

Every day
When you close the door behind you
I think about you:
Will you have a good day
Or will it be a tough one?
Will you cross the road
With care and when the light is green?
Will there be a horn of plenty?
Will your efforts bear fruit?
Will what you do be worthwhile?
Will the paths of your hopes be clear?
Will your unseen guardian be with you?
And will your guardian be reliable?

Cities, like men
Give the gift of their smell
Their walls – their shoulders
Lead from boulevards via alleys
Via milky ways
Into tight little yards, embracing
Whispers and the rustling of tyres
And the ringing – on cobblestones- of keys and coins
The sweater has to come off (it’s itchy)
Shirts are the latest fashion
Smoke from the chimneys
And the glow of their cigarettes
Even before the Sun exploding
Like a pea from deep within
Is hurled on to the horizon
You are silent, stunned
The mantra – sweet, sweet, sweet
Silently, like a fish
You open your mouth
And repeat it, stomach fluttering
With happiness

Translated by Hillary Sheers

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This book is essentially a love story told in verse. The reader has an opportunity to experience the story alongside the author, from the beginnings of love to the time love dies, to follow the author as she passes through the waste land that comes after parting, and then finds peace and recovery. Niadbaj’s poetry is clearly inspired by the writers Uladzimir Arlou and Liera Som, who also come from Polack, and by the Society of Free Writers which too is based in that city. The intellectual and aesthetic climate of the 1990s exerted an influence on the young woman, before whom the whole world…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Barys Piatrovich

Born in 1959 near Chojniki. He is a journalist by education. In 2002 he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the independent literary journal Dziejaslou. Since 2011 he has been the Chairman of the independent Union of Belarusian Writers. He is the author of ten books of prose. His book Not afraid to live won the Hliniany Vialies award in 2008.

Not afraid to live. Frescoes

short stories

This is a collection of short stories which the author describes as ‘frescoes’. His stories “are written in one go, in the same way as frescoes are painted in a church – before the plaster dries”. According to the critics, the book combines elements of “village prose” and intellectual writing – two genres of Belarusian literature that before the 1990s were regarded as mutually exclusive. The vast majority of Belarusian town dwellers, just as in many other places in the world, originally came from the countryside. In the 20th century people in Belarus were ashamed of their rural origins: peasants, despite all the communist party’s slogans, were on the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder of Soviet society. It is only in recent years that Belarus has been affected by the pan-European tendency for representatives of the so-called creative class to return to the countryside. As teenagers might write on the internet, Barys Piatrovich gave new meaning to the Belarusian village before it became trendy to do so.

“NOT AFRAID TO LIVE. FRESCOES.”

Silence
Grass was growing between us. There was only ever one answer to all the questions you put to me – an answer to be found in the yearning for what we could still remember and for whatever could still remember us. Now I think – here I am telling you and you can surely agree – that this happens only when we cannot find what we have lost, when there is no going back to what has been left behind.
There was grass between us. We were young and excited by the closeness of our bodies. You would ask questions and I would reply. But we could simply have kept quiet for we had no need of words to grasp what was happening. Words would have added nothing, and in any case they would have had no meaning. All other feelings within us were suppressed by the yearning that clouded our minds, and yet it explained everything. What we yearned for was something that people never mention aloud, even to those closest to them, and about which strangers here next to us keep silence. You say to me ¬ and I can already agree¬ that that is always the way when all we have left of the past are memories, and when there is no future whatsoever… For we are no more.
We are no longer in the place where all our thoughts are now, the place that inhabits all our memories. We are no longer in the place where bright green grass grows between us...

If the whole body were an eye…
Nobody will say anything to me. Because I will be nowhere. Anyone who comes looking for me will not find me there. But anyone who remembers me will not forget me. That is how incompatibles are welded together. Just as day and night are linked by morning and evening. Try to guess – which is the parent and which the child. Or maybe they make up a typical modern nuclear family: father, mother and two children – morning and evening. I have no family. I am less than one, less than a nucleus. Because I am unable of forming a couple with another nucleus. I am a nonentity. My only place is there where nobody will come looking for me. There will be nobody to bid me farewell on my final journey, nobody to close my eyelids. I am thinking to myself: was I ever alive? Did I actually exist? I was never of any use to anyone. Memories are the only place from which I cannot be erased. Memories cannot be ruled by reason or emotion. That is where I shall live. And nobody will ever think of looking for me there in order to tell me that I am dead.
“No place. Utopia. You tope? Any hope? Can you cope? Nope! Cornucopiate.” My tired mind is wandering, seeking an answer and finding none. I went astray and cannot find myself anywhere. My mind is flying round the world, it comes to earth next to a body to which it probably once belonged. That body lies dead still. So it’s no place for the mind. Where is its place? No place. I ain’t got no body. I’m real incorporeal. Will a mind meet a body comin’ through the rye? Aye.

Being loved
He lived his life in the midst of three women. The first loved him, the second he loved and the third became his wife.
Obviously there were more than three women in his life, but the others left almost no trace on him – maybe just a memory or two. They had a little joy to offer him when he needed it, but were otherwise only ever mentioned in strictly male company.
It was these three women who accompanied him throughout his entire life. And only they made him suffer.
The first herself reminded him of her existence from time to time, the second he could not forget, and the third became the mother of his children.
“Hi, Steve!” the first would say whenever she phoned him. “Is that you, Stephen?” the second would say whenever they met, and there would be a note of surprise in her voice. “My own little Steviekins!” the third would whisper in his ear at night.
When he reached the age of fifty the thought suddenly occurred to him: “Have I lived my life right, or did I make a mistake? Might it not have been better to have submitted to the first, or to have won the love of the second, rather than ruin the life of the third?” It was only towards her that he harboured any feelings of guilt. And the longer things went on, the stronger those feelings became.
He had serious doubts about the love the first professed for him. He remembered very clearly how easily she had abandoned him at a party for a friend of his who had shown a certain amount of interest in her. “Yes, she needed to get married” – that’s how he now tries to justify himself. “That explains why she chose him, he was an easy victim. No more than that.”
However he never once doubted the strength of his love for the second. He could forgive her everything, including betrayal and the fact that she showed no regard for him, openly flirting with other men. He could accept her just as she was – and love her.
He had lived happily with the third for twenty five years – they had just celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. They had raised a son and two daughters, but he had never fully understood whether he loved her or she him.
He guessed that her life had passed in the midst of three men: the first was in love with her, she was in love with the second, and she had married the third – him!

Translated by Jim Dingley

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This is a collection of short stories which the author describes as ‘frescoes’. His stories “are written in one go, in the same way as frescoes are painted in a church – before the plaster dries”. According to the critics, the book combines elements of “village prose” and intellectual writing – two genres of Belarusian literature that before the 1990s were regarded as mutually exclusive. The vast majority of Belarusian town dwellers, just as in many other places in the world, originally came from the countryside. In the 20th century people in Belarus were ashamed of their rural origins: peasants,…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Alies Razanau

Born in 1947 near Biaroza. He is a poet and translator. He made huge impact on Belarusian modernistic canon by invention several poetry forms. His first book was published in 1970. He is an author of about 20 poetry collections. He translates poetry mostly from German and Lithuanian. In 1969 Razanau was excluded from the Belarusian State University for organising a petition in defence of using Belarusian as the language of instruction in the university, and for his support for the dissident poet Larysa Hienijush. Thanks to the intercession of the influential poet Maksim Tank he was able to complete his university studies in Brest. In 1990 he was given the highest award that a Belarusian poet in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic could receive – the State Janka Kupala Prize. He has also been awarded the Herder Prize (2003) and the Zalaty Apostrof [Golden Apostrophe] Prize (2013).

