Relations between Belarusian literature and a city have always been very complicated. In this unequal marriage, literature repeatedly ran to its endless lovers – a town, a farm, a village – leaving the city in none too good a plight. But the city was waiting.
The distrust to the city as a place, where nothing good can happen, rendered by uncle Antos after his famous trip to Vilnius described by Yakub Kolas in the poem “The New Land” (1923), was lovingly carried by Belarusian literature almost through the whole 20th century. The forest is good because in the forest you can find partisans; the village is good because connection to the land is not lost there and traditional values are maintained, and the city ... The city is something strange, there is a lot of noise and din there, it sucks the lifeblood out of humans, it generally does not exist, it is a mythical space from which bosses come to the village to sort things out and clean the mess up.
Fragile steps towards reconciliation of cities and villages started in the middle of the 20th century. In 1966 it was published a collection of prose by Mikhas Straltsou “Hay on the Pavement”, in which the main character, a recent villager, was trying to get used to urban reality, understand it and reconcile in himself two souls, the embodiments of which have become hay and pavement. The concept of “hay on the pavement” has entrenched in Belarusian literature so firmly that almost fifty years later a literary festival in honour of Straltsou, which last year was held in Minsk and is dedicated to the urban poetry (other types are not so easy to find in Belarusian literature now), was named “Poems on the Pavement”. The epoch of “hay” slowly passed but lasted quite a long time – and long enough was determining that “strange war” between cities and villages which the literature could reconcile in no way.
The time of the city in Belarusian literature began in the 1990s. The urban prose, though not as important as all these village chronicles, came to the fore and to this day does not hand over its positions: the city is taking revenge on the village in full for all the years of obscurity and rejection. In addition, the story of Andrey Fedarenka “Village” appears, it still happens sometimes that the characters leave the city and travel outside the ringway, but the core of traditional culture, the role of which for the writers of the 20th century played the village, now appears in the literature almost as an atavism. And the environment as such no longer exists: the village has become a place where time has stopped, now there is nothing worthy of attention happening in the village because there are living out their days old people and are floating on the waves of life those who cannot swim against the current, that is, move somewhere to a more favourable location. And it is not surprising at all that the literature finally dumped the village and moved to where things are humming and where someone still needs it. It moved to the city.
Minsk versus Vilnius: the capital which does not exist
Despite the fact that Minsk became the capital of Belarus (or at least the country that more or less corresponds to the today’s Republic of Belarus) almost a hundred years ago, Belarusian literature didn’t pay any special attention to it, as well as to any other city, until recently. It is much easier to remember Belarusian pieces of work, in titles of which one can find, for example, Paris (“Destroy Paris” by Valyantsin Akudovich or “Fatigued by Paris” by Leanid Dranko-Maysyuk) than the name of Minsk. Of course, here, in the capital, the actions of many pieces of works of the Soviet period are happening but in none of them attention is paid to what could be the spirit of the city or its myth. Minsk is a city of gray stories and gray landscapes, it is mundane as the Stalin’s empire style on Independence Avenue (the former Frantsysk Skarina Avenue) or as the Palace of the Republic on October Square. To create an image of Minsk on the basis of works of literature of the Soviet era is impossible: it’s indistinct and is deprived of any specificity. The only thing we know about it is that it is a hero-city. That during the war (again war!) there were undergrounders here as well as lived Merchant and Poet (the novel of the same name by Ivan Shamyakin): there can be a little more fragmentary information, if you try to find it. And if Grodna is a small Paris (Paris again!), when Nyasvizh is haunted by the ghost of Czornaja Panna Barbara Radziwill, when Polotsk is a city of St. Euphrosyne and St. Sophia Cathedral, Minsk is a city with a riddle which they started to solve recently.
