This is a gigantic novel by a young Belarusian writer. I hated it many times and loved it almost as often. Baharevich is the kind of author who doesn’t give a crap what the readers think of whether they understand the novel. He’s so enjoying the process of writing that he can’t be bothered to care. Which is the number one characteristic of a real writer.
The novel consists of six novellas that are loosely – like in very loosely – connected. To be honest, I’d throw out all of them except the second and the sixth. These were the novellas I read at a maniacal speed while slogging through the rest. And it’s not like the other four are bad. They definitely have a right to exist, especially the third one. But they are quite extraneous to the main hook in the larger plot.
Since this is nowhere to be found online, here is what the novellas are like.
#1. Two male misfits create their own language. Baharevich made up an actual language, complete with a grammar and a two-way dictionary, and inserted large chunks of text in this made-up language into the novel without translating them. This is a deeply postmodernist novel, and he’s playing many literary games at once with this. But hey, if Tolstoy – a writer definitely less gifted than Baharevich – can start his novels with 26 pages of untranslated French text to make sure the hoi polloi know to leave his books out of their grubby monolingualist hands, then what’s the problem? In the end, the male misfits are bested at their game by a young woman who appropriates the invented language as her own.
It’s not a bad novella but I’m about 30 years too old for these language games. The novella also mocks the entirety of literature in Russian in a very vicious way. This is endearing but it also gets a little too dark.
This is going to be a gigantic post, so I’ll put the rest under the fold where I will talk about my favorite novellas in the book.
#2. This is the part I liked the most. It’s set in the future, after a big war that created a new Russian empire and erased Belarus (and, I’m guessing, Ukraine) not only from the map but from people’s memory as well. This isn’t hard because in the new post-war Europe books have fallen out of fashion. And once there are no books and no European culture, there’s no real memory either.
The Russian imperial mentality is depicted so well in this novella that it becomes clear that only a Belarusian author could write something like this. Baharevich is painfully aware of the real Russian threat to the world. It has nothing to do with the inane “Trump is a Russian puppet” fantasy, of course. The novella is so scary and so true that I loved it more than anything in the book.
#3. This is the longest novella in the book, and it’s very good. I believe, though, that it should be its own novel. This novella is about Belarusian nationalism and why it’s utterly incapable of protecting Belarus from being engulfed by Russia. Baharevich has clearly studied Belarusian nationalism at length, and his disgust with it knows no bounds. And deservedly so because it’s a mirror copy of the Russian nationalism, with it’s marriage between the most vapid folk traditions and imperial mentality.
#4. I’m still not completely sure what this novella is doing in the book at all. Again, it’s good as a standalone piece but within the novel it feels like filler that stands between the reader and the really good stuff that will finally answer the questions set up throughout the 1,395 pages of my edition of the novel. This novella is a tribute to Kafka, which makes sense because Kafka is crucial to the novel. This is a really degraded, shat-upon Kafka, which drives home the point about the degradation of the entire European cultural project.
#5. This one I really hated. Not because it’s bad but because the drama of a misunderstood and alienated male high school teacher has been done in Russian-language literature, TV and film five trillion times. The novella does help link the body of the novel to the powerful closing part but that doesn’t justify using the tired old trope of the cynical teacher. The teacher stands for Baharevich himself because the writer shares his real name (which is obviously not Alhierd because this wasn’t a real name given to people born in the 1970s in the USSR). But again, that’s been done, and it’s boring. I almost quit reading with this novella.
But I’m glad I didn’t because of…
#6. This is a long closing part, and it’s brilliant. It shows the European part of the post-war future reality. Books are abolished, the state is a formality, men wear skirts, and Germany is the most tolerant part of Europe and has no Germans. Everybody is a sad, disillusioned loner. Everything is poverty, decay, and slow-motion collapse. What happened and how all the novellas link is explained at this point but it takes literally a thousand pages to get to this point.
OK, for those two people who have managed to slog through to the end of this post, this is definitely a worthwhile book. I read Menasse’s Capital (a full review to follow), and it’s trying to tell the same story from a different geographic point. I think Baharevich really wins because his story is fuller. Who’s going to read it, though? It’s extremely long, untranslatable, and extraordinarily dark. I feel like I need to rewatch all 9 seasons of Gilmore Girls to erase the bitter aftertaste.