code • words • emotions

Daniel Janus’s blog

Recently read #1: Akhmatova meets Bashō (Vasil Bykaŭ, “The Wall”)

19 May 2008

(Introductory note: This post marks the beginning of a new series on this blog, aptly titled “Recently read.” Every now and then I will try to verbalize afterthoughts inspired by the books I happen to read, and post them here. I hope these recommendations or anti-recommmendations might turn out to be useful for someone.)

Give me
a kiss to build a dream on,
and my imagination
will thrive upon that kiss;
I ask no more than this —
a kiss to build a dream on.

Thusly starts the Fallout 2 intro — a mini-movie that can be considered a piece of art in its own right. Louis Armstrong sings these words in an abandoned underground cinema, wherein a movie is displayed, touching on nostalgia for pre-War times as well as severe dangers that lurk on the surface of the earth. And then come these words…

“War, war never changes.”

Just like throughout the entire Fallout saga, these words reverberated in my mind as I read “The Wall,” a collection of short stories by Vasil Bykaŭ, the late Belarussian writer.

For the war indeed does not change. And wherever it appears, it carries around such an amount of destruction and utter wrongness that it is next to unimaginable for a generation grown up in a relatively peaceful place and time such as ours. In fact, even the words “utter wrongness” do not do justice to what was once an unescapable reality. There is only one way to find appropriate words: to show it, show it without overlooking anything, show it dryly and aloofly in all its hideousness.

And Bykaŭ does. There is not a single word of moralizing in these stories. There are no high words, and barely even a human thought beyond fear for life. There is pure depiction; and yet every word in this depiction stands firm and cannot be removed without losing the level of detail called for. This induces associations with Anna Akhmatova and her famous “Requiem,” which begins as follows:

Это было, когда улыбался
только мертвый, спокойствию рад.

“Это было.” “It happened.” These simple words are immensely powerful. And the same two words, unspoken, echo throughout the entire book. It happened, and it was like this. Nothing more can, or should, be told.

I’ve mentioned the level of detail; this aspect of these stories deserves longer comment. It is imminent that they would not be quite as powerful were it not for the detail. One can almost sense the chill of a dawn rising up above some godforsaken trench somewhere on the battlefront. Or shudder at the cold dampness of the soil inside it. Or smell the stench of decay rising above a corpse shot several days ago. Or feel the almost palpable fear floating in the crossfire of danger, one on the enemy side, the other shaped as one’s own commandment. Or the gloom with which a small group of soldiers sets out to dig their final resting place before committing suicide, lest worse fate befall them.

These stories are almost “haikuistic,” so to speak, in that each one of them resembles a very thinly cut and faithfully portrayed slice of reality from which there is no escape. This shows most strongly in case of the shortest ones, like “The Hill,” which are just several pages long, but it arguably holds even for the longest text in the book, the opening novella, “Love Me, Soldier.” (In which, by the way, Falloutesque associations are particularly strong: imagine a Belarussian sergeant who finds a fellow countrygirl hiding in a village in Austria, at the very end of the war, and falls in love with her. Doesn’t that sound like “a kiss to build a dream on?” Well, in Bykaŭ’s world, good dreams never come true.)

I quoted Akhmatova’s “it happened.” Yet, perhaps, the most striking and saddening impression from “The Wall” as a whole, and one that sets it apart from other war literature, is that this should really read “it still happens.” For the war has ended, but it takes long for a nation to recover from the scars it left; especially the Belarussian nation, who have been held captive by various regimes for too long and have never actually experienced freedom that we take for granted. Once a wound has been healed, it is all too easy to reopen it. And fear for speaking one’s own language remains the same, war or no war.

No wonder Bykaŭ’s writings are still censored in his homeland. Thanks to the Internet, though, the full Polish text of all the stories is available online. Highly recommended.