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Born in 1947 near Biaroza. He is a poet and translator. He made huge impact on Belarusian modernistic canon by invention several poetry forms. His first book was published in 1970. He is an author of about 20 poetry collections. He translates poetry mostly from German and Lithuanian. In 1969 Razanau was excluded from the Belarusian State University for organising a petition in defence of using Belarusian…

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Forest Road. Versets

versets

It was only in the 20th century that Belarusian poetry began to develop intensively. The role played by Razanau in that development is akin to that played by Tomas Transtromer in Swedish poetry or Paul Celan in German. Between 2005 and 2011 seven books of poetry by Razanau appeared, reissues of poetry from different years arranged according to genre. Forest Road is a collection of versets, a poetical form that entered Belarusian poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, and which Razanau polished and perfected. The rhythm and composition of the versets are reminiscent of folk tales and very often sound like a kind of mantra. The poet derives his metaphysics from the Belarusian countryside, from the landscapes of his native village Sialiec in Belarusian Palessie, and from chance encounters and events. Any translation of Razanas’s versets will force translators to construct an appropriate poetic style using the resources of their native language. Now would that not be something wonderful?!

DISTANCE
The distance approaches, then disappears, instead I
find dull landscapes, stiff water and
scabrous trees.
I try to find out everything about
the distance.
The land says: this is my sense of hearing.
The water says: this is my sense of sight.
The trees say: this is our breath.
I turn round.
I can be only here, where I am standing, where I
exist.
The distance is my lost paradise:
it is reflected in dreams and mirages.
I have sent my arrows in different directions far
away, but they return aiming to hit me.

ALMOST
He can do almost everything.
Elected by the people, he rises over them like their
hopes, like their salvation, like their strength, and
those who disagree or contradict him, seem to
contradict everyone.
And then, as if having a universal permission to
do everything, he separates his opponents from
the crowd and, directing his agonizing attention at
them, he administers
his biased justice to them.
But the more victories he wins, the more
disappointing these victories become, and the more
powerful he becomes, the less he can do.

ACHIEVEMENTS
To achieve something what is higher than me, I give
up what I possess.
Luck and success, reliable leaders, take me out of
the eternal round of events and bring me to the
world of events and struggle.
I see some sense in life, and life is for me and within
me, showing what it can do and what it cannot do.
I win my fate, I last in my conquests, but my new
days open my greatest aim, which has already
passed, and promise me something what I have
already had as the best reward.

OLD TREES
The crosses of stone chapel under a heavy lock, the
huts hidden in ancient spots, the hill where there
stood some building, and now has got covered with
thick grass and is a heap of stones:
a day in the native place of my friend, who once
came back into nowhere, but who had invited me
there.
Everything in the native place of my friend is a loss
without him, and when at the end of a gloomy day
I leave the place, in the deserted passage of the
side street I’ll notice the thing that, like a breach of
space, will attract my attention and seem surprisingly
familiar. Those will be the old big trees,
and in the presentiment of meeting, I will rush
towards them.

THUNDERSTORM
The summer sun was shining over the earth, the
fi eld furrows were stretching into the inviting
distance and the flowers generously presented air
with fragrance, but as if losing sight, I saw that the
space was being fi lled with haze, and fright could be
heard in the cries of swift swallows.
Something was wrong in the nature, and to guess
where the wrong was hidden, I stopped and looked
back, and saw: the picture that the summer had
painted was my mere imagination, and now a
true reality was coming. Struck, I saw: the air was
trembling and whirling, and the dark was mixing
with bright; light and fi ery graphic symbols were
making crosses longways.
An awful thunderstorm is coming, and there is no
shelter to hide.

REALITY
Neither darkness, nor light.
Neither yesterday, nor today.
The trees do not know whether they should remain
green or drop leaves.
The crows do not realize whether they should
migrate somewhere
or stay on the trees.
The neighbours were going to move somewhere,
but all of a sudden changed their decision, and now
they are taking the things back into the old fl at.
Everything is a hindrance to everyone.
The words have no meaning.
The shadows, that covered people, coincide with
the people.
There is a spot on the reality.

Translated by Alena Tabolich

 

 

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It was only in the 20th century that Belarusian poetry began to develop intensively. The role played by Razanau in that development is akin to that played by Tomas Transtromer in Swedish poetry or Paul Celan in German. Between 2005 and 2011 seven books of poetry by Razanau appeared, reissues of poetry from different years arranged according to genre. Forest Road is a collection of versets, a poetical form that entered Belarusian poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, and which Razanau polished and perfected. The rhythm and composition of the versets are reminiscent of folk tales and very…

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© photo by Zoya Sazonava

Maryja Rouda

Born in 1975 in Minsk. She teaches History of the English Language and Theory of Grammar courses at Minsk State Linguistic University. She underwent training courses in the UK and Germany. Translated Margareth Atwood’s prose and Tom Stoppard’s plays from English into Belarusian. Her short stories and short novels have been published in magazines and newspapers, and included in several anthologies, An Anthology of Belarusian Stories (Antologie bieloruskich povidek), published in Brno in 2006, among them. She is the author of the book of prose, A Clinical Case, or A Vain Escape (2015). Her works have been translated into Czech and Esperanto.

The greatest discovery of a hidden treasure of Belarusian literature: a postmodernist author who made her debut at eighteen, in the cult Nasha Niva monthly magazine, and spent the next two decades in voluntary reclusion and solitary writing of her new works. On the eve of New Year 2016, she broke her “vow of silence” and published a voluminous collection of her prose.

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Born in 1975 in Minsk. She teaches History of the English Language and Theory of Grammar courses at Minsk State Linguistic University. She underwent training courses in the UK and Germany. Translated Margareth Atwood’s prose and Tom Stoppard’s plays from English into Belarusian. Her short stories and short novels have been published in magazines and newspapers, and included in several anthologies,…

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A Clinical Case, or A Vain Escape

stories

Maryja Rouda could be called a “minstrel of pathological love”, after the title of one of her short stories. Experimenting with modernist techniques known from Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s works, Rouda brought into the Belarusian prose of the 1990s the theme of passionate love, in its most acutely felt and madness-inducing version. In the 2000s, the author immerses herself in an investigation of social-critical issues, satirically embracing the Belarusian reality of the “new stagnation” era. In recent years, Ro?da has been writing family saga prose, preserving her psychologically sharp writing method. A Clinical Case, or A Vain Escape is a full collection of short stories and short novels written between the 1990s and 2000s..

