Hamish MacDonald reviews Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič
Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel, set in native Belarus, is an odyssey into the nature of language, a minority tongue which exists, tenuously, under the dominance of its more powerful neighbour. In Bacharevic’s original this is Russian and its supposed subordinate Belarusian, which under the adept hand of translators Dingley and Reid becomes the Lingo and the Leid, namely English and Scots. Meet Avi and Alicia, the estranged bairns of Alindarka who have been interned in a correction facility where a Camp Director supervises their treatment to become homogenized Russian speakers, where words in the mouths of children are prodded, poked and subjected to ritual humiliation in the name of linguistic assimilation. Escaping from the camp and reduced to a wild state Avi and Alicia’s world is revealed in dialogue between the siblings and in outpourings of consciousness, expressed in a tongue which is practically as feral as the bairns themselves. Through all of this a fascinating tale unfolds, overshadowed by The Doctor, an obsessive who believes language can be altered by surgical intervention. Petra Reid gives free rein to the Leid in this bold and playful translation, rattling along in vibrant patter and shifting between the narrative and snippets of poems from the Scots tradition, with the voices of Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns, Melville, Oliphant and MacDiarmid running through the tale, a continuing stream from which a contemporary but now vilified tongue draws its strength. Revealed in episodic shifts, the stories of characters are told while the children, equipped with only an old atlas, set off into the forest and the realms of sinister folk legend. The seamless transition between Dingley’s Lingo and Reid’s Leid means the tale moves invitingly along, giving here and there a window into Belarus’s turbulent modern history. The novel reveals the corrosive effects of the repression of language and identity, in an imagined world where separation of family, isolation and secrecy become the norms of survival. It is also a finely told and compelling tale.
Our small press has just published a new book. In this article Maggie Ritchie interviews Head of Publishing Jean Findlay about her grandmother’s children books. This article celebrates our indie press’ new children publication: Aboard the Bulger, by Ann Scott Moncrieff. You can read the original article by clicking here. Head over to this page to read more about the book.
It just so happens that I am writing these lines in a really beautiful autumn, in my home town, where peaceful people are being kidnapped, beaten, tortured and pursued, in the country called Belarus, which now finds itself ruled by a military-police junta. Yesterday evening, not far from the apartment where I live, you could hear guns and explosions. Beside me is a smartphone which I look at closely every five minutes. And I have no idea how to explain to anyone living outside Belarus what is going on and what we really feel. All of this in fact started many years ago. Then came 2020, the year when everything at last became obvious to everyone, in Belarus and in the whole world.
It was right at the beginning of 2007 that I left Belarus; life here had become dangerous and stifling. Then in 2013 I returned. Love brought me back. That’s how it was. Once back home I wrote the novel Alindarka’s Children. I well remember what gave me the necessary push to start work. I had read that somewhere in some little town a woman in the local education authority had advised the parents of a little child to “urgently seek the help of a speech therapist. Because your kid has a strong Belarusian accent. Get it cured, before it’s too late. Know what I mean? Normal kids speak proper, they speak Russian, got it?”
I was always well aware of what I had fled from and what I had come back to.
And that’s how the tale of Alicia and Avi came to be written. Belarusian speaking children who land up in a concentration camp, where there’s a kind Doctor who treats them for speaking the wrong language. A tale of Father, a Nationalist, who makes his daughter bear the responsibility for carrying out a Great Mission – preserving Belarusian. Father, who forbids Alicia to speak and think in Russian.
Father kidnaps his children from the Camp. The children flee and wander around the Huge, Mysterious Belarusian Forest…
Alindarka’s Children. A fairy tale for adults. A novel about the Demons that dwell within all Belarusians who know who they are. A tale that turned out to be complex and terrifying… And that’s how it reads today!
My thanks go to the ‘Halijafy’ publishing house and Źmicier Višnioǔ for producing such a handsome book; its appearance is enhanced by the cover that the artist Kaciaryna Dubovik designed. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the editor Siarhiej Šupa.
