Writing on one foot

Kastsiukevich ties Israel and Belarus into an elaborate knot.

Paval Kastsiukevich is the Woody Allen of Belarusian literature. This, of course, may not be the most exact comparison, but it was certainly a good one to pull a string. Now that I have your attention, let’s take a look at a slim book that contains twelve short stories by this young Israeli-Belarusian writer who made the year 2008 so much more fun, even despite of the looming recession. Translated from Belarusian, the book’s title reads ‘Edifying Conversations for Summer Cottage Owners’. Its cover shows a young man in an empty kitchen. The window is dark, revealing a faceless urban landscape. The young man is warming his hands over the ghostly blue light of a gas oven. He is searching for some warmth and comfort in the lonesome surrounding. In his stories, Paval Kastsiukevich manages to find the unexpected in the most banal things, taking the reader into a grotesque parallel world, albeit not completely unlike ours.
Paval spent the last third of his nearly 30 years of live in Israel. In 2008 he displayed considerable courage or even recklessness, if you like. First, he returned to Belarus for good; second, he got involved into a risky business of Belarusian-language culture. Now he works as a cultural columnist for the weekly newspaper Nasha Niva and does translations from Hebrew into Belarusian.
Most Paval’s short stories are short indeed. He says he writes them “while standing on one foot”. There is an old legend about rabbi Hillel. Once, a heathen challenged the wise man by asking him to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel wisely replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That’s the whole Torah. The rest is the commentary. Go and learn.” Since then, if you try to put a maximum of sense and wit into a minimum of words, you do it “while standing on one foot”.
Paval also makes regular sallies into translation of Hebrew literature into Belarusian. His translation of a story book by Etgar Keret “The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God” and a set of 15 short stories by assorted Israeli writers “The Man Who Stole the Western Wall” have recently been published in Minsk. Actually, many Israeli writers, who have been given a Belarusian voice by Paval, also adhere to this “one-foot approach”. In his foreword to ‘The Man Who Stole the Western Wall’ Paval writes that,Israeli writers lure their reader with story titles, the same way advertisements do. Also, consider their juicy language. The additional bait for readers is the twist of a plot line, influenced by surrealism and absurdity, so fashionable nowadays. Still, what we get in the end is literature, not advertisement.
Geographically and mentally, Paval’s stories are centred neither in Belarus nor in Israel, but somewhere in between, or in both countries at the same time. In the short story “The Heart of a Tank” Yura, a Belarus-born repatriant in Israel takes a guided tour of an Arab-Israeli war museum. At some point the guide points out a group of damaged Soviet-built tanks, formerly used by Arabs. For Yura these are old friends, not “machines of the enemy”. As a former tank engineer, he is swept by nostalgia. Yura crawls into a tank and shuts himself inside, alarming the prime minister’s motorcade (passing nearby), with guards confusing Yura for a terrorist. However, all Yura wanted, was to take a gulp of his youth again, sing a song inside of a tank, the same way he used to do it when he worked at a tank construction plant in Minsk. The machine reminded him of the tipsy odours of spring: egg-stuffed pies (4 Soviet copecks a piece);a pair of  jeans, sewn by hand by seamstresses in Hrushauka; last year’s leafage in quite corners of the Botanical garden, the rustling of which  was such a good accompaniment for kisses. All these odours mixed with the smell of oil paint, emitted by the tank, which was exhibited at a the workshop on experimental redesign. The magical formula of a rare perfume “Minsk, 1970s” conjured itself up in the air”.
A Belarusian reader would immediately notice Jewish intonations in Paval’s short stories, just as a Jewish reader would probably say, “That sounds kind of Belarusian”. Indeed, Paval writes while standing on one foot. But he does so in both countries at the same time.
In another story, titled “The Map”, a young man from an out-of-the-way kibbutz listens to its oldest dwellers, Chaim and Tzipi.