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Maryja Rouda could be called a “minstrel of pathological love”, after the title of one of her short stories. Experimenting with modernist techniques known from Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s works, Rouda brought into the Belarusian prose of the 1990s the theme of passionate love, in its most acutely felt and madness-inducing version. In the 2000s, the author immerses herself in an investigation of social-critical issues, satirically embracing the Belarusian reality of the “new stagnation” era. In recent years, Ro?da has been writing family saga prose, preserving her psychologically sharp writing…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Ludmila Rublieuskaja

Born in 1965 in Minsk. She is a writer, poet and literary critic. She is an architect and philologist by education. She is the author of more than ten books of prose and poetry. She works in genres of popular fiction, producing widely varying types of historical novels, eg romance, crime and detection, horror. She has recently been writing a great deal for teenagers. She won the “Golden Apostrophe” Prize in 2004 and the Francishak Bahushevich Prize of the Belarusian-PEN Centre in 2011 for her novel Sutarenni Romula [The souterrains of Romulus].

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Born in 1965 in Minsk. She is a writer, poet and literary critic. She is an architect and philologist by education. She is the author of more than ten books of prose and poetry. She works in genres of popular fiction, producing widely varying types of historical novels, eg romance, crime and detection, horror. She has recently been writing a great deal for teenagers. She won the “Golden Apostrophe”…

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Daguerreotype

horror novel

Rublieuskaja’s new novel is set in the decadent years at the end of the nineteenth century, but opens in our times. The young journalist Sierafima is setting off to inspect a flat that she wishes to rent from a young man, the biologist Haljash, with whom she is secretly in love. He is getting ready to leave for the USA, where his fiancee is waiting for him in one of the universities there. The two of them are sorting things out in the flat when Haljash discovers among his grandfather’s papers a daguerreotype and a diary that belonged to an unknown woman… Mysterious events dating back to the 1890s unfold before the reader. The owners of a photographic studio in a small provincial Belarusian town – the beautiful, independent-minded Bahuslava and her father Varaksa Nichiel – specialise in portraits of the newly deceased; they have to set off on an expedition to photograph a unique ethnographical collection on the remote, sinister estate of Zhuchavichy. The current owner of the estate, Prince Shymon Kahaniecki, is believed by the local villagers to be a werewolf. The novel encompasses elements of the Gothic, the horror story, a passionate love affair in spite of everything, and the merciless baseness of humanity. A solution to this romantic and terrifying story is found only in our day.

THE DAGUERREOTYPE

The wrought iron gates were decorated with rusty wolves' heads; they squeaked as if begging not to have to admit the suspicious guests. The manservant who came to the gates looked like a wolf himself. He was a swarthy gloomy type with a broken nose, in a white shirt and leather waistcoat, his hair tied at the back of his neck in an untidy ponytail. He made no show of even trying to listen to the complaints of the old metal. Unhurriedly he opened both halves of the gates in turn, and nodded indifferently to the new arrivals as if to say “Come on in”. He didn’t even bother to turn his head after them.
After all, what was there to look at? The britzka was covered in mud and looked as though it had just been dragged out of a swamp, and the passengers were just as muddy – two young men, one of them in a student overcoat, the other in a short sheepskin coat and an embroidered shirt, and a bright-eyed young miss in a gabardine overcoat and a woollen travelling skirt, so dirty that something could have been planted along the hem. Only the grey-headed gentleman with a neatly curled moustache, wearing glasses and a hat with a wide brim, managed to look respectable in spite of the fact that he was mud-spattered up to the waist
So, they had counted all the pools and ponds they had passed, they had brought their foul mood to the attention of every single hedgehog by the colourful language they used to describe the journey, even though there was a lady present. She, by the way, spoke quietly, scarcely opening her mouth, but was the most expressive of all. It is not without reason that the roads in autumn hereabouts were deemed the worst anywhere, just as the forests were the tallest and densest. For centuries past the local forests had provided people with income from the manufacture of ash.
The best pine-trees went for ships’ masts; their fate was to stand proud above the waves of distant seas. By contrast, the smaller puny trees were doomed to be turned into a black, weightless substance – ash ¬– not for sprinkling on the heads of the prophetesses of antiquity, but packed into ordinary barrels and shipped off in flat-bottomed boats to distant southern markets and then used to fertilize alien soil that could never be used for growing the tall pines from which ships are built. Many of the inhabitants of the small but proud town of N were descendants of those ash producers. Their smudged faces made them look like blackamoors. Their hands were large and rough; eaten into them was the resin that had not had time to turn into amber.
At one time there was no shortage of hunters here… Mighty aurochses and leopards roamed free. But by the sixteenth century Kryshtof Radzivil, the owner of these parts, was writing to Kansta?cin Astro?ski, requesting him to obtain from his retainers, the young princes Sapieha, a leopard for his private zoo. A lion he already had – it had been brought from over the sea – but the local leopards had all been killed.
That should not come as a surprise. What could better adorn a dragoon or a winged hussar than a golden yellow skin with black spots rakishly slung across the shoulder?
Just think of everything that had been exterminated in the depths of the local forests – phoenixes, unicorns, rebels… Many a year had passed since the forest paths were last trampled by aurochses or leopards. It was no easy matter even to encounter an ordinary lumbering Litvin bear. This is what Michal Klakocki, who had recently obtained his master’s in archaeology, told Bahuslava with a serious look on his face. He spoke clearly, hoping to calm any fears that the young miss entertained about wild animals attacking. Bahuslava immediately replied in a cold voice, expressing regret that she would not have the opportunity to practise throwing her stiletto… Just to emphasise the point she drew the blade from her sleeve with the speed of lightning, leaving a sparkling circle of silver in the air. She was too eager to remind the upright youth of the person with whom he had chosen to involve himself, otherwise he would be unable to decide whether his travelling companion was a wild beast of prey or an eccentric, but attractive young lady.
To be perfectly honest Bahuta did not feel herself quite so liberated in the forest; the territory of wood goblins was for her an environment both hostile and unknown. Right from the moment she left her girls’ private school she had been travelling around cities and towns with Nichie?. The past for her was a series of rooms in roadside hotels that reeked of cigarettes, smoke-filled apartments with patterned wallpaper and an antimacassar for well-oiled heads that someone had left hanging on a pier-glass. And as for her childhood memories of the Siberian taiga – it was a snow-covered hell where fugitive exiles disappear, only for their wolf-chewed remains to be discovered the following spring.
It was then that the painfully thin Davyd leapt to his feet and launched into a speech on something ethnographical, his favourite topic. He claimed that the animals around Zhukavichy had disappeared because – as the locals maintained – of the werewolves that haunted the region. He went on to cite a dozen or so fairy tales about shapeshifters that he had written down from the accounts of various talkative old men and women. In each of his horror stories there was an enchanted belt that would be placed across the path of anyone who was destined to be turned into an animal, and from five to twelve enchanted knives that a werewolf would have to roll over in order to regain his human shape. There would be silver bullets whistling, each of them marked with a cross, and a church window shattered by the body of some powerful animal – it had been someone’s idea to drag an unfortunate shapeshifter into the building… At this point Davyd, whose sunken cheeks were now burning bright red, made some comparisons between what he had been talking about and foreign myths. For example – in a Serbian manuscript Nomocanon of 1262 we read “The Moon and the Sun were consumed by werewolves”, thus permitting us to draw a parallel with the Solar Myth and to compare the werewolf as archetype with the dragon… In the Old Testament Jeremiah wrote of a “wolf of the desert”, and elsewhere we read of Nebuchadnezzar who was half-turned into an animal because of his sins. Some of the fanged two-souled beings were compelled to remain in their human skin until the curse was lifted, others were from time to time covered in fur. There were many ways of discovering whether someone had been cursed. The person will attempt to cook meat on an open fire that shepherds have forgotten to put out. He will press his muzzle into the dewy grass – this is his way of washing himself. He will howl sadly towards the east – this is his way of praying. He will always be alone. If he is killed and flayed, rotting human clothing will be found underneath. If he does regain his human form, his physiognomy will always be twisted, he will fear silver and refuse to emerge when there is a full moon, and a loathsome stench will come from him. The local werewolves have one more special feature: they hate attackers who come from foreign lands. When the Swedes came werewolves gnawed their way through a whole garrison. One day the Tatars made camp – that night they all had their throats gouged out by the monstrous beasts. The Muscovite army arrived at the walls of the town – they were all eaten. Then the French appeared – fang marks were found on their bodies… Davyd Masievich explained all this as the archetypal function of the totem: protector of the tribe. The wolf was invariably the totem of the local people; this is confirmed not only by the Chronicles of Herodotus, but also by several coats of arms of the local nobility…
In other words, once he started spouting he would keep going until the Crack of Doom.
The forest was dark, the road consisted of nothing but mud and in those places where crooked, twisted aspens hobbled forwards to replace the tall pines it became even worse – a real swamp. The road became a sort of watercourse where you needed to row. There were marshes on both sides on which the trunks of pine trees had once been laid and then strewn over with earth. Bahuta had never once had to travel across marshlands, and for this she was eternally grateful to Fate.
Thank God they reached ?ukavi?y while it was still light.
In the dark it would have been even more terrifying… Dense forest all around, a fence of rusty iron railings with tips fashioned like wolves’ heads baring their teeth. The squire’s grey stone house loomed at the end of the driveway where a lone orphaned lantern shone. It had been lit specially. Just as well that one of the owners had thought of planting lime trees among the pines lining the driveway, but even these trees – usually so welcoming – here had the appearance of merchants’ wives reduced to wearing old tattered garments. In desperation they raised their hands to the heavens with the remnants of the now brown foliage of autumn that had forgotten it was once golden.

