Book Notes: Alhierd Baharevich’s Dogs of Europe

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.

11 thoughts on “Book Notes: Alhierd Baharevich’s Dogs of Europe”

  1. First of all, thank you for writing this great review. 🙂

    Can I see when each novella ends / begins, if I look at the chapters, for instance? Or does the transition between them happen in the middle of chapters and sometimes several ‘novellas’ are going on simultaneously? I haven’t started reading the book the first time I loaned it since the misfits’ language subplot put me off. It would be great to start reading from the more interesting novella. Parts #3 and #6 sound great, and I’ll definitely try to find and read them later.

    // 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 think one of the main reasons lies in “Dogs of Europe” being less accessible to Western audiences than Menasse’s “Capital.” You are a suitable reader for this book because of deep knowledge of the cultural and historical context in Eastern Europe and of various literary classics.

    I am unsure what I may understand from it without reading one word by Kafka and w/o good knowledge of Russian literature. So, how confused would an average Western reader be by all Russian ‘literary games’ and probably the implied assumption a reader understands the realities of FSU space?

    An American or Israeli reader can easily understand “Capital,” while Baharevich’s novel seems formidable and not because of its size, judging by your description and my first impression after looking at some pages of it.

    Btw, re ‘untranslatable,’ did you read it in English? I will in Russian.

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    1. I don’t think anybody translated it into English. Or is going to, to be honest. And yes, it’s completely separate parts. Do 2 and 6. Three maybe, although it only makes sense if you really care about Belarusian nationalism. To resume, they think that they and the Russians are the only true Slavs because they descend from an ancient slavic tribe called Krivichi. Honestly, all these discussions of who’s the”true Slav” stink of Nazism to me. As they do to Baharevich. All of these “ethnic purity” tests make me barf. Slav, schmav, once you start going in that direction, the next step is to start beating up Jews. Or gays. Or both. Fuck all that.

      And again, Baharevich clearly agrees.

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      1. ” if you really care about Belarusian nationalism”

        I don’t care about that but wikipedia says he writes in Belarusian, which is a language that has had even worse luck than Ukrainian (which is saying something) and for which I have a kid of inexplicable fondness , especially in its old łacinka orthography… Sabaki Eŭropy has much more je ne sais quoi than Сабакі Эўропы, much less Собаки Европы.

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  2. Just saw this post. You expressed pity that Spanish literature is ignored, but it seems to be not the only one:

    Вечное одиночество венгерской литературы
    Интервью с переводчицей Оксаной Якименко
    Григорий Петухов
    24 января 2020

    https://anna-bpguide.livejournal.com/880011.html

    «Свечи сгорают дотла» sounds interesting because of its themes, but I don’t like the style of a monologue taking entire book:

    Роман венгерского писателя Шандора Мараи (1900–1989) «Свечи сгорают дотла» был впервые опубликован в 1942 году, но принес мировую славу своему автору лишь посмертно, в 1999 году, когда на Франкфуртской ярмарке были представлены его английский и немецкий переводы. Небольшой, но насыщенный эмоциями роман представляет собой по сути монолог: его произносит или прокручивает в голове главный герой, пожилой аристократ, пригласивший на ужин в замок давнего друга, с которым не виделся несколько десятилетий. История дружбы, любви, верности и предательства конкретных людей у Мараи — это еще и трагическая картина распада прежнего миропорядка, потрясения, изменившего европейский мир и его привычные ценности.

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  3. // Do 2 and 6.

    I’ve and arrived to share and ask for one clarification. 🙂

    Part 2 was very good. I especially enjoyed the first half, the descriptions of everyday life before he met the American spy in the forest. Hope I haven’t imagined the implied criticism of both sides in the final battle scene: the Russians guarding their chains and the Americans – their dreams and illusions. The final words of Part 2 read like a poem, are a poem in prose actually and very touching.

    “Может, кто-то печеной редьки объелся.
    Может, в колодец старый кто плюнул.
    Может, гора с горой сошлись.
    Может, русалка воду из кос вычесала.
    А может, это серая гусь-уточка в небо взлетела.
    Высоко взлетела.
    Не поймаешь.”

    The poem Памяти Инженера Гарина made an impression too despite lacking much of the context. Just now googled who was that Garin, haven’t read Tolstoy’s novel. Still, one just feels it is good and I’ll reread it, google and understand more.

    Part 6 was a letdown not because it’s objectively bad but since one cannot understand a lot if one haven’t read all the previous parts. I skimmed the part about the teacher, but it still wasn’t enough for part 6. Also, visiting a bookshop after a bookshop felt repetitive and unnecessary since it didn’t seem to provide new insights to a reader. (Again, may be, I missed them, not having read most of the book.)

    Would you define this book as a magic realism? Some other literary term?

    My question is : what is the connection between Молчун, Виктор Баум and the dead poet? Did Молчун escape? I got confused in part 6 and don’t think I would get a lot more out of rereading it again, so decided to ask you.

    Also, you shared you couldn’t feel what Menasse was doing. In this book, Молчун was the only likable character, in Menasse’s – there were several. I think they may be less fleshed out since Menasse chose to have more than 10 main characters iirc, while here – Молчун gets the entire part to himself.

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    1. It’s high postmodernism. And I agree that nothing in the book rises to the level of part 2.

      Likable is a subjective thing. The only person I kind of cared about in the novel was the Polish assassin. Everybody else kind of bled together. Which I understand is the point but it makes for heavy reading. Like De Vriend and Eckhart who were indistinguishable.

      Oh, I also kind of liked the Strozzi guy who’s a villain but at least you can distinguish him from others because of the fencing thing.

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      1. “common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth”

        So, it’s OK to be confused by some aspects of those literary works?

        Are Молчун, Виктор Баум and the dead poet three different characters? Since I cared about Молчун, want to understand what was his future fate. Right now, I imagine his as that dead poet with a feather.

        I liked both De Vriend and Eckhart the most in “Capital” and wanted to protect them in their vulnerability. Like you with “indistinguishable,” I also felt those were very mentally close characters, like twins who encounted different life circumstances as a German and a Jew. Now, when I started thinking about their ethnicities, the similarity we felt may be the whole point, whether Menasse entended it or not. Being German or Jewish makes no difference, what matters is what is within one’s soul. Ok, it sounds trivial, but still…

        What about the policeman (forgot his name) who tried to find the murderer?

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        1. Yeah, it’s not really supposed to be understood at all. Which is why most people detest postmodernism.

          I don’t think it works chronologically for the boy to be the dead poet but then again, it’s postmodernism, anything is possible. It’s up for the reader to decide everything. Which gets annoying after a while.

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        2. And yes, I agree that the similarities between the characters are intentional. And many other things.

          I definitely need to find a moment to write that review because I do have a lot to say.

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