Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau
Translated by Mikalai Khilo

I like to think that I read reasonably widely here on the Ramblings, but I’m well aware that there are many gaps. Interestingly, a recent read made me realise that I have probably never read anything from Belarus; however, thanks to Glagoslav Publications, that’s now been rectified! Vasil Bykau is an author new to me; although he’s apparently a household name in his native Belarus, I’ve not come across him before and so I was very keen to read “Alpine Ballad”, an early work by an author who was at one point touted for the Nobel Prize. Bykau often drew on his experiences as a young man during the Second World War, and this book reflects that.

“Alpine Ballad” opens with a dramatic escape from a German Prisoner of War Concentration Camp following an explosion. Ivan, our protagonist, is fleeing literally for his life; chased by German soldiers and Alsatian dogs, it’s touch and go as to whether he will make it. Things become complicated as he encounters a fellow prisoner attempting to make her own escape – a young Italian woman called Giulia. Initially, Ivan is reluctant to take her along with him, fearing that she’ll slow him down. However, she’s not so easy to shake off, and after she helps him they fall in to travelling together. As they make their way, planning to go through the Alps to Trieste, the tormented Belarusian comes to trust the Italian woman and they manage a kind of communication in several languages. The narrative flashes back to events leading up to the explosion, as well as previous acts of betrayal, and inevitably the two fellow travellers are drawn closer, to the point where a delicately portrayed relationship develops. But pursuit is always at hand, and the struggle to stay ahead of the guards and the dogs becomes a matter of life and death.

We saw it all. Old things were broken and rebuilt – we paid heavily for it. With blood. And the difficulties are quickly forgotten, good things are remembered. Sometimes it seems that none of this happened. Our life was hard, troublesome, maybe unfair at times. But peaceful. And that’s the most important thing. I sometimes think: let it all come back, both the difficulties and the hunger, but without the war. We would cope with everything. We certainly would, after so much blood.

“Ballad” is a powerful read, bringing home a number of harsh truths; the portrayal of life under the Nazis is not pleasant, and touched a nerve with me during a time when we’re seeing right wingers on the rise again. However, there is a subtext with the book (I love a subtext!); first published in 1964, Bykau seems to have used his characters as something of a vehicle for his views. At that time, speaking out against the Soviet regime was a dangerous thing, and the author regularly clashed with the authorities. Giulia has a naive trust in the Russian regime but Ivan informs her of some truths about the Soviet world; and by drawing comparisons between the Fascist and Communist regimes, Bykau uses Ivan to obliquely critique the Soviets. It’s a brave stance to take, and the author should applauded for it.

But putting the message aside, “Ballad” stands on its own as an excellent piece of writing. The tension of pursuit is nerve-wracking; the romantic element moving and beautifully drawn; and the ending (and coda) very emotional. The story is a reminder of how humanity can flourish in the most extreme situations, and how differences between people can be overcome. Glagoslav state that the book is being brought out “as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day” and it’s a laudable aim. The book is newly translated directly from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (as the Soviet Russian version was heavily censored) and comes with a useful introduction by Arnold McMillin from UCL. Apparently, Bykau’s writing is generally very hard-hitting and “Ballad” is unusual for its gentler elements. However, it’s a gripping and wonderful read, and probably a very good way to be introduced to the work of a fascinating author – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

The author ( [Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons])