Alhierd Baharevich: “A writer must write, not fight”.
Ales Kudrytski: Please, tell us how and why you came to Germany. How is your life in this country?
Alhierd Baharevich: My favourite Grimm Brothers fairytale is “The Bremen Town Musicians”. This is a story about creative emigration. Picture this: one cat (let’s call him Cincinnatus) got bored with catching mice in his masters’ house. He realised he was a musician. However, the masters needed no musician at their home. One day the cat set out on a journey. He knew that he could be a musician only in the free city of Bremen, among creatures like himself.
Two thousand and six became the year of great geographic discoveries for me. I performed at various literature festivals and seminars across Europe. My stories began to get published abroad. I spent a month in Graz, Austria, on a literary fellowship. Some people abroad appreciated my work. At the same time, the atmosphere in Belarus has become particularly suffocating. With my unusually thin skin, I sensed this almost physically. Every new day turned into a defeat. There was no way for me to work. Moreover, strange things began to happen around me – weird conversations, hints, warnings from unknown people. Everyone was overwhelmed by fear, suspiciousness, and despair. However, Lukashenka’s Republic of Belarus flourished, celebrating one victory after another. I remember very well this disgusting feeling of helplessness. Probably, there are people who can, clenching their teeth, tolerate all this propagandistic hysteria, all these marches with imaginary torches. I couldn’t. I felt as if I was sold into a lifelong slavery. At the end of 2006 my friends in Austria and Germany offered me help. In early 2007 I went on a voluntary exile to Hamburg with my wife and daughter. If you prefer to call this a flight, I would not object. After I left, I only got more enemies and problems at home. Well, this is normal for a writer.
Why Germany? I have an old sympathy towards the German-speaking countries. Such things are difficult to explain. Why is someone attracted to Ireland, another one to Africa, and yet another one to Belarusian folklore nationalists… I always had an interest in German culture, literature, history, and language. I personally knew some German writers before I left Belarus. I translated poems by German poets into Belarusian, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger, cooperated with the Goethe Institute, translated and published one less known story by Kafka.
After I began writing prose, I work hard every day. I fight for my right to handle my writing as a job, not as a hobby, as it is often done in Belarus. I fight for the writer’s right to be a writer and no one else if he has readers. The Gods became tired of my stubbornness, and took pity on me, albeit not without playing a joke. Since 2007 I have been living in Hamburg with my family as a writer in exile. Sometimes my works get published in different magazines and anthologies. My book, “The Magpie on Gallows”, will also be published in the near future. I live on modest stipends from various organizations, as well as honoraria I receive for my publications and performances. Now I can fully dedicate myself to literature. This is one of the main conditions of a writer’s life. I often take ICE bullet trains. I do a lot of thinking. I translate small pieces of German literature. I acquaint the Germans with Belarus and its language. Many people here don’t even suspect that there is such a country and language. Germans know more about China than about Belarus. I stubbornly fight against the humiliating word “Weissrussland”. And I write my books. The opportunity to write in peace is the only thing I truly need. I never took interest in politics, however, what is happening in Belarus, has already left the boundaries of political scuffles. It is about some universal human values, which the Republic of Belarus spits at from its high prison watchtowers.
We are strangers here, but haven’t we been at home in Belarus? Alienation is a wonderful state for a creative person. I see my exile as an award.
A.K.: Could you please tell us about your family. How do they like living in Germany?
A.B.: My wife Ksenia and I married in 2001. She started as a poet; now she translates from Italian, and namely “Centuria” by Giorgio Manganelli, who is unknown in Belarus. I hope next year it will be possible to print a Belarusian translation of his prose. My daughter Ulyana will turn five in September. She was born in Minsk, however, her upbringing and worldview is that of a typical Hamburg girl. She speaks Belarusian and German. It was a bit difficult for her in the beginning, but eventually she got used to it here. She goes to a usual German kindergarten and feels here much more at home than her adventurous parents. We came to Germany as adults from a different planet. That is why from time to time we have some problems. But these problems are insignificant, something we simply make jokes about.
A.K.: What can you say about Germany and Germans – what kind of land and people are they? What do you think about Hamburg?