Haim and Tzipi dislike each other, that is why they spend most of their time together. The aversion results from the clash of two rather different mentalities. Tzipi comes from Kastsiukovichy, Russia. Chaim was born in Pruzhany, Poland. There are such European countries in Europe, you know. Tzipi and Chaim tell me a lot about this Europe, about the cities of their childhood. Let’s take Pruzhany, for example. This is a huge megalopolis, much larger and more beautiful than Warsaw. As for Kastsiukovichy, Tzipi says, comrade Lenin even wanted to make it a capital instead of Petrograd. However, rather than coming straight to Kastsiukovichy, comrade Lenin ordered the locomotive driver “We shall take another route in order to fool Czar’s gendarmes”. The driver took comrade Lenin to Moscow, deep into Russian province. As a result, there was not enough coal left to reach Kastsiukovichy and that is why they decided to remain there and established the capital in Moscow”.
A Belarusian is well aware that both Pruzhany and Kastsiukovichy are small towns deep in Belarusian province. For Chaim and Tzipi, however, they are situated in two completely different universes. They never noticed or realised that Pruzhany or Kastsiukovichy stood on Belarusian soil. While quarrelling, Chaim ant Tzipi lash out at each other in the dialect spoken in the Belarusian countryside, which Yuddish-savvy linguists from Tel Aviv are unable not only to understand, but even to classify. Chaim and Tzipi remind us of so many people in Belarus who continue to live in universes of their own illusions or memories. By the way, a narrator, the young kibbutz dweller, eventually checks out the map and discovers a whole new country called Belarus. However, he applies the traditional Jewish chronology to the modern map (which reads “Belarus, 2004”). As a result, he believes that the country existed 3761 years before. He also thinks that Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is an enormous city, since Pruzhany and Kastsiukovichy are just small dots compared to it. He wished they all could live in this forgotten promised land called Belarus. Perhaps, if that would be the case, young people wouldn’t leave their kibbutz for bigger cities like Tel Aviv…
In his stories, Paval is being introspective without turning neurotic. He is reasonably extraverted while remaining a careful observer. Compared with Etgar Keret’s texts, for example, Paval’s prose often seems to be more intuitive and spontaneous. Kastsiukevich’s stories are ironic, but some of them are also sad on the verge of desperation. The Midnight Sun of the Avenue, for example, has been inspired by a horrific, post- Kafkaesque experience of the author’s visit to Minsk in winter. The narrator is strolling along the main city’s avenue and having strange encounters.
“…Since then I began to walk along the avenue alone. Winter was nearing its end. A thaw tickled my nerves in the morning, birds babbled, and, as the evening approached, the frost was stepping up its pressure. Between “Park Tchaluskintsau” and “Maskouskaya” metro stations, on the outskirts of a park, a man fell flat, his face buried in snow. The moment I looked I understood the truth about all people, which I had previously vaguely sensed about myself only – that every person is two persons.
This is how it looked on the example of this bloke. The first person, embodied, lay drunk, insensitive to the frost, and slept. Another man, invisible, stood beside the body and intently watched the first one. The snow-covered face of the first man expressed frivolity, mildness of character, simplicity and slight foolishness. The other person looked quick-witted, much smarter than the first one; he was a strategist, without any trace of compassion. I instantly realised that the “strategist” was patiently waiting for his own death. He was capable of waking up the body, but didn’t do it, sticking to his own plans, unclear to me. He felt no mercy, although he also was this very bloke lying on the ground”.
As the stroll continues, the winter sun rises (“a rather small sun, not more than a couple hundred metres in diameter”). Its thorny rays touch the enormous mosaics on the facades of concrete blocks of flats, depicting Francysk Skaryna and World War II partisans. Suddenly, the images begin to change into menacing pictures of Egyptian desert gods. Usually, most people, who hurry to the nearby metro station “Ushod”, barely look at these Soviet-time mosaics. For them they are just relics from the past. We needed someone like Paval Kastsiukevich to see the glitter of the Sinai desert sun touching the walls of snow-covered Minsk…
If there were some kind of literature Academy awards for the best tragicomedy in Belarus, Paval Kastsiukevich would have all the chances to get the golden statue.
And the Oscar goes to…
Paval, have you really been standing on your foot this whole time?!
By Ales Kudrytski for ODB
1 Copeck – a small Soviet coin.
2 Hrushauka – a neighbourhood in Minsk.
3 Petrograd – old-fashioned name of St.Petersburg.

Read the interview with Paval Kastiukevich