translated by Jim Dingley

 

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Rublieuskaja’s new novel is set in the decadent years at the end of the nineteenth century, but opens in our times. The young journalist Sierafima is setting off to inspect a flat that she wishes to rent from a young man, the biologist Haljash, with whom she is secretly in love. He is getting ready to leave for the USA, where his fiancee is waiting for him in one of the universities there. The two of them are sorting things out in the flat when Haljash discovers among his grandfather’s papers a daguerreotype and a diary that belonged to an unknown woman… Mysterious events dating back to the…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Uladzimir Sciapan

Born in 1958 near Homiel. He is a painter, writer and screenwriter. He has published three short story collections.

One copeck

short stories collection

“One copeck” is a collection of short stories, each of which focusses on events in a small, nondescript Soviet town. The writer’s own place of birth served as the prototype. The collection includes stories penned by the writer over a period of eight years. The book was well received by critics and readers alike. The blogger Julija Sharova writes: “I am astounded by the author’s ability to write short stories about the people who live in the village of Kasciukouka near Homiel in such a way as to make readers feel that they are watching short art films from Georgia. We find the selfsame simple “little” people, each one of whom is a home-spun philosopher, a whole universe and a religion. This is a scattering of short human stories full of tragedy almost at the level of the ancient Greeks.” The story “One copeck” lends its title to the collection as a whole. A nine-year-old boy quite by chance finds eighty seven Soviet copecks. He gives way to an inner impulse and gives them all to the local cripple Barysok, who promised to grant “one wish for each copeck”. Astoundingly he carried out his promise. But the boy did not give the cripple all the copecks. There was still just one lone copeck in his pocket. So it was that the boy deprived himself of one wish fulfilment, and the thought of this one unfulfilled wish haunted him for the rest of his life.

NEW POTATOES

The two men – one fat, the other thin – could have met in any other place. Even on another continent, in some far-off foreign land, in an unknown city. They could have, but in fact they met in one of the Minsk markets, on the street where new potatoes go on sale at the end of June. Not the kind imported from Africa – all nice and yellow, clean and perfectly round – but home-grown in Belarus. Rough-skinned, dirty, looking like something from outer space, but at the same time so eternally familiar that I do not even want to talk about them. They exist, these new potatoes, and that’s all there is to it.

The new potatoes were lying in different-coloured plastic bowls; they smelled of soil and were unashamedly dirty. This did not trouble the people selling them, or the potatoes themselves.
The fat man looked at the potatoes, the thin man looked at the potatoes, their gazes met over the plastic bowls. The thin man had a neat and tidy appearance, he clearly looked after himself. In his left hand he held an umbrella. The fat man was clean-shaven, but otherwise showed no sign of looking after himself. He was wearing an old grey raincoat with sleeves that were too short and with pockets that sagged. His shoes were battered and worn, and his blue jeans were shabby. It looked very much as if the fat man had put the grey raincoat on by chance. He was in a hurry and had simply grabbed the first thing that came to hand.
There was a time when both men lived and worked in the same town, but that was back then. To the fat man it all seemed so very long ago, in another lifetime. The thin man felt that not all that much time had passed since his transfer to a new, more responsible post in the capital.

But for the moment they had not seen or recognised each other. They examined the new potatoes in their different-coloured plastic bowls. The thought did not occur to either of them that potatoes might have some entirely different significance other than their primary one of being an everyday food item, much in demand, and tasty. The potato seller – a woman with a thin, weather-beaten Catholic face and dark hair – waited for her potential customers to say something. The fat man licked his dry lips. He had come to the market on purpose, so that he could go back to his hostel room with a shopping bag full of potatoes. He won’t bother to scrape them or sort them. He will quickly, but carefully, wash them in cold water. He will poke them a little with his strong fingers and feel them all over, as if he wants to get to know them personally. Then he’ll put them in a saucepan, pour water over them and put them on the hob. He’ll stand and keep an eye on them. He’ll breathe in the scent of boiling potatoes, listening to the water bubbling in the saucepan, and watching the potatoes jump around as if they were alive, not wanting to be cooked. He will fill his lungs with potato-flavoured steam. He will then add just a little salt. Just like a bee uses its stinger in a fragrant flower, so he will use the sharp point of a knife to test whether the potatoes are ready. Then he’ll put a black iron frying pan on the hob, pour in some oil, sieve the potatoes and in they’ll go, into the pan. The oil will begin to spit and sizzle. The potatoes will begin to brown, and then a dark crust, here and there golden with a reddish tinge, will begin to form. It has to be put on the table quickly while the crust is still crispy. This is the moment that the fat man in the strange raincoat has been looking forward to for four years.

