Uladzimir Karatkevich: Belarus as a Bestseller

Belarusian literature is a school subject which is quite easy to hate. Especially if you are a teenager, the sun is shining brightly through the classroom window, and the teacher is humming like a drowsy bee. The major source of boredom, however, is the textbook itself – an assortment of poems, prose extracts, and short biographies of the authors. The traditional piece of Belarusian literature is a constant lamentation about the „bitter fortune“ of the poor folk, accompanied by vivid verbal images of a typical Belarusian fellow – a barefooted peasant with the matted greasy hair. Perhaps such motifs were quite topical on the verge of the 19th and the 20th century. To be honest, today this image is simply not sexy.

The pastoral aesthetics has spread through the Belarusian literature like a long-lasting epidemic, rivalled, perhaps, only by the literary recollections of the World War II. Used to cliché-laden stories, the school pupils are usually quite reluctant to get their hands on the first book of the epic „The Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle“ by Uladzimir Karatkevich. However, what sounds like a good title for a kolkhoz love story, appears to be an elaborate trap. Having once opened the book, one has a real difficulty shutting it.

Let’s hear how Andrey Khadanovich, one of the most successful modern Belarusian poets, describes his first encounter with Karatkevich:

“It was 1989. I was 16 years old. I unfolded the freshly printed volume of Uladzimir Karatkevich with the first part of “The Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle”. It was an incredible experience. I lost the feeling of time and came to my senses only after the first book had been swallowed. I was looking for reading its sequel just as impatiently, as today’s kids crave for reading another Harry Potter book”.

“The Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle” is an exciting life story of Ales Zahorski, the young Belarusian duke, who would later take part in the Belarusian uprising of 1863-1864 against the oppressive Russian tsarist rule. Unlike heroes of many previous books by Belarusian authors, bewildered and naive countrymen, who feel themselves utterly uncomfortable outside of their native village, Ales Zahorski is smart and flexible, honest and brave. He is similarly skilled in riding an unsaddled horse, as in speaking French or German.

The traditional socialist realism literature would never tolerate a character like Ales Zahorski – at most he would be shown as a class enemy. The Soviet regime had never reverenced for the Tsar regime, but the very idea of Belarusians rebelling against the Russian rule was nevertheless highly suspicious. No wonder Karatkevich had to fight censors while working on this novel.

Having turned over the last page of „The Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle“ one can’t help looking for something else by this author. Indeed, Karatkevich has a lot to offer. „The Wild Hunt of King Stakh“ is a novel with an aura of a Dracula horror story. The narrator is a young folklorist who travels all over Belarus, looking for folk songs and poems. On a stormy night he finds himself in the ancient manor, situated in the midst of vast swamps and gloomy woods in a faraway corner of the country. One night is enough to realize that the house is haunted and its owners and neighbours suffer from the old curse – the Wild Hunt, the herd of dead horsemen, who used to go after the traitors in the deep past, but now chase down fair people. The narrator unravels the tangle of mysteries and finds his love in the end.

The novel is a great example of Karatkevich’s skill to fool the censors. The Wild Hunt is often interpreted as a subtle reference to „Pahonia“ (‚pursuit’), the ancient Belarusian symbol – an armed horseman, who chases away the enemy. The very mentioning of „Pahonia“ was virtually prohibited in the Soviet Union. By writing the „Wild Hunt of King Stakh“ Karatkevich showed the old symbol of upper justice misused by villains. „I awake and think that the Wild Hunt’s time is not over, until darkness, injustice, and wicked horror exist on this Earth, “ he writes in the conclusion. This line allows double reading – the Wild Hunt as the evil, or the Wild Hunt as the opposition to the evil. A metaphor which is not easy to be cracked by a censor, but quite obvious to a careful mind.

Another novel by Karatkevich, „The Black Castle of Alshany“, makes Dan Brown’s „The Da Vinci Code“ look as a dull screenplay. Anton Kosmich, 38, historian and a habitual bachelor, inherits a medieval book from his friend, who dies in a mysterious way. Having vowed to find the murderer, Anton sets off for the small town of Alshany, where the book was found, deciphering one ancient puzzle after another. Medieval history, the WWII events, and the present time are tied into an exciting knot of love, death and mystery. The language Karatkevich uses is not mannered, but genuine, natural, and strikingly modern. The novel presents him as one of the few Belarusian authors, who, being romantic, don’t loose the touch with reality.

As talented in prose as he was, Karatkevich came into literature as a poet with his distinctive style. Today his poetry is not less appealing than his prose – Karatkevich’s poems were put into songs by „Neuro Dubel“, a punk group famous in Belarus, and by Zmitsier Wajtsiushkevich, who is a distinguished Belarusian chansonnier.  

Karatkevich is also the author of a classic metaphor of Belarus as „the land under white wings“. This is a title of its book, a guide to Belarus written explicitly for Belarusians. Karatkevich created it in 1971, when the country was slipping into the era of the communistic stagnation. One cannot help noticing how many concessions Karatkevich had to make while writing “The Land under White Wings”. He mentioned the banned names of repressed Belarusian intellectuals, but couldn’t name Stalin as their butcher. “There were Swedes and other rogues, but that’s a long and difficult story,” Karatkevich wrote about the invaders of the city of Mahiliou (Mogilev) in the Middle Ages. Of course, he couldn’t say, that it were Russian troops, which drowned the city in blood in the 16th century.

Karatkevich died in 1984, at the age of 54. One can only guess, how his talent would develop, if he lived to see the Belarusian independence, and wouldn’t be bound by the ideology and censors. Most previous Belarusian authors inspired love to Belarus, which could hardly be distinguished from pity. The love to Belarus inspired by Karatkevich is more close to respect and pride. He teaches the reader to love Belarus not in spite of, but because of the way it is.

“There is another Belarus,” writes Andrey Khadanovich. “A virtual country, which, probably, have never existed. But you can’t resist the temptation to apply for its citizenship. This is an ideal Belarus of Uladzimir Karatkevich, which is populated by the noble knights, likeable rascals, merry drunkards, and patriotic aristocrats with a talent for poetry. There is no wonder why yet another generation of Belarusians queues up for getting visas for this land”.



By Ales Kudrytski