One of the most interesting and comprehensive myths or even one of quite formed images of Minsk appeared in the photo album of Artur Klinau “City of the Sun” (2006), which includes about a hundred photographs and an essay of the same name, where it is proved that Minsk is an ideal illustration of the “The City of the Sun” by Tommaso Campanella, the world’s only Ideal City of the communist utopia, a solid product of the Soviet era, the analogue of which cannot be found anywhere else. The value of Minsk according to Artur Klinau’s view, lies in the fact that only it was able to embody (especially in architecture) the master plan of the Communist Party on urban planning. Developing his theory further, two years later, Artur Klinau published the novel “A Small Road-Book around the City of the Sun”, an attempt to comprehend the Minsk myth. Quite on the contrary, this city is discovered in the last year’s novel of Uladzimir Nyaklyayeu “Soda Machine with and without Syrup”, which has a subtitle “Minsk novel”. The literature finally puts Minsk on the cover, but if Klinau tries to tell about Minsk which exists, or at least tries to imagine it, Nyaklyayeu describes Minsk which no longer exists, and the literature is the only place where the city disappeared after the war can now exist. And when there is no Minsk, there is nothing left but to take what has left of it, as Maryya Martysevich noted in her review to the novel “Soda machine with and without syrup”: to take residents of Minsk. Here the writer’s concept is somewhat close to the idea that Valyantin Akudovich expressed in the essay “The City which Does Not Exist”. According to Akudovich, Minsk is deprived of poetic dominant, that point of reference in the system of the spatial coordinates from which the literature could push away, and the idea as well, that is why it is a city without a soul. Minsk does not have its Eiffel Tower, the Wawel Palace or at least Polotsk’s St. Sophia Cathedral, that is why Minsk can only exist within each of its residents who consciously decide for themselves whether they want to be here or not, and as a result, this city has meaning only if this sense is seen by its inhabitants. The characters of Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu see this sense, the characters of Algerd Bakharevich, the author of another of last year’s novel “Shabany”, named after an ill-famed outlying district of Minsk, do not see, that is why by any means are escaping from there, only much later realizing that neither from gloomy Shabany nor from Minsk they won’t be able to escape.
But according to Valyantin Akudovich, Minsk is not the only place that does not exist. There is also no Vilnius, a city that is so closely connected with the history of Belarus that modern Belarusian literature treats it as its spiritual Mecca. Today a drive from Minsk to Vilnius takes three hours, and even if there was not published the first Belarusian newspaper “Nasha Niva” and did not live many leaders of the Belarusian national revival, Belarusians, regularly visiting the Lithuanian capital for purchases in “Akropolis” or for recreation purposes, or for the concert of Lyavon Volski entered in the “black list”, still would have come up with some legend to make this city even a little bit theirs. As it was mentioned above, the uncle Antos, the character of the poem of Yakub Kolas “New Land”, visited Vilnius, and he didn’t like it at all, which did not stop Belarusians from grabbing Vilnius like a lifebuoy as soon as it became possible, that is, let’s say in the 1990s. Actions of many pieces of works of modern Belarusian literature take place exactly there, and it’s apparent that in the near future the trend won’t change. Vilnius seems to be almost a mystical city, a place where supernatural events can occur, for example, traveling in time, both in the works of writers of the older and younger generation. “In Vilnius Veritas” is the name of the collected book of works written by the finalists of the competition of young writers to the 100th anniversary of “Nasha Niva”, published in 2007, and no matter how hard the authors of the collected book tried to desacralize the myth about Vilnius as the Belarusian Atlantis (“See Vilnius and ... hoot with laughter” by Siroshka Pistonchyk), the fact remains: in Belarusian literature in Vilnius is really veritas.
In the same essay “The city which does not exist” Valyantin Akudovich at the background of all this almost mystical worship considers Vilnius as a trap city. He claims that Vilnius for a long time gave and still gives to Belarusians a hope to finally get a cultural capital which will have its own peculiarities and its soul, but centuries go, and the hope never comes true. Belarusian writers continue to settle their characters and lyrical characters in Vilnius, send them there to have adventures and experience love, but Vilnius doesn’t become more Belarusian because of that. Belarusian Vilnius is a frozen project which is at the stage of the eternal progress.
City of broken windows
Dislike of the city, which in many cases transformed in total disregard, in the end of the 20th century, resulted in a rather unexpected form. Despite of the fact that many more writers who were born and raised in the city and therefore did not have any emotional ties with the village came to literature, in a number of works of modern Belarusian literature the city never ceases to be a monster and is demonized even more. In a new, even more terrible shape it appears on the pages of novels or short stories not incidentally, not as a casual mention: its image attracts more of authors’ attention and occupies more space in the works. Now it is not villagers but indigenous citizens which perceive themselves as children of the streets, of pavement where it can no longer be any hay, who treat their city with caution.
