[New Directions; 2022]

Tr. from the Belarusian and Russian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid

Sia is an odd child. At school she is silent, she has no friends, and she is conspicuously motherless. But at home, she speaks, reads, sings, and writes however she likes—as long as she’s speaking the Leid. Her Faither has raised her to speak their native Leid, but her teachers at school try to make her speak the official Lingo. Her only friend is her brother, Avi, a child formed from clay and yet alive. Sia’s peculiar silence, her brother’s unknown origins, and Faither’s strident attempts to keep their private lives a secret from official laws and languages create, in Alindarka’s Children, a fantastical and yet eerily resonant depiction of contemporary Belarus, where for decades the Belarusian language has been silenced, mythologized, or marginalized.

The novel opens in the remote forest of Western Belarus sometime in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Two of Alindarka’s children, Avi (short for Aviator) and Sia, wander in the woods, eating bilberries and trying to find their way to Bremen, Germany following an outdated atlas. They have just been liberated by their iconoclast father, Faither, from a pioneer-cum-concentration camp. The state removed Avi and Sia from Faither’s custody so they could be “cured” of the provincial Leid and reintegrated into proper (Russian-speaking) society. Faither’s foil, The Doctor, runs the camp using a variety of drugs and treatments to heal children of their Leid because, to him, “speaking correctly means that you think correctly. And live correctly.”

While Sia and Avi are not convinced of The Doctor’s version of a correct life, neither are they sure of Faither’s. Faither has been alone, an alcoholic, and increasingly less sane since his wife disappeared. She was a beautiful, brave singer of the Leid until the Belarusian state sent her to the hospital. Sia hardly remembers her mother, and Avi, strangely, never knew her. The novel’s plot unfolds nonlinearly moving from Avi and Sia’s adventures in the Belarusian forests, to Faither’s confused and frantic musings on the state of the Leid and how his daughter is the answer to saving it, to Avi’s bizarre not-quite-human origins. 

Alindarka’s Children is a novel of extremes and complicated communication. It is a dystopic satirical fantasy influenced by Belarusian history, Jewish mythology, and German fairytales constructed with a cacophony of references recognizable primarily to Belarusian-language speakers. It gives readers a glimpse at Belarusian language politics and national identity debates while situating Belarus firmly within a European context. By threading the needle of fully comprehensible to few but accessible and enjoyable to many, the recent translation of Alhierd Bacharevič’s 2014 novel provides a fascinating lens for understanding contemporary Belarusian experience.

Bacharevič started out as a journalist and teacher of Belarusian in the 1990s and was a founder of the literary avant garde group Bum-Bam-Lit. In the early 2000s, he moved to Germany to escape state restrictions on cultural production. He returned to Belarus in 2013 to a relatively freer publishing atmosphere. Since then, Bacharevič has become a leading literary figure and an authoritative voice on Belarusian culture and current affairs. Several of his novels have been translated into German, French, and Polish, but Alindarka’s Children is the first to be translated into English.

According to the author, Alindarka’s Children is written in five languages: literary Belarusian, colloquial Belarusian, literary Russian, colloquial Russian, and trasianka (a mix of Belarusian and Russian). This multitude of languages speaks to the difficulty of translating in post-Soviet spaces. Belarus gained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Before then, portions of modern-day Belarusian territory were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire. Language politics in the region have always been complicated as Belarusian was considered a peasant language caught between the more codified Polish and Russian languages. But all languages shift and change with time and political influence. Belarusian is unique because of the anxiety felt by those who speak it from the restrictions placed on it by outside influences, most significantly by the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

With such complex linguistic history permeating every word, the British translator of Belarusian literature, Jim Dingley, and the Scottish poet, Petra Reid, opted for an imperfect solution, translating Alindarka’s Children into a combination of English and Scots. In the original text, the Belarusian language is referred to as the Mova (the Belarusian word for “language”) and the Russian language is referred to as the Iazyk (the Russian word for “language”). In translation, the Leid (“language” in Scots) takes the place of Mova, while Lingo refers to the English language and takes the place of Iazyk. Translating the novel into Scots was not an arbitrary choice. Scots and Belarusian are both classified as “vulnerable” languages in the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages and are both victims to hegemonic linguistic and cultural influence from England and Russia, respectively. In the original, as noted earlier, the novel is primarily in Belarusian with Russian and trasianka interspersed. In translation, English dominates, with dialogue in Scots. This approach makes the text more accessible to an English readership but flips the relationship between Belarusian and Russian, making the language of imperial influence more understandable than “vulnerable” Belarusian. It could be argued that this only further silences Belarusian-speakers, but I see it differently. Dingley and Reid preserved the linguistic debate in Belarus while making it accessible to a global English-speaking audience and giving readers the opportunity to experience the disappointment, even shame, that they cannot fully understand the Belarusian-speaking characters.