A.B.: Germany is indeed very diverse. It is exciting to see such an ensemble within a single country: winds and dunes of Sylt Island and fairytale Schwarzwald - the Black Forest, cosmopolitan Berlin and self-assured Bavaria, vineyards on Rhine and sheep of Schleswig, narrow cobblestone streets of Goerlitz and skyscrapers of Frankfurt on the Main. Let’s not forget the diversity of German dialects; let’s not forget Frisians and Lusatians. Above all this – electric power windmills, with their fans circling, counting time. I have pictured my fresh impressions about Germany in the novel “The Magpie on Gallows”. I realise that I have an idealistic view of this country, but I really couldn’t care less about local political skirmishes, NATO affairs or corporate business. I am much more fond of looking at Germany from the point of view of aesthetics.
In my opinion, Hamburg occupies a very special place in Germany. This city is more than a thousand years old. Living here, you actually feel it (there are other cities of the same age, with all of their history visible in museums only). The city suffered much from the fire in the 19th century, and even more during World War II. The Allies bombed the city so heavily during a July 1943 Operation Gomorrah that a fire tornado (a very rare phenomenon) swept these streets, burning the houses from the inside, eliminating every sign of life. However, the city survived, came to its senses and not only managed to return its old grandeur but also began accepting guests, becoming a gate to the wide world for many emigrants, as it had been for the previous several centuries. That is why Jolly Roger, the ancient symbol of the immortality of a spirit and the unofficial symbol of the iconic local football club Sankt Pauli can also be considered an informal symbol of Hamburg.
Every second you feel the proximity of a cool sea here, even though the sea is actually a hundred kilometres away. This fills local people with some special feeling of pride that sailors would have. Hamburgers are very reserved and romantic. It rains here half a year long, which is the reason of this peculiar Hamburg melancholy.
While speaking about Germans and looking for a universal description for Hamburgers one shouldn’t forget that all these generalisations are rather senseless. Germans are all very different, just like Belarusians. I have never believed in mentality and never will. As soon as you begin to generalise, something will always ruin your ideas. The few stereotypes I had about Germans prior to my coming to Hamburg were completely destroyed here. Perhaps, only the famous German reticence is true. But I like it so much better than the Slavic openness, when people are ready to pour out their soul to a stranger (no matter if it happens in a public toilet or in a subway car) – and expect that their victim will do the same. It’s disgusting. I am a reserved person, I don’t like to confess to anyone or bother other people with my problems. I also expect that strangers will not trouble me with boring stories of their poorly constructed lives. Relations can be built in a different way – unobtrusively, with mutual respect and distance. The most important thing in human relations is respect towards personal space. This is something what Belarusians lack.
A.K.: How does your working day look like? What do you need in order to write?
A.B.: In order to write, I need solitude. Solitude and silence. Although, sometimes I write while listening to music. For example, several chapters of “Capital’s Damned Guests” were written to the accompaniment of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, and some pages of “The Magpie on Gallows” – of music of Brahms and Shostakovich’s operas. I usually work in my study room. I like solitude a lot, I never feel bored in my own company. However, I can mull over the future book anywhere – in subway, on a train, at a pub or during a walk.
In Germany I also added smoking pipes to solitude and silence. I already have seven of them and think about giving them individual names.
A.K.: Where do you feel yourself the most comfortable?
A.B.: There are only three cities on Earth, which I know well enough. These are Minsk, Graz, and Hamburg. Minsk is my native city. It has some strange, eerie, morbid charm. A person born in Minsk will always be slightly Kafkaesque. I have really enjoyed reading Artur Klinau’s “Minsk: the Sun City of Dreams”. I have never seen a combination of so many incompatible things as in Minsk. Minsk challenges publicly accepted views about harmony. I love Minsk and it is painful for me to see how various eastern guests treat it as their summer cottage, with local lackeys ready to serve them.
In Graz, Austria, I spent one of the happiest months of my life. There, above its roofs, on the Schlossberg Mountain I discovered Europe. Graz is like the first love.
And, the last but not least, Hamburg, which became my haven, and where I have written my most important book so far. I travelled the city back and forth, read everything I could find about Hamburg’s history, so I could easily work as a tourist guide here.