The cult novel of the late 1990s “To Love Night is the Right of Rats” by Yury Stankevich, full of black humour, xenophobia and gloomy apocalyptic predictions, describes an image of the fictional provincial town Yanausk, uncomfortable and disordered, which gives its residents no chance for a decent life, and that is why associated with swamp. All descriptions of scenes of Yanausk are exclusively negative: broken windows, trash in the streets, fallen fences. The reason for this decline the author sees in the historical circumstances and primarily in the betrayal of the national idea. The image of swamp appears in the collected book of stories by Yeva Vezhnavets “The Way of the Petty Bastards” (2008) and is enshrined in the works of Algerd Bakharevich. However, it is quite another swamp than Yury Stankevich’s. In fact, it is a delayed reaction to the officious Soviet literature and works, in which Belarusian reality is sugared up: everything that is Belarusian is good. The so-called “breaking glass in your own house” (an expression that appeared during the hot discussions in the media and which means refusing to consider Belarusian things as a value only on the basis of using concepts of “native”, “motherland”, “traditional”) couldn’t result in something good for the city. The young generation of writers refused to admire Belarus, its history and culture mechanically, simply because this is the way it is done, consciously tried to destroy old patterns, literary cliches and look at the reality from a new perspective. Destruction of all possible myths about Belarus and its literary desacralization was favoured by the political situation in the country when writers used all possible means to emphasize the irregularity and the absurdity of life in the new environment. As it was expected, the first reaction was rather critical, which resulted in the city turning into a terrible, dangerous and cursed (“Damned Guests of the Capital” by Algerd Bakharevich) place. However, today this concept is gradually disappearing from the literature, and even in the novel “Shabany” dedicated to the most gloomy district of Minsk, the city, with all its demonic things, becomes a mystical formation, where there happen though terrible but, nevertheless, miracles. In the works of the younger generation of Belarusian writers, who have became part of the literature very recently, the image of the city-demon is perceived with a large portion of irony and brought to the point of absurdity. Now, when all windows “in your own house” as well as in the city are broken, old myths are destroyed and values are reconsidered, there is only one thing left – to invent something new.
The city has everything
Today in the city, if what Belarusian literature says is true, you can find absolutely everything. Next to apocalyptic paintings depicting decay occur bright, sometimes carnival, sometimes just funny and memorable images. This happened before, even for advice: take, for example, the novel of Uladzimir Karatkevich “Christ Landed in Garodnya” (1972), where the city if not the protagonist but is so important that the author found it necessary to put it in the headline. In historical literature cities play a very interesting role in general – they become a scenery for swindlers’ adventures (historical novels in Belarusian literature mostly have this character of adventures), they are regarded as scenes of action, and therefore require special decoration. Now almost the same way Belarusian cities are decorated during chivalry festivals. The theatrical character of the city is manifested in any historical novels, no matter when they were written: by Uladzimir Karatkevich in the 1970s, by Genryh Dalidovich in the 1990s or or Lyudmila Rubleuskaya in the 2000s.
In the poetry of Andrey Khadanovich, the city, be it even Berlin (“Berlibry”, 2008), even Paris, even any single Belarusian city (“Countrymen, or Belarusian Limericks”, 2005), is a post-modern warehouse of speeches, quotations, contexts of others. Everything is there, even three-stringed guitars, skates for the short-sighted and antitank galoshes (“To Go and not Return”). Images of such multilevel and multicontextual cities appear in the poetry of the younger generation. A special place takes the concept of motion – a modern city in the Belarusian poetry does not allow a person to stand still, everything is moving there, metro, buses, trams, poets route the city, defining stops in accordance with their own aesthetic views.
A completely unexpected image of the city is displayed in the works of Syargey Balakhonau. In the novel “The Name of the Pear” (2005), it is almost the same postmodernist and multicoloured locus, as in the poetry of Andrey Khadanovich, with the only difference lying in that the concept of the city by Syargey Balakhonau is more integral – it is a “shkutsyanka” (comes from the mentioned in the novel name of blankets made from various pieces) of meanings, kaleidoscope which, depending on the point of view, can show different images. Any interpretation of this mystical formation becomes the object of the author’s irony, and the image of the city is deprived of all meanings imposed to it by predecessors. In the new book “The Earth under the Wings of the Phoenix” (2012), written in cinematic genre of mockumentary, Syargey Balakhonau again displays ironic, almost carnival images of cities where the most unbelievable may happen. The city is transformed into a training ground for miracles and at the same time into one of the reasons for undervaluing the notions which are incompatible with the total irony of the postmodern era. It is the same breaking of the windows but without psychotherapeutic purposes, with elements of play with all senses and cultural values, one step forward, which certainly suggests further movement.
Bursting through into the literature after a long silence, the city more and more confidently consolidates its position. The interest in urban prose is increasing, and the more works are written on this topic, the greater the interest is. For example, recently, particularly popular becomes the subject of military Minsk: memories and other documentary works about life in the Belarusian capital occupied by German troops are actively read and discussed on the Internet. The Minsk of the 1960s becomes one of the characters of the novel by Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu “Soda Machine with and without Syrup” and appears on the pages of the documentary book by Alyaksandr Lukashuk “The Trace of a Butterfly” (2011, short list of the literary prize in honour of Jerzy Giedroyc), though more as a background to the story with the way of life of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Belarusian capital. In the novel of Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu the latter, by the way, appears under the nickname American, unexpectedly becoming one of the symbols of the Minsk of the 1960s. However, discovering the city in Belarusian literature has not stopped: it is obvious that the subject is far from being depleted, and for a long time will be giving the writers of different generations plenty of space for reflection.
Originally published: http://kulturaenter.pl/poszukujac-miasta/2013/07/