In 2015 the novel received the ‘Book of the Year’ prize, and came third in the Giedroyc Prize competition. Three years later the novel appeared in a French translation by Alena Lapatniova, published by Le ver à soie in Paris (thanks to Virginie Symaniec). Now it has come out in an English translation in Great Britain, or, to be exact, Great Scotland; the publisher is the Scotland Street Press of Edinburgh.
The book has Kaciaryna Dubovik’s original Belarusian cover, in a fine translation by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid. It has to be said, though, that this is not just a translation of a Belarusian text into English. Firstly, it is a translation into English and Scots (and that’s a language I’m sure you all know about). It’s a huge piece of work. Alindarka’s Children has become a literary castle; its walls, towers and corridors have been designed by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid with all the skills of true poets who know literature, It is a book in which all the allusions, both large and small, all the subtleties, the games and the linguistic apparatus have been considered, weighed up and transmitted in such a way that pernickety, demanding anglophone readers can make up their own minds, and for this I thank them.
The book will be officially launched at the end of this month, but it has already been printed (see the photographs), and the first review appeared on 23 September – in The Scotsman, no less. To be perfectly honest, I cannot imagine what anglophone readers will make of Alindarka’s Children. A sceptic will say “not very much”. What else could you expect? I have, after all, always written for the Chosen Ones.
And I also need to thank Tania Skarynkina. She it was, who, two years ago in Scotland, talked about my mad, unhappy ‘Children’. Tanya is a good talker. I’ve always known that.
The news of the book’s publication will have to suffice for today. I have not yet held the actual book in my hands. How long does it take for a book to travel from Scotland to Belarus.
I first met Auntie Robbo on a sunny day six years ago, in Any Amount of Books second-hand book-shop in Charing Cross Road. She was not exactly looking at her best at that point: originally released in 1941, this Puffin edition from 1962 crudely transposed an illustrarion by Christopher Brooker on its cover. You had to peer at it to realise it showed a horse-drawn caravan jolting along at a dangerous pace, while an elderly woman – rakishly attired – hauled a young boy aboard with calm insouciance.
But once I’d seen that, I knew I had to jump aboard that caravan as well.
I fell head-over-heels in love with Auntie Robbo and passed old Puffin editions onto friends. I could never quite understand: why wasn’t it better known? Why hadn’t it become one of those Puffins everyone reads to death and hangs onto through life? Why had there never been a movie adaptation, by Ealing or the Archers or Disney?
Why, for goodness sake, was it not still in print – destined to endure only in the shelves of Impossible Libraries like mine…
I’m surely not alone in loving novels that feature wild, wise and wonderful old women (often grandmother figures). Novels like Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and now The House with Chicken Legs (and you’ll tell me the ones I’ve forgotten, of course). Like Tolly Oldknow, Auntie Robbo also features an admiring grandson, and that’s a wonderful relationship to see celebrated in fiction: the rebellious old women doing all the talking, the fey young men shutting up and listening for once.
In Auntie Robbo, it’s eleven year old Hector sitting beside eighty year old Aunt Robbo (short for Robina, which to me suggests Robina Crusoe’s adventures in the Girl’s Own Paper), as she drinks her coffee and he eats his bread and jam. She is not his Auntie, or his Grandmother, but his Great-Grand Aunt. In their remote old house, Nethermuir, she tells him of the travels of her youth, and sometimes they go to old battlefields to improve Hector’s grasp on history.
“[We] ride over the battlefields and go and look at the castles where the murders were done.”
Seeing Merlissa Benck’s shocked expression, Hector explained seriously. ‘Scottish history has a great many murders, you know.’
‘I dare say,’ said Merlissa Benck shortly. ‘But I should have thought British history would have been more suitable for a boy of your age, indispensable in my opinion. England’s story is a very great and noble one.’
‘Yes,’ said Hector. ‘But then we couldn’t ride to the battlefields, could we? I mean they were mostly fighting in places that didn’t belong to them, weren’t they?’
Hector has no wish to jostle about with boys his own age, and certainly no intention of going to school. When a couple of self-interested do-gooders (hell Merlissa Benck) try and rescue the boy from this outrageously dysfunctional upbringing, he and Auntie Robbo take off by bus at dead of night, and begin a string of wild adventures.
