The Port of Hamburg is filled with hoots of ferries and the seagulls’ screeches. A young man with high cheekbones and narrow prickly eyes is looking at the scene, smoking his favourite pipe. If he were a captain, his ship would carry the carefully packed cargo of books (preferably by Joyce, Kafka and Nabokov) and paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. However, this young man, whose name is Alhierd Baharevich, is not a ship captain, but a writer. Actually, he would rather prefer to be called a magician.
“Isn’t it a miracle that one combination of words can drive a person into a suicide, and another is forgotten in a minute? Can this phenomenon be rationally explained? Especially, if you keep in mind that the story, which was described using these words, had been made up by its author from the beginning until the end? Here he is, a good writer, magician, grown-up narrator of fairy tales,” writes Alhierd in his personal Internet blog.
In Belarusian intellectual circles, there is no unilateral opinion about Baharevich. Some say he is the most talented and exciting contemporary Belarusian prose writer; others call him an intellectual snob full of psychological hang-ups which he (allegedly) pours into his books. Is this a problem for Baharevich? Probably, not. After all, he neither wants to be liked nor intends to like others. “Indeed, I don’t like Belarusian people,” said Alhierd Bararevich in one of his interviews. It is rather insane to like ten million people who are complete strangers to you. I can only repeat the words by great Jonathan Swift: I don’t like nations and human communities; I like individual people – just a few of them”.
Alhierd Baharevich was born in Minsk in 1975 and spent most of his life in the “concrete-walled villages” of the city’s depressive high-rise residential suburbs, populated by factory workers, alcoholics and police officers. Today, he enjoys the freedom of being a world citizen. His stay in Germany began in 2007 as some form of creative exile from the country where he “couldn’t breathe anymore”. “I hate the regime of Lukashenka and will never forgive its crimes, the main of which is the murder of my dreams. I find this regime aesthetically vulgar and semi-fascist in political sense. A dangerous plague has grown ripe in Belarus and it poses a threat not only to the Belarusians,” reveals Alhierd in his blog http://bacharevic.livejournal.com/
Those who are repelled by Baharevich’s misanthropy usually condemn the writer for the things he says in his interviews. However, those who praise him, mostly do so for the things Baharevich writes in his books. This suggests that the critics are not always willing or able to cope with Baharevich’s prose. The books by Baharevich are, indeed, not an easy read; although, if you catch their tune, they read smoothly. Most of his heroes are either “homo sovieticus” – post-Soviet people mesmerized into numb happiness or blind violence – or lonely souls who cannot find their place in the sticky atmosphere of authoritarian insanity. Sometimes they are a mix of both. The “Natural Colouring” from Alhierd Baharevich’s book published in Minsk in 2003, tells us a story about Stakh, a young man who abandons his literary endeavours, which he deems useless, and gets a job as a common house painter at the omnipotent Enterprise. Eventually, he finds his happiness in this primitive work. He likes to be a part of a naive and passive giant called proletariat. “Stakh found pleasure in feeling to be part of this giant; even if he was not the giant’s hand, not even a finger, but he surely was at least a capillary somewhere on its wrist,” writes Baharevich.
Alhierd writes in Belarusian, but he doesn’t have even a slightest illusion about the prospects of his language choice. “Being known as a writer in Belarus only means that you are familiar to a small circle of readers who are able to comprehend Belarusian-language texts,” he says. But he enjoys it: “If there were no Belarusian language, one ought to have made it up. It is always more interesting to write in your own, mysterious, rare language, which has such a strange fate and such an unpredictable future”.
In his short story entitled “Belarusians on Crystal Balls” Alhierd Baharevich describes a small boy who sees a TV commercial about a circus that features a rare number – Belarusians on crystal balls. “When his eyes got accustomed to the ever-changing light, the boy finally noticed human shapes above the rings. Dressed in strange, greenish, streaming clothes, the people strolled high above in the burning air, drowning in the light up to their ankles. This was so beautiful, that the boy’s eyes began to hurt.”. The boy becomes obsessed with the idea to see the circus performance by the Belarusians. After some hesitation, his parents finally agree to buy expensive tickets and take their child to the show. “It was just like in the advertisement, only million times more beautiful”, Baharevich writes. “The graciousness of the Belarusians was enchanting. There was an eerie and inexpressible feeling that the whole world was just about to come down crashing on the boy’s head. “Can you believe the way they schooled ’em?” someone said loudly behind the boy’s back… The Belarusians were walking, slowly rolling the balls with their paws, without a trace of constraint in their movements”. After the performance the boy catches the moment when his parents are not watching him and sneaks behind the curtain. “The Belarusians were all wet and much less beautiful when one looked at them from up close, but that was OK, that’s the kind of job they have. The boy approached them. “Can I pet them?” he asked, trembling with impatience. “How did you crawl into here?” moaned the trainer in surprise. However, he was a really kind person, who liked animals as well as children. The boy was allowed to feed the Belarusians through the cage”.
The story could have been a cheerful memory about a cloudless childhood, if it was not for the exotic speechless creatures called Belarusians. “This is a metaphoric tale, a parable about the historic way of Belarusian nation – at least its conscious part, the intelligentsia”, writes Baharevich in his correspondence with writer and philosopher Yuras Barysevich.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Baharevich sees his task in actually criticising Belarus in his books. Rather than that, he constructs a new reality based on the Belarus-made material. In this fictional world moral slavery and authoritarian way of life are driven to the absurd. This reveals the ugly (and, much rarely, beautiful) side of every human being. “Literature studies the phenomena of human existence, constant things like death, love, life, freedom, power, sex, greed, fate, despair, envy… The only thing true literature borrows from reality is scenery decorations,” says Alhierd in an interview to the web-portal TUT.by.