The first part of the way the two men prepared new potatoes was the same, but the second part was different. Just a bit, but still different.

The woman selling the potatoes rubbed her hands together. The movement of dirty hands and dry soil produced a weird, uncanny sound. True, you could hardly hear it, but there are moments in life when it is enough to see something to hear it. The two potential purchasers shuddered. They stopped dead in their tracks and looked at each other. They looked and froze, they even stopped breathing. It felt like they had been standing there for ever, although in fact it lasted for no more than about fifteen seconds. But for them it was an eternity. That’s the right word for something that goes on and on, that suffocates you, that smothers you like the lid of a coffin…
In other words the two men were standing there not making a sound, but their hearts were pounding. And the new potatoes were lying close by in their different-coloured plastic bowls, three kilos in each, but if you ask the woman selling them – her face had changed and her mouth was twisted into some kind of crooked grimace – she’ll weigh you just one kilo…

…Four years earlier the fat man had been a surgeon at a provincial children’s hospital. One day a ten-year-old boy was brought in. He had tried to stop the wheel of his scooter. His right hand was badly injured, with the fingers hanging off on pieces of skin. The surgeon had just finished his shift; he had managed to take off his gown and was standing barefoot in front of his cupboard as if waiting for a lift to arrive. The thin man came running into his office where there was a smell of medicines and sweat. He begged the surgeon to help, addressing him politely with a trembling voice. Doctors and patients alike knew that the fat surgeon was regarded as the best in the hospital. The surgeon told the thin man calmly and in a matter-of-fact tone that he had been operating for nine hours that day, that he could scarcely stand but he would try to do what he could… He then thought for a moment and added something else: his assistance would cost two and a half thousand dollars. He had had the opportunity to take a look at the boy and to glance at the x-rays so – even though his shift had ended – he knew what was waiting for him. He had long wanted to replace his battered old Ford with a newer and better car – hence the amount of money he asked for. The thin man didn’t even need to stop and think; he agreed at once because he knew there really was no alternative.

The surgeon and his team left the operating table at half-past two in the morning, a time when the stars outside were twinkling brightly. The surgeon’s legs could scarcely hold him upright and his eyes were red…
Four times that summer the surgeon operated on the boy. He laid out the bits of fingers, gathered them together, stitched them up and made sure that the plaster was put on correctly. Some time later he cut the hand open, took the bones apart, reassembled them and stitched them up again. He forced the boy’s thin light-blue fingers to bend; he made them obey and serve their owner. The doctors in the hospital maintained that it must have been God who guided the surgeon’s hands to perform a miracle like that. The parents were at first alarmed when the plaster was removed for the last time and they saw their son’s hands, but then they heaved a sigh of relief. The two and a half thousand dollars had been set aside for their holiday. The thin man had long ago promised his wife that they would go off to the sea. He brought an envelope to the surgeon’s office. The surgeon was standing barefoot in front of his cupboard, holding his gown in his hand. He took the money and said that the child would be OK. The thin man blinked and screwed up his face as if he had an itch inside his nose. Even his eyes were watering. The surgeon sensed danger. Three men in civilian clothes entered the office and arrested him. The envelope with the money was in the pocket of his jeans. There followed the investigation, the trial and the sentence – five years. But he did have a little bit of luck. The surgeon was already divorced from his wife and living with one of his assistants. Apart from the old Ford and an unfinished summer house with beams sticking out like blackened ribs he had nothing left to be confiscated. He completed three years, nine months and two weeks of his sentence.
The two men stood there in silence. And the new potatoes went on lying nearby in their different-coloured plastic bowls, three kilos in each, but if you ask the woman with the gloomy face who sells them, she’ll weigh you a kilo, or even half a kilo… But she had left her stall with the potatoes; she could feel that something was wrong.

It would have been correct for the fat man to have asked the thin man all of a sudden: “Well, how’s your son’s hand getting on?” In the literally sense, yes, it may have been correct, but the question never came. Instead it hung there in the air, like that child’s injured hand – too heavy to pick up.

They didn’t buy any new Belarusian potatoes. They went their separate ways. Just like the vast emptiness of space – two planets meet once in millions of years and then fly off in different directions for more millions of years. Everything is in God’s hands, just like the meeting of these two men.

Translated by Jim Dingley

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“One copeck” is a collection of short stories, each of which focusses on events in a small, nondescript Soviet town. The writer’s own place of birth served as the prototype. The collection includes stories penned by the writer over a period of eight years. The book was well received by critics and readers alike. The blogger Julija Sharova writes: “I am astounded by the author’s ability to write short stories about the people who live in the village of Kasciukouka near Homiel in such a way as to make readers feel that they are watching short art films from Georgia. We find the selfsame simple…

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© photo by Ivan Besser

Tania Skarynkina

Born in 1969 in Smarhon. She is a poet and essayist. She is the author of two poetry collections and one collection of essays.

A lot of Czeslaw Milosz, a bit of Elvis Presley

essay collection, diary

Skarynkina writes her poetry in Russian, but this engaging book of essays written in 2014-2015 for the website budzma.org [Let’s be Belarusians] was published in Belarusian (apart from quotations in the original language taken from her poetry). The book is made up of recollections of her childhood in Smarhon, interwoven with events that have happened to the author while she was writing the book, also in Smarhon, the town to which she returned after spending several years in Portugal. In principle Skarynkina notes down everything that comes into her head; the charm of this book lies in the fact that she has the head of a genius. The title of the book comes from an ironic memoir of how the author, when young and enthused by a translation of Milosz’s poetry into Belarusian, spent the last of her money on a trip to Krakow in an attempt to meet him. She never did manage to find his address, and so Milosz is still for her an idol beyond reach, dressed in a gold lame suit just like Elvis Presley.

“A LOT OF CZESLAW MILOZC WITH A DASH OF ELVIS PRESLEY”

I was at first intending to translate an article of mine about Czes?awMi?osz into Belarusian.
The article was originally written a few years ago for the Russian-language Israeli journal Dvoetochie. Translating it with a few corrections would not be difficult, and I had no wish to spend too long on it. But I couldn’t do it ¬– it just wasn’t interesting. So there I sat by the window waiting for inspiration, with a half-litre glass jar of cranberries in sugar syrup before me. The woman in the market I bought them from assured me that she had brought them all the way from Karelia, and that she had picked them herself. I don’t know what it might be that makes Karelian cranberries better than ours, because they look exactly the same and they don’t taste any different.
Perhaps they have some other kind of effect when you eat them. Spiritual, maybe?
So I eat and wait for the Karelian cranberries to work their magic on me. A helicopter flies overhead. That’s not something we see very often in these parts. It’s an Event – if only a small one – when one does appear. Or are the cranberries having an effect on me after all, and I’m seeing things? No, it is a real helicopter. The cats are all craning their necks, and the woman – a neighbour of mine – who is feeding them in the yard behind our block of flats, also looks up to see where this unusual noise is coming from.
At this moment I feel a sudden upsurge of energy within me. Good, that means I must be on the right path. I stop eating – the cranberries are beginning to set my teeth on edge – and the helicopter has disappeared out of sight over the allotments. I switch on one of the TV film channels at random. I look at the screen and become aware of an itch deep in my heart that I have to scratch – a sudden stroke of enlightenment. The film being shown is Tony Scott’s 1993 True Romance, screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Is it only now – after all that has happened – that I seem to have known in advance that in this film I would find the ideal embodiment of my favourite poet. Exactly in the way I wanted, just like an ideal teacher, father and mentor would look. Like the ghost of Elvis Presley. The ghost appears – resplendent in a body-hugging gold lam? suit – at difficult moments in the life of the main hero, played by Christian Slater. The ghost touches our hero’s shoulder with a hand weighed down by massive rings, and offers moral support with words that are always the same. To my mind they are great words:
“You are doing everything right. You’re a lucky fella – always were, and you always will be!”
It seems that I can occasionally feel something like that emanating from the – for me, immortal – poet Mi?osz. And that’s a feeling I’ve had for a long time now. Whatever verse I take I can always find in it some deep thought expressed wittily in simple words, a thought that is just taking shape in my head. All I have to do is think of something, and there it is – just take it and use it:
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
ArsPoetica?