A.K.: Will you try to remain abroad for good, or do you plan to return to Belarus?
A.B.: I find special pleasure in not thinking about what will happen to me tomorrow. Whenever we live, I will continue writing, and I will treat that place as my home until we find another one. A lot depends upon how my works will be accepted in Germany (“The Magpie on Gallows” is currently being translated into German).
Writing is the only skill I have. Apart from that, I am not more than “a gentleman in search of a ten-rouble-note” as one Russian literature character said. I will probably try to remain abroad, but not at any cost. If I don’t succeed and have to return to Belarus it will not make me happy but will not become a tragedy either. In the end, a return is a test, just like a flight. Once a journalist asked me what is more difficult – to live in Belarus or to leave it. My answer was: to return there. This is the most difficult thing.
Speaking about dreams, I would like to travel around the world, spend every year in a new country, visiting Minsk once in a while.
A.K.: You say that the main crime of the Belarusian regime is the murder of your dreams. However, don’t you think that by doing so it created the grounds for your literary work? After all, you say that literature is rooted in pain and suffering. Perhaps, if the conditions at home were more comfortable, you wouldn’t become the writer you are now?
A.B.: Probably, you are right. This is a trap every artist falls into: a true artist must always feel uncomfortable. That is why every trouble should be treated as a gift. However, one can’t stop being a human being. In the situation of total absence of freedom one has more chances to come into a blind alley rather than create a chef-d'oeuvre. A lot depends on a personality, on the way it is rooted in native soil. Vasil Bykau, for example, wrote his books in Soviet Belarus; he would not be able to create them abroad. However, there are other examples like Joyce, Kundera, and Rushdie. Just imagine if Nabokov stayed in Russia – the world would have lost a great writer. Perhaps, a more comfortable life at home and spared dreams would make me write about other things in different words. The readers would be different. The art needs a conflict, it needs pain – and there is enough of them in any system.
I feel sad that some people believe that I write about topical stuff. In fact, the Belarusian reality is not my major issue. I am interested in such phenomena as love, power, death, treachery, creativity, violence, loneliness… Does a tree need to thank the woodcutter for giving it an opportunity for further development?
A.K.: Belarus of your dreams – what kind of country is it?
A.B.: It is very simple. As any dream, it is touchingly naïve and too complete. Belarus of my dreams is genuinely Belarusian. This is a country with a vivid national identity. There is only one state language (Belarusian), the citizenship is granted only to the people who pass a language test. This is a European country, with its eastern border also serving as a border of the European Union. It is a parliamentary republic, where liberalism is considered to be the least evil of all evils. People of different opinions, even bohemian bastards and anarchic individualists like me feel free. This is a country where the government intervenes with peoples’ lives only when it is absolutely necessary. There is market economy, total freedom of speech, and a strict ban on Nazis, communists, and Belarusian Christian democrats. Belarus gradually converts to a Latin alphabet from a Cyrillic one. In short, it is everything which will never happen in this land. But that’s what a dream is all about.
I remember very well the early 1990’s when Belarus made its first weak step in the direction of all that. Even the most daring dreams didn’t seem too naïve then. However, after that step Belarus got scared and ran in the opposite direction to the warm cattle shed, to its master – a dull person with a heavy forehead wearing a collective farm worker uniform. He flogs, but he also gives food. Dreams? Hell with them.
I am convinced that Belarusians have lost their most important historic chance in the early 90’s.
A.K.: How did these years of authoritarianism change Belarus and Belarusians? How did they change you?
A.B.: These years haven’t changed the older generation. The process of human degradation, which began in the Soviet time, has received new favourable conditions. The people’s apathy has grown into a kind of religious fanaticism. Belarusians are not just passive, they are unshakeably convinced that nothing depends on them in this land, that they are not able to change anything, or influence their destiny. They think it is normal that their children are born and will die slaves. Nobody thinks about the reasons. The state deliberately cultivates indifference, suspicion, and intolerance towards dissent. It’s just like in the Soviet Union, but with much more grave results. There is no Iron Curtain, the alternative is obvious, and still, most Belarusians do not need any changes at all. These fifteen years of authoritarianism were used to prevent a new, non-Soviet, non-slave person from getting developed. This is a period of great experiments. Belarusian authorities test the limits of human obedience, invent new humiliations for their slaves, and observe with pleasure that this work can be continued without any threat to the experimenters.