Baharevich’s first books were a mixture of short stories, where characters and settings intermingled creating some kind of literary hypertext. However, with every new book Alhierd comes closer to writing a major novel.
The main character of Baharevich’s book “No Mercy to Valiantsina G.” (Minsk, 2006) is Hadok, a young man working as a poetry page editor at some obscure newspaper. He has a duty of supervising a group of literary amateurs, whose creations he is obliged to print. It brings suffering to Hadok, a person of good taste. One of such scribblers, Valiantsina G., is a handicapped woman, ready to do anything to get her works published, no matter how untalented they are. She turns into a merciless stalker, who haunts the life of Hadok.
Untalented scribblers are often target of Baharevich’s contempt. “The number of writers per capita in Belarus is so enormous, that one can only envy such a country… Why are there so many people in Belarus who dream of becoming writers? Why are there such hoards of people who actually call themselves writers? Probably, because by doing so they try to gain back at least an illusion of personal dignity, which was taken from them by the state,” Baharevich writes in his contribution to the Radio Liberty website.
In Baharevich’s books, journalists are competing with scribblers in terms of their negative image. “For me, only the works which are based on fiction and author’s fantasy can be called literature. Everything else is nothing but workmanship, damned journalism,” tells Alhierd Baharevich, former reporter himself, in his interview to the Minsk-based magazine “pARTisan”. However, the writer once confessed that one of his earlier journalistic experiences was writing a long boring article about a cinema theatre in Minsk. Perhaps, this is where the idea for his other book, “Capital’s Damned Guests” (Minsk, 2008), is rooted. The plot rotates around a movie theatre situated in a nameless capital city. None of the strange characters of this book can sincerely call this city their home; all of them are only limited-time guests in this city as well as in this life in general. They are all damned because the very air of this capital city makes them suffocate. “Heroes of my books are people in the state of permanent asphyxia,” confesses Alhierd Baharevich. In a sense, Baharevich have always been such guest himself. “The city similar to Minsk became the setting for all my books. Sometimes this city saved me, sometimes it lured me into traps. Most of the time it pretended to be my home,” Alhierd writes in his Internet blog. Today, living in exile, Alhierd retains this guest status. He even confesses that now there is no city on this planet where he could feel at home.
In his “Capital’s Damned Guests”, the writer uses one of his favourite tricks – turning the characters into involuntary show participants. At one point, Baharevich describes the theatre full of people who are being fooled by a group of travelling salesmen into buying a mythical cure “Panatsen”. But none of them knows that the whole scene is being observed by other people hiding behind a mirror wall, sitting in comfortable armchairs with a glass of wine. This is reminiscent of “Natural Colouring”, where the people working at the Enterprise turned out to be nothing but chess figures for the masters of the Enterprise.
The title of Baharevich’s latest book – this time a fully-fledged novel – is borrowed from the famous painting by Pieter Bruegel Senior. “The Magpie on the Gallows” (Minsk, 2009) is a life story of Veranika, “nymphomaniac-narcissistic girl”, who lives in a country, which is slightly reminiscent of Belarus. There she works in the administration of a concentration camp. The narrator not only tells us the story of Veranika but also that of himself. He is, very much like Baharevich, an exile in a German port city. According to literary critic Yan Maksimiuk, “Baharevich creates the world reminiscent of dreams by Kafka and Nabokov. However, structurally, “The Magpie on the Gallows” is a mosaic, written in the style of Julio Cortбzar. This is a splendid literary affinity, which not only proves the author’s ambitious attempt to join the greatest magicians of literature, but also shows that the creative standards he sets for himself are getting higher with his every new book”.
“The Magpie on the Gallows” is dramatically different from other books by Baharevich in style. In fact, Baharevich values style – “the unique voice of an author” as he calls it - much higher than plot. In this book, the voice of Baharevich becomes much more flexible and consistent. The author abandons his experiments with the language and turns into a true narrator of a modern fairy-tale, which would definitely give its reader a sleepless night. Baharevich is working hard on becoming the Belarusian Grim Brothers of the 21st century. It does not come as a surprise that now he is working on a translation of “The Cold Heart”, fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff. Alhierd Baharevich plans to publish this book later this year with his own creative alterations and complements (their nature and intentions remains a mystery).
Baharevich is disdainfully intolerant towards “homo sovieticus”, the people who have passively surrendered to the authoritarian way of life and thinking. A devoted individualist, he also has a deep contempt towards any form of collective human activity. However, Baharevich’s books have a strangely soothing effect on many Belarusian intellectuals who find it unbearable to live in the authoritarian state. Alhierd loads his books with everything what is worth to be hated in people. By doing so, he unloads his readers’ frustrations, which, in the end, lets them breathe easier.
The misanthropy of Baharevich is probably a myth. If you carefully read into the personal internet blog of Alhierd, you will see that he is a genuinely kind and polite person, with a great measure of respect towards the people he encounters – as long as they have respect towards other people and themselves. He is also a loving husband and a father, who lets his daughter paint his face in the morning, then forgets to wash it and can’t understand why people are staring at him on the street. Baharevich might not like people, but he surely is able love them. This love is probably the most hidden layer behind the thousands of words he has carefully constructed into books.
By Ales Kudrytski