When I couldn’t do without alcohol, I drove myself on alcohol.
When I couldn’t do without cigarettes and coffee, I drove myself
On cigarettes and coffee.
I was courageous, industrious. Nearly a model of virtue.
But that is good for nothing.
I sleep a lot and read St Thomas Aquinas

Love no country: countries soon disappear
Love no city: cities are soon rubble.
Throw away keepsakes, or from your desk
A choking, poisonous fume will exude
Child of Europe

But I came to feel that moral support alone was not enough. I was young and
exuberant, and decided to go off to Krakow. In order to look for the real Mi?osz, who was then still alive. Probably to make certain that he really was my ideal..
I borrowed some money from a colleague on the local private newspaper. I well remember how much – one hundred and fifty dollars US. I had asked for 200, but he didn’t give me that much. Perhaps he didn’t have it.
On the way I stopped off at Stach’s place in Warsaw. He was a cousin of my mother’s. He was gob-smacked, as was his wife, when I suddenly turned up uninvited on the doorstep of their flat. Poles of the older generation don’t like surprises. To make sure there were no misunderstandings I announced at once:
“Don’t worry! I’m off to Krakow first thing in the morning.”
“Have you got any money?” my uncle asked. This was the right question to ask. Judging by my sudden arrival, he may not have been sure that I was right in the head.
“Yes, I do.”
“How much?”
I told him.
“Just how are you going to manage to go travelling on that miserable amount of money? And where are you planning on staying when you get there?”
“I don’t know, but something will turn up. I’ve got a feeling that everything will be fine.”
My aunt pulled her husband into the next room, so that I couldn’t hear the reaction to my ‘fine’ that escaped from his angry lips. However, I could hear quite distinctly what she then said in a loud whisper:
“Give her some money!”
“What was she thinking about when she came here?”
“Just give her some money!”
“She’s a grown-up, isn’t she?” My uncle was beginning to calm down a little.
“I’m telling you, give her some money!”
They came out of the room smiling. They really were good people. My uncle gave me some money and bought me a ticket for the bus to Krakow, and my aunt filled a whole bag with food. On the way to the bus station my uncle and I dropped into a bookshop. “Crazy people like to read, it helps them calm down”, my uncle’s face was shining. Of course we bought a volume of Mi?osz – a new edition of Druga przestrze? (The second space). Appropriate, as I was headed for the poet’s city. I remember that at one of the rest stops, in a little town with the strange name Radom, an old grey-haired Pole attached himself to me. When I emerged from the public loo he pressed me up against the wall:
“Come and live with me! You’ll have everything you want. I’m very fond of Russian girls!”
This meeting could mean only one thing – if devils could attack so openly, I must have chosen the right road. With some difficulty I managed to fend off the hot-blooded old goat, sorry, my ‘suitor’.
Once in Krakow I started asking people who, judging by their faces, had some interest in or connection with literature:
“Do you by any chance know where Czes?awMi?osz lives?”
When I told the writer IharBabkou recently about this – and he had had the good fortune not only to see Mi?osz but actually to speak to him – he burst out laughing:
“Is that really what you asked?”
“How else should I have put it?”
“Did you find him?”
“No, but I had a strange sense that something happened to me that repeated word for word what the poet says in one of his poems:
On the frontier between this world and the worlds beyond, in Krakow,
Shoes clatter over the well-worn flagstones of the churches,
Generation follows generation.
In Krakow
At this point I should say a little about the most wonderful magical event that occurred in Krakow, thanks to either the little book that I carried everywhere or my overwhelming desire to get closer to the most important poet in my life. It was a miracle, a vision that came to me when I entered the cathedral on the Wawel Hill early one morning. This cathedral and the Royal Castle together represent the glory of the city and quite possibly of Poland. Once inside the building I could see generations upon generations of people walking, or more precisely, floating past. In waves they slowly piled up on each other as if they were made of mica. The shuffling of their feet was barely audible.
In the evening of that same day I quite by chance came across the verse about them; I realised then that my meeting with Mi?osz had indeed taken place. This feeling was reinforced by what had happened earlier when I emerged from the coolness of the cathedral into the blistering heat outside. I met a kind Polish lady in a caf? who showed no surprise when she learned why I had come to Krakow. Quite the reverse, in fact. She reassured me:
“Yes, Mi?osz does live in Krakow now. Previously he ‘resided’ in America and France, but now he has returned. Unfortunately, he does not see anyone.”
She was probably fibbing, but said that to comfort me. Good that she didn’t call an ambulance. She even treated me to some chocolate.
I returned to Warsaw, totally satisfied with my trip. My uncle was no longer annoyed. He meekly accompanied me to the railway station to catch the train to Minsk, and even bought me an expensive ticket for the first class sleeping car. This was probably on account of my not having stayed with them for too long on the return journey. For the first time ever I was travelling alone in a compartment with a washbasin, and I allowed myself the pleasure of smoking a cigarette by the open window. It’s a pity that in the middle of the night the conductor on my carriage dreamt that he could smell something burning, so he moved us all into second-class. Not to worry, though, it turned out to be not so different – I ended up drinking beer with a young man in the vestibule at the end of our carriage.
I wanted to find out from IharBabkou what Mi?osz actually looked like. Was he tall? I had always pictured him as a giant out of a fairy story. And of course dressed in a gold lam? suit like Elvis.
“He looks normal. Average height.” This was Ihar trying to bring me down to earth from the heavens.
“What about his voice?”
“You can hear it on YouTube.”
I did hear it. A voice like any other. Nothing special. Elvis Presley he wasn’t. But whenever I open The second space – the book I bought in Poland on a really hot June day – it’s like it’s speaking to me as I hold it. To be honest, I read a little bit of it every day. To be even more honest, I keep it in the loo. This is my simple way of learning Polish. People I know ask me:
“Are you learning the language to get a Polish Card?”
And they are amazed when I reply: “No.” One of the things I am dreaming of is to be able to read Mi?osz’ novel The Issa Valley in the original. Just one paragraph of the novel, translated into Belarusian for Andrzej Franaszek’s weighty tome Mi?osz. Biografia, makes my flesh crawl. (The book was given to me as a present by Alena Piatrovich, a kind and generous girl, and a professional translator.)
“He was placed on a bearskin rug when he was still very little. He wasn’t a problem afterwards, he kept his arms raised so as not to touch the shaggy animal fur. He just sat there motionless, half in horror, half in amazement.”
At this point I could finish, but there is just a little more to say about my adventure of long ago before ending the tale once and for all. A few months after my trip I found myself in Minsk at a meeting with the Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi. He’s more than a man, he’s charm personified. Anyone who has seen him will agree. After the talk session and the showing of the film he had brought with him I went up to get his autograph. “By pure chance” the only thing I had for him to write in was The second space. How delighted he was to see that book of Polish poems. We chatted together like old friends. He speaks Russian, so there was no problem if my Polish broke down. He signed the book with the following words:
“With pride for Mi?osz!”
In this way, I think, he took responsibility for signing his name in a book written by someone else.
I wrote an article about my Krakow trip for our local Smarhon newspaper and, at the suggestion of a girl friend of mine who also happens to be an expert in Polish studies, I entered it in the Jerzy Giedroyc prize competition for journalists. I came third and received a prize of 150 dollars. And so, as if by magic, the money I had spent on going to Poland came back to me. However, in the article I said not a word about the main purpose of my trip. I chickened out! I’ve made up for it here.