Sometimes I imagine an Eternal Guerrilla, an anti-Soviet activist or a simple collective farm worker, bearded, with a bandolier around his waist, who leaves a wood after 50 years of hiding. He will see various technical inventions; he will be surprised to learn that the empire had collapsed and will notice that morals and manners are somewhat different. However, he will also realise that the life of Belarusians remained essentially the same. The principles of the interaction between the people and the authorities have not changed, even the flags on streets have not faded.
A new generation of Belarusians has been raised during the time of Lukashenka. They have not seen anything except this regime, and cannot discern the squalor of their life. These are true children of the president, his firm support, and the generation which is absolutely devoid of the youth’s natural revolutionary character, which keeps criminals from sitting comfortably in their chairs in other countries. As adolescents, they are being morally mutilated by the Belarusian “Hitlerjugend”. These are young but already hardened timeservers with a set of primitive physiologic needs, thick layer of red-and-green patriotism on their plump cheeks, and a brain of a hockey player sculpture. An embrace by a suburban hooligan and a riot policeman could best symbolise the Belarusian youth.
The cunning substitution of values takes place. Those who care become fascists in the people’s eyes; those who don’t are considered “true Belarusians”. I also wrote about this in “The Magpie on Gallows”.
A new quasi-culture and quasi-literature has been formed in Belarus. The people whose tastes are not even on a par with vulgarity lead the country. As a result, instead of culture we have hysteria about Eurasia, total absence of domestic cinema, a cult of war and death, straw-hat nationalism, scribblers in state-owned publishing houses. Members of the Academy of Sciences can barely string two words of Russian together, let alone of Belarusian or foreign language, which they simply don’t know. Belarus is a total absence of style and taste. Everything, which has taste and style, is regarded as dangerous and unnecessary.
The Republic of Belarus is a rather weak attempt to imitate a state. The ground upon which it is built is at most suitable for constructing a circus or a concentration camp.
The true country called Belarus does exist – owing to nonconformists which, fortunately, can be found in any generation. In the late 1980’s – early 1990’s the history gave us a break, a time to catch our breath. It is the time when the protective mechanism was developed which still prevents us from vanishing. This mechanism works without break even in the darkest times. After Europe’s betrayal, we can only hope on our own strength.
These dark years have made me cynical. They have taught me how to hate.
A.K.: Where does the evil come from – from outside, or from within people? Are Belarusians guilty of anything? Do you think Belarusians will have to go through admitting their own fault in the way their country is being run?
A.B.: The idea of a collective blame is not close to me. Repentance should be the responsibility of those who helped these beasts to gain power, who volunteered to cooperate with the regime, of those who did their own little deals against a background of the regime’s crimes, of those who chose a compromise when none was needed.
The cleansing should begin with acknowledging the squalor of one’s life and admitting one’s mistakes. I am not a politician and not a prophet; I don’t intend to blame the whole people for passivity. I am passive myself. I also worked for the state some time ago. However, I was already ashamed of this. Most Belarusians are not. It is sad to have something in common with such kind of people. But who am I to accuse them?
We haven’t chosen this regime. When I say “we” I mean those who still have the right to be called Belarusians. This regime was thrust upon us. We run away from it in all directions.
I think that every person has his own reverse side. He is not able to take a look at it, if he does not develop some kind of spiritual sensitivity. There are a lot of interesting things on this dark side. We appear to be horrible creatures there. The people who have not developed the spiritual sensitivity will go insane with a look at this reverse side of them. They will not be able to come back. Art is always a science of balancing between these two sides of a human being. What I am hinting at is that the regime is able to manipulate people. It is not interested in encouraging people to explore their reverse side. The task of such a regime is to make two human sides change places, inconspicuously. As a result, the ugly side of us is regarded as normal.
A.K.: What kind of people Belarusians are? Does it make sense to speak about common traits of their national character?
