Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book 163, Belarus: "King Stakh's Wild Hunt" by Uladizimir Karatkevich

Somehow the National Library never processed my request for Nancy Richler's Your Mouth Is Lovely, which left me stranded in terms of Belarusian lit. (Richler is Canadian, anyway, and the story might take place in Russian Siberia. :/)

My options included Nechama Tec's Defiance, a non-fiction work about a Jewish resistance army during World War Two (available in the library) and Vladimir Kozlov's Number Ten: A Novella In Translation (available for 99 cents on Kindle).

Luckily, I managed to Google up a free pdf of this:

And I'm glad I chose it. I knew from the description it was gonna be kinda up my alley: a bit of a fantasy thriller about a modern man facing down the phantom of a cursed king, riding for eternity. But in fact, the background's a little more complex than that.

This book was written only in 1964, but it's a Gothic novel - the events take place in the autumn of 1888, with the first-person protagonist Andrey Bełaretski recounting the events as a 96 year-old man. He's an ethnographer (which I hadn't really thought was much of a profession in Europe in the nineteenth century) and his mission is to venture into remote parts of Belarus and document the dying legends, folktales and epics of his people to publish back in Minsk.

So you see we've got a theme of identity formation going on: the rise of a nationalist bourgeois class who want to go back to their peasant roots to understand what their culture is. Unfortunately, that culture is kind of horrifying - we've got horribly impoverished gentry (descended from the Polish, it seems) starving in their broken-down castles and burning their antique furniture for warmth, and thousands of muzyk (that's the word they use for serfs) who're living on even less. 

Andrei's pretty gloomy about all this at the beginning of the book. Then he gets lost in an undisclosed area of his country during an expedition, almost dies from falling into a swamp (a quagmire, they call it), and seeks refuge in the rain in the castle of Marsh Firs, where he's greeted by the Countess - an ugly little 17 year-old thing named Nadzieja Janouskaja, who's plagued by the doom of her noble line, unfamiliar with concepts of sunshine and friendship, and convinced that she, as the twelfth and last of the Janouski dynasty, is fated to die from the curse of King Stakh, whom her ancestor betrayed in his uprising many generations ago.

And of course our modern, Minsk-educated ethnographer pooh-poohs it all, and is determined to discover a rational explanation for why he hears the invisible footsteps of the Blue Lady outside the corridor, not to mention the apparition of the Little Man, and all the other strange phenomena out of folklore that have come out of the mouths of goodwives to haunt him in real life.

As the tale unfolds, however, we realise this is more than a Dracula story, for the main players are actually the various impoverished nobles who are battling over the lands she stands to inherit - some good at heart, like young pure-minded suitor Sviecilovic; some evil, like the impetuous Varona, and some with plenty to hide, like Nadzieja's garrulous uncle, the huge, supremely jovial Rubatouk.

And [SPOILER ALERT!!!] we soon see that this is a book of the Soviet era indeed, because the phantoms are indeed revealed to be the work of jealous nobles, and our working-class descended hero is able to use his wits and strength to defeat them, with the aid of a peasant uprising, complete with pitchforks and a gruff hunter named Ryhol who's able to smack some sense into him every time he wants to take *pity* on one of these leeches of society. (It's kind of like a Scooby-Doo episode - the real monsters aren't the undead, but simple money-grabbing mortals, who'll cloak themselves in masks and darkness to fool the superstitious into believing they cannot be defeated.)

But there's a fairy-tale ending after all - Nadzieja grows in beauty and maturity throughout the story (though she's pretty passive even by the end), enough for Andrej to fall in love with her and marry her and live happily ever after, which frankly made me a little cross, because everything in the novel had been indicating that the story ended in tragedy. Did Karatkevich do this for the censors, the pleasure of his readers, or because his moral compass bade it so? I do not know. [SPOILERS END.]

If you wanna check out this book, it really is loads of fun - a bilingual PDF is for some reason available here, so you can check the English against the Belarusian (which I did not know was a language up till now).

Oh, and by the way, I can't figure out how to embed Google maps properly, so it's already zoomed in on the region I'm talking about. Any advice?

Representative quote: 
"Nothing," she answered dryly. "But it's too late. Everything comes too late in the world. You are too much alive. Go to your people, to those who are alive, who go hungry and can laugh. Go and conquer. And leave the graves to the dead."

"But aren't you my people?" I exploded. "And these people, frightened and hungry, aren't they my people? And Sviecilovic, whom I shall have to betray, isn't he of my people? And these god-forsaken swamps where abominable things occur, aren't these swamps my land? And the children crying at night, when they hear the hoofs of the Wild Hunt, trembling with fright all their lives, aren't they my brethren's children? How can you even dare suggest such a thing to me?"

Next book: Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, from Russia.

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