Translated by Jim Dingley

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Skarynkina writes her poetry in Russian, but this engaging book of essays written in 2014-2015 for the website budzma.org [Let’s be Belarusians] was published in Belarusian (apart from quotations in the original language taken from her poetry). The book is made up of recollections of her childhood in Smarhon, interwoven with events that have happened to the author while she was writing the book, also in Smarhon, the town to which she returned after spending several years in Portugal. In principle Skarynkina notes down everything that comes into her head; the charm of this book lies in the fact…

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© photo by Maria Soderberg

Jeva Viezhnaviec

Born in 1972 in the town of Sluck. She is the author of two books of fiction. Her creative personality was shaped in the colourful bohemian melting pot of Minsk in the 1990s. She currently works as a journalist in Warsaw. The author has at last produced her second volume of prose, which she describes as about the gardens of Paradise and the Earth. She works as a volunteer in the Warsaw Botanical Garden.

 

 

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Born in 1972 in the town of Sluck. She is the author of two books of fiction. Her creative personality was shaped in the colourful bohemian melting pot of Minsk in the 1990s. She currently works as a journalist in Warsaw. The author has at last produced her second volume of prose, which she describes as about the gardens of Paradise and the Earth. She works as a volunteer in the Warsaw Botanical…

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Arboretum

novel written in the form of a series of linked stories

“Arboretum” may be translated from Latin as a “garden of trees”. It is a name given to artificial forests, laid out in accordance with the principles of a botanical garden. The fundamental idea underlying the book is the incompatibility of the two concepts “garden” and “forest”. A garden is an attempt to instil order into nature and to reconcile the worlds of the botanical, zoological and human. A forest, on the other hand, represents untamed nature, the struggle for existence. The tiny settlement of Voupa nestles on land surrounded by marshes, peat bogs, forest and an experimental nursery garden. Arboretum is a book about people who are cut off from the world and live submerged in their own past and their own secrets. The book is also about how they can grow away from all that. Arboretum is a novel written in the form of a series of linked stories. 

THE WAY OF A SMALL-TIME SLOB
….
Flirtations in the City
He: I had dropped in to pick up a directory when I caught sight of the new girl in the office. Her eyes were huge, dark and languorous, her hair hung down in thin tresses. She had a slender, fine-featured face and an unexpectedly powerful chin. But the main thing was the delicate curve of her neck – just like Nefertiti’s!!! I had never seen such a curved neck before in any woman alive. I first thought of assigning her to the “apple tree” category: hips and breasts hanging like a couple of pairs of ripe fruit. But when she stood up it became obvious that she belonged to the “guitar” category ¬ A-cup breasts, a very narrow waist and a luxurious, huge, ripe… what word should I choose? “Bottom” or “backside” wouldn’t be right. The word “arse” was banned by Mikhail Padhainy when he was Minister of Information, and in any case why give this endearing and vital part of the female anatomy such a vulgar name? Is it simply because the “organs for making love coincide territorially with the organs used for waste removal”? No, I have secretly chosen a word for her alluring “body part” - mortar. Just waiting for the pestle.

She works in the office next to mine, behind a glass wall that runs the length of the corridor. If I have a smoke sitting on the sofa placed right opposite the glass door, I’ll soon get to know her,

She: That bloke from the firm down the corridor comes every day and sits there right opposite the glass door of the office where I work. It’s like he’s literally shepherding me. How I loathe that repulsive habit men have of devouring someone else’s body with their eyes! All you have to do is turn your head away for a moment and even the cleverest. most refined of men start ogling you. My flesh crawls when they look at me like that! It arouses a mixed feeling within me – pleasure and pride in my body and contempt for men. You go looking for some signs of intelligence in them, self-reliance, a sense of humour, that kind of thing – and all they do, and psychologists confirm this, is to think of sex every thirty seconds. How crude all those jokes of theirs are! And the sex fantasies they post on websites “of that kind” – ¬ they’re all so coarse and pathetic… All the same I still visit porno sites every evening and download these “essays” on the eternal topic. For all their intelligence and delicacy of feeling women do not arouse me one little bit, even though psychologists maintain that we’re all bisexual by nature. “After that you can’t trust anyone!”

He: She’s noticed me. I wonder if the contempt I can see in her dark eyes is for real or she’s just pretending. She probably doesn’t know herself. Women are all such lousy actresses and liars that they get tangled up in the games they play. I’m going to make her fall in love with me and start a relationship.
Flowers, caf?s, bowling (with beer, of course), horse riding, boating, cycling – and then sex for the first time. That’ll be an adornment to life. We’ll have to see – if she’s any good in bed it might be worth marrying her. After all, it’s time; I’m already 34. I’ll make the first direct approach tomorrow at lunchtime.

She: I just knew it! There I was yesterday sitting alone in the basement caf?. Up he comes holding a tray laden with food and asks “Is this seat taken?” I look around – all the tables are full, so I can’t fault him there. I say, with a distinct chill in my voice, “Please, sit down”. (Why do men eat so much?) So he sits down and switches on his smile. I stretch my mouth in response. Sweet Jesus, how sad it all is! He’s going to cast the bait at any moment.

It turned out that he was a bird of a completely different feather! He made a couple of pleasant remarks – you know, the kind that you exchange with strangers. Then he wished me ‘bon app?tit’, stood up and walked away. I don’t get it: am I interested in him, or what? He probably knows that women throw themselves at any man they can find when their biological clock is ticking. Do they do that? Maybe they do. He’s a little over thirty, just like me. He has good posture. He’s not fat, there isn’t an ounce of flab on him, but he isn’t muscle-bound. His lips are firm and manly, unlike my boss’s which look like a chicken’s arse. He has neat hands. The fingers are long and slender, there’s an aristocratic shape to the nails. The face is very handsome, and the teeth are obviously looked after. I think he wears Kenzo perfume. He dresses expensively but not showily, with just a bit of a rakish touch here and there – a button undone, or the tie a little loose, and his socks are playfully multi-coloured. I’m certain he wears branded underpants decorated with a little crocodile. His shirts and trousers are strictly classical in style. It looks like he’s middle management, but a non-conformist all the same, and reserved. I’ll have to pass by his aquarium to see where he is in the hierarchy. After all, a woman like me can’t waste time on some lowly pen-pusher – I’d never be able to respect him.