A.B.: I already said that I don’t believe in mentality. Belarusians are all different; there are plenty of people among them who deserve respect. But if you want me to generalise, then here it is: the majority of modern Belarusians are people living on the drowned island called USSR. They are silent like fish. Like fish, they do not need any motherland. They are ready to swallow any bait on a hook. Those who do not want to live like that are being dragged down to the bottom by these lovely enthusiastic drowned creatures.
A.K.: In interviews you repeat that you do not like people. But do you like yourself?
A.B.: I am very much fond of the view by Jonathan Swift, which he expressed in his letter to Alexander Pope: “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them”. This is not an ultimate truth, but it is in any case a fruit of a long and honest analysis of human nature. I completely share this humanistic view of people. In a community everything is adjusted to fit the average level. As a result, there is no place left for creativity and freedom. People are interesting only individually. When they come together they usually tend to commit crimes or do stupid things – and all this with the most elevated motives.
Once I was asked whether I liked myself. I answered negatively – otherwise I would be healthy, happy, and rich, I said. However, I think I do like myself because I live for myself. I don’t sacrifice myself for a nation or freedom like young politicians. I don’t go on hunger strikes, I don’t crave for mounting the scaffold, and I wouldn’t part with a single of my favourite pipes for the happiness of people I am not familiar with. I really like pleasures, especially forbidden ones. I am a hedonist and a sinner. There are often various disgusting things happening in my books, and I know very well what I am writing about. I have a huge amount of bad habits. I don’t want to fight against anything and anyone. I have never sympathised with vegans, believers, and anti-globalists. I am an attentive observer and not a finicky consumer. The only things I really care for are style, art, and literature. Most of the time I want just one thing: to be left alone. I feel good with my family and close friends. Only the person who loves himself can afford to be such a scum.
A.K.: Do you bear a grudge against someone or something – people, motherland, or destiny?
A.B.: Perhaps, this will sound slightly poetic, but I pocket no insults at all. Unlike love and hatred, resentment is not a creative feeling.
A.K.: Do you really believe that a writer can make up his stories? After all, your books are full of allusions at the Belarusian reality. Also, do you think a foreign writer who is not familiar with our life will be able to decrypt your ideas?
A.B.: My principles are constant. True art is always made-up, fabricated, invented. All of us look at the so-called reality through different glasses. A writer may take his scenery sets from real life, but all the characters, conflicts, and situations must be fictional, otherwise the literature will fade into journalism. A writer, an artist must bring up a demiurge within himself, who will be able to create a world out of nothing. It doesn’t matter that the demiurge perishes after every new text – one has to resurrect him, overcoming the temptation to start looking into a mirror.
True literature is the most difficult of all arts. It uses neither eyes (at least not like visual art or cinema), nor ears, nor nose of a reader. At the same time, literature creates pictures, sounds and odours out of nowhere. Creating the whole world anew is the greatest miracle. No matter, which scenery set is used, Lukashenka’s Belarus or Germany, these are conflicts and pain which are always required. They do not depend upon scenery sets. Perhaps a foreign reader will not comprehend the desperation of a pregnant woman, who stands in a long line at 7 a.m., on a grey winter morning, in order to get an appointment ticket to see a doctor at a typical Belarusian hospital. However, the existential horror is familiar to everyone. Literature speaks about phenomena with the help of minute details. Being a reader is not easier than being a writer. The desire and ability to decrypt ideas is required from everyone who takes a book in his hands.
A.K.: Why did you decide to translate “The Cold Heart” by Wilhelm Hauff into Belarusian?
A.B.: In terms of “The Heart of Stone” this is nothing more than a translation attempt. However, my afterword (more than a hundred pages) is an attempt to write a fairytale. I really like fairytales, especially by Brothers Grimm and Wilhelm Hauff. Fairytales seem to me the purest type of literature. They are a fiction and nothing more than that. Also, I am fond of translations. I believe it is not less creative than the actual writing.
A.K.: Why do you write in Belarusian?