The novel’s protagonists, Avi and Sia, speak almost exclusively Belarusian in the original, and Scots in the translation. They are the novel’s only innocent characters, who are forced to reckon with choices made for them by those with power who decide what language they must speak, how they must live, and in essence, who they are. Yet, English language readers will struggle to understand these sympathetic characters the most. The privilege of understanding is taken away; the power of English and its widespread use is rendered moot. Furthermore, the average English language reader will find themselves hearing their own voices (or the voice most familiar to them) reflected in the antagonists: in the characters who force people to speak, think, and live through the filter of a particular language and the colonial, hegemonic heritage it bears. Ironically, Belarusian readers may also struggle to understand Avi and Sia in the original text. While both Belarusian and Russian are the official languages of Belarus, Belarusian is used far less in official settings and public life. Many Belarusians reading Alindarka’s Children in the original would experience the disappointment and shame of not understanding Sia and Avi, but on a grander scale because these characters are speaking their “native” language. By translating the Belarusian into Scots, Dingley and Reid have conveyed, to some degree, the experience of estrangement from their own identity that many Belarusians experience.

Miscommunication, mistranslation, and misunderstanding permeate at every level. The name Alindarka in the title is synonymous with linguistic misunderstanding. None of the characters in the novel are named Alindarka, but they can all be considered his children. Alindarka is the protagonist of the poem “Things Will Be Bad” by the nineteenth century Belarusian poet, Frantsishak Bakhushevich. Alindarka is not, in fact, a name but the result of a misunderstanding between Belarusian speaking peasants and a Polish-speaking priest. The priest tells them to consult the “kalendar” for their son’s saint’s day. They do not understand him and think he is telling them to name him Alindarka. So, to be a child of Alindarka is to be a child of linguistic confusion, to be perpetually misunderstood.

During their Hansel-and-Gretel-inspired adventures, Avi and Sia begin to question their relationship and Avi’s origins. But the reader already knows what the children do not: Avi is a golem, a savior figure from Jewish mythology. Bacharevič presents Faither as grossly antisemitic and incongruously impressed by Perelman (Eliezer Ben-Yehuda), the creator of modern Hebrew, from whom he got the idea to isolate Sia and teach her the Leid. Avi enters the picture after Faither picks up a lump of clay dropped by a mysterious Jewish man. He puts this lump of clay on the balcony, forgetting about it until, one day, Avi appears. Faither’s antisemitism reflects Belarusian society’s struggle to reckon with its conflictual relationship to its Jewish population. Through Avi, Bacharevič also highlights how Belarusian culture is influenced, if imperceptibly to many, by Jewish culture. Avi’s character, his mysterious origins, and other characters’ doubts about his being actually Sia’s brother speak to this often-overlooked shared Belarusian-Jewish history. 

At the end, Sia’s long-lost mother miraculously returns to gather her daughter and take her back to Germany. But she no longer speaks Belarusian, just Russian, and the same becomes true for Sia:

“But ye war deforc’d frae . . . Deforce’d frae the Leid. Ye war deid. Awmaist,” said Alica, looking wide-eyed at her mother. “Luckily only from the Leid,” and her mother smiled so sweetly that Alicia had no wish to stay silent next to her.”

This ambiguous ending leaves the reader with more questions than answers: While there is a possibility of hope as Sia is still alive, she no longer speaks the Leid and has left Belarus. Even more baffling is that her mother ascribes her own survival to giving up the Leid. What, therefore, is the Leid? A linguistic heritage? A marker of identity and belonging? Or a burden and threat? Bacharevič leaves it to his readers to decide.

By ending his novel with such uncertainty, Bacharevič reflects the reality of life for many Belarusians caught between these extremes. They can stay and suffer, often in prison, as many in recent years have done; they can conform or stay silent; or they can leave and live freely. But what comes next? That’s the question Bacharevič leaves us with and that many Belarusians today face.

Alana Felton is a PhD Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University writing a dissertation on Belarusian creative collectives, art, and protest. She also works in academic publishing, and tutors college students in writing.

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