He: The little fishy took the bait. I can see her walking up and down past my door, casting side-long glances in my direction. It’s really quite amusing – women think that a sidelong glance, eyes just above the cheek, won’t be noticed by the person they’re looking at! She’s wearing a bright orange suit, skirt just above the knee. Light-coloured mules, and she’s taken her hair up. That means she knows how attractive the nape of her neck is. I wonder if she’s intelligent or merely interesting. Maybe she’s just another jumped-up nobody. Well, if that’s the case I can always tell her to sod off.

Where should I strike the next blow? In a caf?? No, the lighting’s too dim, it’s banal and there’s no fantasy attached… Been there, done that. So, should I wait for her to ripen? Should I drive her to distraction with searing glances?

She: The polyester threads in my suit are starting to melt from the way he looks at me. But he still hasn’t made a move in my direction. Is he shy? Or waiting for something? Somehow I’m going to have to give him an encouraging nudge. I think he goes to the barber’s in this building.

He: A week’s gone by. I’ve been up to my neck in work. We’ve had to stay in the office until late at night and then we’ve all gone off to the sauna. I suspect that my relationship with the girl next door has been put on hold for too long. The initial impetus is wearing off a bit. I should have been bolder and more ready with the smiles when I went up to her that time in the canteen. But now we have this game going...

She: It’s been a week now. This pause in our relationship is going on and on. Whenever he looks at me his eyes seem to be growing sadder and sadder. He’s obviously losing hope, just as I am beginning to feel that I like him. He has such a pleasant, purely masculine voice, rich and warm. It shows he knows what he’s talking about. He’s often laughing and joking with his work colleagues. On one occasion he actually took a bottle of dark beer to drink with his lunch. First off, I was amazed that he would dare drink beer in the office canteen in the middle of the working day. Anyone else who wanted to have a drink without spoiling their reputation would quickly knock back a large shot of the hard stuff and then chew something to take the smell of alcohol away. He, on the other hand, sat slumped back in his chair, placed his arms in parallel on the table, looking past his glass at something. How self-assured, how pensive he seemed sitting there. And second: my interest was aroused by the fact that he was drinking porter, a heavy beer of the kind that – if you pour it on a chair and then sit down – your trousers will stick to it. Normally men – unlike us women – prefer to drink a light-coloured, bitter, powerful brew. This is clearly no ordinary bloke.

He: The more reserved I become, the more passionately and languorously she looks at me. Yesterday morning she bumped into me on purpose as I was coming out of the gym. I just said hello to her and smiled, but didn’t stop to talk. I swear on Monday she’ll be lying in wait for me in the canteen! Her face and body are OK, but I don’t really like her character very much: she makes the transition from frigid to scorching much too quickly. There’s not much struggle involved in winning the heart of a woman like that. I do wonder about one thing though: will she be able to move in the reverse direction – from ardent to chilly – just as rapidly? We shall see.

She: Things are going badly: I’m starting to fall in love. The whole weekend I waited to go back to work just as if I was going on holiday. I’m weighed down by everything I have to do in the office, when all I want to do is sit and think about him. On Sunday evening I had already decided what I would wear, and the best kind of make-up to put on. I’m at the stage where I should either get to know him better or turn away altogether. I choose getting to know him better. After all, if you don’t take any risks, you won’t get to drink the champagne… and all that kind of thing.

He: Just as I thought! Yesterday I was eating my lunch in the canteen, all the tables were already taken. Right at the busiest time up comes my princess with her tray – she’s obviously been waiting for all the other tables to fill up. So she sits down at my table, says hello, smiles and starts wittering on about the weather, what the food’s like, and lots of other random stuff. I reply politely, but by now I’m having second thoughts: I don’t want her any more, and she’s reached the point where women begin to pursue the elusive object of their affections. I peer intently at her, wondering if she might possibly be one of those overeager types who stalk men for years with their letters, meaningful glances and “chance” meetings. I don’t think so: she’s a striking bird and big-headed with it, but her eyes put me on my guard. The languor I can see in them is growing by the day, and they’re becoming darker and deeper. Like a black hole in space. Is she on heat? It’s time to back off.

She: He was looking at me so attentively while we were eating our lunch, but made no move to get closer. I’m going to have to help him. I suppose this could be a fear of getting close to a woman, something he’s had since he was a child, a sense of shame or is he just laid back? Anyway, whatever it is, I want to try to get close to this man.

He: Now she’s really trying it on! Any woman who starts the chase herself insults that thing within me which I hold in high regard - my natural hunting instinct. The world is becoming increasingly unisex, and everyone around me seems to like it that way, but I don’t – absolutely not! I’m a hunter that people want to reduce to the status of prey. I’ll be tough. I’ll show her that there’s no way she can get the better of me as if I was some kind of trembling female. So then, the awareness of being a male of the species is stronger than being just human. 

She: I’m going to put an end to this fight, even though I can feel there’s something like pepper strewn inside me itching and burning. I’m in love. A man and a woman together: it’s like a play of shadows. You follow him, and he backs away. I used to think that these days it would be possible to make a man realise you like him without his being afraid of being trapped by your affection. Is a woman really supposed to lie and play-act whenever her heart is moved? If that’s the case it won’t be long before she loses herself completely in a tangle of falsehoods. So yes, I’m going to stop this struggle even though his every glance, every turn of his head, his laugh and his voice all tear me apart. I’ve almost lost the ability to go on living. I don’t understand what’s happened to me. Here I am, a thirty-year-old woman who’s had only slightly fewer men in her life than Messalina, in love with a man who cannot even bring himself to talk to me properly! I must be out of my mind.

He: She’s gone quiet, looks as though she’s wasting away. I often see her just sitting lost in thought, staring out of the window. Women have this capacity for staring into space, penning lyrical verses, scribbling letters and diaries, activities that I’ve always regarded as abnormal. It ties in with their readiness to attach themselves to you and then stick to you like glue. I still dream of meeting a girl I can fall in love with and who does not immediately feel the same for me. Meanwhile I shall be spending time on my own or with my mates.

PS All the same, she does have a lovely neck!

translated by Jim Dingley

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“Arboretum” may be translated from Latin as a “garden of trees”. It is a name given to artificial forests, laid out in accordance with the principles of a botanical garden. The fundamental idea underlying the book is the incompatibility of the two concepts “garden” and “forest”. A garden is an attempt to instil order into nature and to reconcile the worlds of the botanical, zoological and human. A forest, on the other hand, represents untamed nature, the struggle for existence. The tiny settlement of Voupa nestles on land surrounded by marshes, peat bogs, forest and an experimental nursery garden.…

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