So you may be able to tell, already, that this is a truly wonderful book. So why is it not better known? I couldn’t help wondering – was it possibly the fact it was Scottish? Parochial book publishers, thinking the English kids wouldn’t ‘get’ it? Well, it turns out that’s precisely what happened: ‘too Scottish’ for the UK, and so it was first published in the US, albeit with a warning: it had not “a shadow or suspicion of a moral”.
Well, that may be true – but it certainly has an urgent sort of message to it, although thankfully without a trace of saccharine about it. It argues against convention and for freedom, against respectability and for bohemianism, against stale compromise and for the wide open beauty of the Highland countryside. There are lyrical descriptions of the coast and the woods, and even that night bus racing through the darkness. Hector and his Auntie end up racketing about with three other orphans, getting in and out of trouble, but they all end up living life according to their own characters.
I suppose the end of the 30s was the last blooming of the bohemian dream: Augustus John was still alive and the Bloomsberries were in their farmhouse. I particularly like the youngest boy discovering his passion for painting, and the novel’s conclusion that greed and selfishness are the worst things in the world, especially when it pertains to people.
I tried to learn more about the author, Ann Scott-Moncrief, but her other two novels seemed to have faded away, and she had vanished with them. I know now that her short life took her from Orkney to Fleet Street, that she was a poet and married a playwright, and that she found fame as a broadcaster on BBC Scotland radio. I know that she had a great ear for comedy, perfectly evoking Auntie Robbo’s mix of anarchy and stateliness:
The dining-room door was snapped open and Auntie Robbo’s voice came with great finality: “I tell you the whole thing is ridiculous, quite ridiculous,” and presently she swept into the drawing-room.
Auntie Robbo was at her most magnificent, flushed and excited, anger adding fire to her brown cheeks and faded eyes. She was wearing one of her grandest evening dresses: a purple taffeta one nipped in at the waist, spread out into a fan-shaped train. It was festooned with bunches of net and white rosettes and from the corsage hung two twinkling tassels of diamonds. Auntie Robbo wore this confection right regally; she loved her clothes as she loved her food.
It’s a novel about the human appetite for life, about the delight in sharing and companionship, a funny novel about heroic eccentricity versus agents of conformity. It’s vivid, delicious novel, funny and adventurous – and the marvellous news is that Scotland Street Press are reissuing it this summer! Yes, edited by Scott-Moncrief’s granddaughter, with Brooker’s illustrations intact, Auntie Robbowill ride again this month. I can finally replace the final copy I gave away to a friend, and even more delightful, those lost books of hers will soon be lost no more: back to life, back on the road, escaping from the Impossible Library and rattling along, ready to sweep readers along with them, out into the breathless Highland hills. You won’t regret going along with Hector’s Auntie Robbo.
A Review on the Times Literary Supplement, March 13th
Name four eminent Scots who emigrated to America in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and found fame. Andrew Carnegie, of course. Alexander Graham Bell and John Muir are two others. For a fourth, we propose Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, poet and artist who left Paisley for Philadelphia in 1794 and never returned.
Wilson’s renown as a portrait painter of birds does not match that of John James Audubon, but his studies were made with skill and love for his subjects. Now Hamish MacDonald has brought together a selection in an attractive book published by Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh. The poems are in Scots and the birds are American, many of them unrecognizable to the average Pentlands or Chilterns birder.
A bridge between Wilson’s native and adopted lands is the crossbill. One of its subspecies is the chunky Scottish crossbill, which is said to be the only endemic bird species in Britain (found nowhere else in the world). It resembles the American crossbill, seen here on the left. Next to our rusty friend is the white-winged crossbill and, perched below, the white-crowned bunting.
As an accompanying poem, Mr MacDonald offers three crossbill stanzas, all beginning with a variation on the line “The crossbill is a brawlike bird”. Other Scots objects of praise in Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds in Scots include the corbie (crow), the brongie (cormorant), peewhit (lapwing) and the mavis (song thrush). It is available from Scotland Street at £9.99.