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Between Polesie and the Cosmos: Diary of Escape Becomes a Hit in Belarus

Wake up! A postmodern Thoreau urges his fast-growing fan club.

by Olga Bubich 7 August 2018

In Belarus, they call Radio Prudok a “reality project”: a literary, social-media, and now theatrical venture that has brought its 35-year-old author Andrus Horvat quick and unexpected fame. In less than two years, the journalism graduate and former caretaker at the Yanka Kupala National Theater became a figure known to every young Minsk intellectual – winner of three prestigious awards, the second edition of his novel almost sold out in a few days, tickets for the theatrical premier gone in six hours.

 

“If I had a 100 billion dollars, I would not give it away to the poor and the sick. I would build a spaceship and fly to space. I would live in space all by myself. I would not think about people. I would watch the celestial bodies and water my ficus,” the new star of Belarusian literature, wrote on his Facebook page (which he has since deleted). He is the author of a diary-like novel based on his social network entries, which hundreds of avid readers actively commented on.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

 

A kind of philosophical autobiography constructed of short chapters and simple black-and-white photographs, the novel documents the routine of a journalism major who decides to work as a theater caretaker and then, out of the blue, moves from the capital to his deceased grandparents’ village, Prudok. The hamlet is located in the south of Belarus – in Polesie, known for its poverty, alcoholism, and a high level of radioactive contamination left behind by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The region is also famous for other, more culture-linked associations – pagan myths, as well as being an inspiration for the fictional events in another Belarusian classic, Ivan Melezh’s People of the Marsh.

 

The instant popularity Horvat’s novel achieved led to questions about the secrets to its success. One reason might lie in its Facebook-based “career path.” This made it more likely for people to support the book’s crowdfunding campaign – most of the donors who helped to raise 5,290 Belarusian rubles (around $2,700) were keeping an eye on the protagonist’s adventures online and in the pages of the Nasha Niva newspaper, sympathizing with his existential meditations.

 

Mikhail Zui as the protagonist of ‘Radio Prudok’ at a preview performance at the Yanka Kupala Theater in May.

 

But of no less importance are the thoughts underlying the young protagonist’s personal Prudok. His “Radio,” abounding in humor and self-irony, is a reality show with an open ending only at first sight. Much deeper is the message many Belarusians genuinely shared and responded to.

 

Radio Prudok broadcasts the guidelines for a successful escape. Its protagonist finds it hard to put up with the absurdity of the city – “greasy-haired, jeansed, and sneakers-shining” Minsk dwellers, green and red patriotic streets, and “urbanization around Lenin monuments.” Tired and unable to “fit in,” he consciously chooses the setting of his own personal cosmos populated by a cat, a fly, and a goat – all given in the novel “human” names and rights.  

 

But Horvat’s escape can be defined not only as an escape “from” but as an escape “to.” The step is a logical solution made in accordance with a personal system of values. The writer finds a sense of purpose in mundane rural chores and long talks with the elderly locals – meticulously presented in the book in the southern Belarusian dialect recognized by readers from their childhood holidays spent “at Granny’s.”

 

The fact that Prudok speaks to the cosmos in Belarusian is one more distinctive feature that contributed to the success of the novel. One of the two official languages of the country, understood by many but regularly spoken by few, Belarusian has been traditionally associated with the national spirit and used by urban intellectuals desirous of promoting local culture, history, and identity. Unexpectedly, the book found an eager audience in younger readers, who discovered something ironically familiar in this Granny-talk of the old and their marriage plots,  kitchen garden-planting strategies, and the paradox of washing seven socks.     

 

Reducing Life to Its Lowest Terms


Coincidentally or not, the logic of escape matches the reputation of Belarus as a “partisan” country.

 

During the Second World War a popular survival strategy adopted by many under the Nazi occupation was to join the forest brigades and take part in guerrilla activities – fast and furious, but always invisible. Invisibility is important for Horvat, too, but unlike for his ancestors, his forest is no place for battles. He prefers anonymity and harmony with nature and his native village, but his own discoveries are more in line with those of Henry David Thoreau’s, the American transcendentalist who also adopted the path of the simple life and self-reliance far from the blessings of civilization:

 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

 

Thoreau wrote those words in his most celebrated book, Walden, anticipating by 150 years Horvat’s own “citybreak” into the wild.

 

 

The Belarusian writer combines Thoreau’s naturalistic core with a wish to rediscover and fully experience through the minimalistic rural lifestyle what “true Belarus” is like – different from the ideology proclaimed on state channels and in official mass media. Hidden, censored, and often treated with a snobbish city scorn.

 

Coming from a different, “civilized,” and ideologically correct Belarus, in Prudok Horvat feels alien – the most popular metaphor constantly used in the book is that of the spaceman floating in his new, open cosmos, above the abandoned rural huts, wells, and goats.  

 

The same metaphor was chosen as the central symbol of the eponymous play staged this May, a year after the publication of the novel (three more performances are planned for September). Careful in expressing his enthusiasm about the future of the theatrical adaptation of the hit, during the press conference at the Yanka Kupala Theater, the director Raman Padalyaka described it as “complex and experimental.”

 

But the need to work quickly and responsibly did not impede the theater’s small adaptation team from doing their job and keeping up the level of their former caretaker’s talent. The staged version retained the intimate, diaristic tone, also adding a few, personal ironic twists. For example, the space helmet perfectly matched a striped costume worn by the protagonist, played by Mikhail Zui – making him look both like a cartoon character and a patient in a ward for dangerous psychopaths. Probably, in Belarus there is no other way one can “legally” dream of becoming a space refugee. 

 

Other purely irrational rituals performed on by the whole gallery of novel-based characters only emphasize the mysterious “Polesie gene” – the cultural code of Belarus still lacking fixation and interpretation. In the performance, Padalyaka and three other actors play a cosmic game amid the props of the invisible Belarus, repeating as one of the key mottoes a line borrowed from the book: “Waking up is the most difficult thing to do in Belarus.”

Story and photos by Olga Bubich, a freelance journalist, lecturer, and photographer based in Minsk. Her articles and essays on art and the culture scene in Belarus and the former Soviet Union have appeared in www.journalby.com, www.photographer.ru and www.birdinflight.com
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