One simply can’t help putting some shine on his shoes before meeting Maryja Martysevich for an interview. This young lady who is sipping on her coffee (“No sugar, please!”) in one of the cafés in downtown Minsk is known for her unflattering attitude towards Belarusian men. “The reason of my fondness towards Belarusian men can be easily explained: throughout my whole life I have been non-pragmatically and irresistibly attracted to losers,” she writes in her essay “The Men We Choose”. Paradoxically, many if not most of Maryja’s readers embraced this characteristic and flocked to her readings.
Who is Ms. Martysevich? An essayist, poet, translator, journalist, blogger, or all of the above? She prefers to call herself a “creative writer”. Born in 1982, Martysevich is now writing up her thesis at the Department of Philology of the Belarusian State University. She also works as a journalist for a liberal Minsk-based newspaper “Novy Chas” and writes essays for an art magazine “Partisan”.
Maryja entered the world of literature with her translations. In her heart, she has a special place for central- and east-European literature. Most recently, in 2008, she published her translation into Belarusian of the novel “The Sky Under Berlin” by Czech-German writer Jaroslav Rudis . Maryja’s fondness for translation is the key which helps decrypt her first book of poetry and essayistic writing “Dragons Fly for Spawning” (Logvinau Press, Minsk, 2008). As a translator, she crosses borders which separate different literatures. Maryja is also a keen traveller - she has just received a new passport because her old one was fully stamped with visas. No wonder her book is heavily saturated with the motive of crossing borders. “I can’t stand spending too much time away from home, but I also become bored soon after I return,” she admits. “The fact that my parents were born in two different corners of Belarus comes in very handy. It gives me a chance to visit relatives in faraway regions and change my setting in an instant”. In Maryja’s book there is a whole set of poems titled “Border Stories”, obviously inspired by her travel experiences. She writes about an unlikely romance between a Belarusian border guard officer and a Philology Department female graduate who meet in a train compartment during the midnight border crossing; about a distressed girl who hitchhikes back home with a friendly hauler who “drives his truck like a cathedral”; about a student who smuggles a bottle of beer into Belarus and rejoices when he gets through the customs unnoticed. In these poems, Maryja is fascinated with the borderland universe. On one hand it separates different countries, but on the other hand it helps to erase borders between people for a moment.
Maryja is eager to deconstruct national icons (or, better to say, reconstruct them the way she desires). A good example is her treatment of Branislau Taraskevich, one of the most prominent figures of the Belarusian national movement who helped Belarusian People’s Republic to its feet in 1918 and the author of the first grammar book of the modern Belarusian language. Taraskevich was demonised by the Soviet propaganda machine and idealised by the nationally conscious intelligentsia. But Maryja calls him “Bronik”, in a buddy-buddy way, and generally treats him without pity, albeit not without adoration. “Bronik is Belarusian James Bond and George Washington. His portraits will appear on our euro bills. He made up the whole state. He has written Belarus, which became a school textbook we use in our classes, unable to close the file or turn the page”, she writes in her essay “Bronik As We Love Him” (in Maryja’s book the title actually appears in English).
Maryja’s interest in Branislau Tarashkevich also stems from the fact that it was a border crossing that decided his fate in a radical way. Tarashkevich lived in the time when territory of Belarus was divided in two after a Polish-Soviet treaty of Riga (1921). While the eastern part, already the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, enjoyed a short period of national flourishing under the policy of Belarusification, western Belarus struggled under Polish police crackdowns. For the sake of justice, one should admit that both countries regularly jailed political prisoners. Later they exchanged them like hostages on a narrow wooden bridge connecting two countries at a border crossing Kolasava (now a small train station in the centre of Belarus). Maryja calls this “an absurd theatre”, where Belarusians were traded for Belarusians. As a Polish political prisoner, Tarashkevich eagerly agreed to be traded for a Soviet-held political prisoner Frantsishak Aliahnovich, his old friend, who got into the hands of GPU (predecessor of KGB). Maryja recreates their meeting on a narrow bridge. “Bronius, where are you going?” desperately asks Aliahnovich. This did not stop Tarashkevich who naively believed that Soviet Belarus was a promised land or at least the land of big promises. He was bitterly disillusioned some years later, facing a Stalinist firing squad in 1937. Branislau Tarashkevich is one of the charming losers Maryja both adores and pities.
Maryja is one of the most popular Belarusian-language bloggers. This is also reflected in her book that takes the form of “Barbara Radziwil’s Livejournal”. According to Maryja, this is a set of poetic entries written by Barbara Radziwil, Belarusian mid-16th century femme fatale for her internet blog. Mixing past and present into a postmodern cocktail is a favourite trick of Maryja.
“Palesse Chronicle” is a diary of a different kind. Maryja borrowed its title from a novel by Ivan Melezh, prominent Soviet-time prose writer. In “Palesse Chronicle” she describes a visit to her grandparent’s village in the south-western Palesse region, the lost paradise of her childhood. There, she wants to work on her translation of a new novel. The pictures of village life she writes about are closely familiar to any Belarusian in their 20s or 30s: “There is nobody here except of “our own people” – aunt Manya, uncle Kolya, and Belarusian television anchors. There is no Internet, and my mobile phone catches the signal only when I put it in front of the icon of St. Nicholas. This half-isolation (the house has been recently connected to the telephone landline) from civilisation is, undoubtedly, the advantage of paradise”. Maryja’s parents migrated to Minsk from the countryside. She belongs to numerous second-generation Minsk citizens who once in a while return to villages where they have never really lived but have nonetheless always felt part of.
In her essay “The Men We Choose” Maryja presents a rather critical and non-traditional view of Belarusian men. According to the author, they are habitual and hopeless losers. This is the reason of many past and present national troubles – after all, men pose themselves as statesmen and policy makers in this patriarchal land. Noteworthy, the essay was written in the aftermath of major opposition protests, which erupted in March 2006 after the rigged presidential elections.
The miserable charm of Belarusian men both irritates and touches Maryja. She is not a misanthrope, quite the opposite. It’s just that the Belarusian universe, at least its masculine part, doesn’t quite live up to her modest expectations. Maryja is not alone in this attitude – many Belarusian women tend to think along similar lines. They try to change their men, then fail, sigh, and carry on with their lives. During the last reading of her book, Maryja bought a big bouquet of roses and presented them to her fans – mostly male who, of course, came to her performance without flowers. In Maryja’s interpretation, Belarusian women are feminEasts. Leaving men to play around with their illusions of superiority, they earn money, raise kids, and, once in a while, write books.
By Ales Kudrytski