A.B.: A Belarusian author writing in Russian condemns himself to a permanent state of a seedy provincial, poor relative, who came to visit his uncle in a big city and has to borrow his socks, because he has none of his own. Such an author is not interesting in Russia – they believe that the “younger brother” is not capable of writing anything decent. Nor is he interesting for anyone at home, since most of our readers absolutely agree with Russians and don’t read Belarusian literature at all. The Russian language could have given me a slightly larger readership and better opportunities to get translated into foreign languages. But I don’t crave for a huge audience; I would rather have a hundred devoted readers. In terms of translation – thank God, all my texts which were published abroad were translated directly from Belarusian.
I have been speaking Russian until I turned 17. I have always felt that something was wrong with me. When I began speaking Belarusian everything turned to normal. The issue of language is a question of being at peace with your soul. Having a native language makes a person dignified, makes his voice stand out of the crowd’s babble. If there were no Belarusian language, one ought to have made it up. Belarusian is a romantic language of passengers from a sinking ship, who refuse to leave it. I like this romanticism and its beautiful decadence.
Only abroad one realises how well we could fit in Europe with the Belarusian language, and how far we are from Europe with the Russian language received on a permanent lease. When I see a Belarusian and German text together, I can’t help thinking that the Russian-speaking Belarusians are devoid of some special pleasure which we have.
Still, one shouldn’t make a cult of the language. It must serve its purpose and be used. The language is important for the author, but not for his work.
A.K.: What do you think about the future of the Belarusian language?
A.B.: I believe it will survive at least the next hundred years. It is difficult to make further assumptions. The circle of Belarusian-speaking people will slowly grow, but they will never be a majority in Belarus. A lot depends on our government. The Ukrainian model of language policy could be helpful to stabilise the situation. However even in my most daring dreams I don’t see the present regime making such a step. The regime would simply not be the same after that. On the other hand, such a scornful attitude towards the language causes natural protest. As a result, the regime involuntarily makes Belarusian-language circle grow. When I see how much more numerous Belarusian-speaking people have become in comparison to the late 1980’s, when I see Belarusian-speaking children, or hear my daughter talk, then the speeches about the miserable state of the Belarusian language appear exaggerated to me. There are languages in a much worse shape. However, one ought to live some time in Belarus in order to notice that there are two Belarusian peoples. One is in power and relaxed; another one tries to survive and this only makes it stronger.
A.K.: Is Belarus a part of Europe, or a wholly different universe?
A.B.: The ritual of changing train wheels at the Polish-Belarusian border in Brest is still the same. Belarus and Germany are two different worlds. They are much further from each other than it seems, but they are also much closer to each other than the politicians would like them to be. When I cross the Belarusian-Polish border and my train is heading towards Berlin I have a happy feeling of being free again. When I go in another direction I have an equally happy feeling of anxiety. In both cases I usually want to have a drink. The border is a great phenomenon and enormous scenery set at the same time.
A.K.: Which book do you lack in the Belarusian-language space?
A.B.: I prefer to write these books myself. The problem with Belarusian literature is that it has not yet learned simply to exist. Instead, it is always fighting for something. We all know what Soviet Belarusian literature was fighting for. Today, the younger generation of Belarusian authors fight for fitting into a European context, for creating some kind of popular literature, which would win hearts and minds of dairymaids and plumbers. Older writers fight for remaining topical at home. Scribblers from the state-run union of literary workers fight for their legitimacy and salaries. Nationally conscious writers fight for national renaissance, as always. I don’t play these games. A writer must write, not fight.
A.K.: Is there anything good about Belarus at all?
A.B.: When I think about something heart-warming about Belarus, I can’t help thinking about the past. Probably, every one of us has his own lost paradise – childhood and youth. All those born and raised in Minsk in the mid-80’s share similar memories. All these cracked park benches, streets covered with fallen leaves, wet grey concrete walls of apartment blocks, paths, made by our parents and their neighbours across the irrationally used space, a primitive football field, which once looked so huge, the trees which grew big together with us, spittle-covered front doors, graffiti-painted lifts, local trains, the special subway odour, villages where we were taken to see our grandmothers, muddy storage ponds where we swam, never-ending night avenues, which we wandered along while accompanying a girl on her way home, the trees we fell from, the buses where we slept – all these things are illuminated by some lustreless, hopeless, endless light.
By Ales Kudrytski