Bosnia and Herzegovina: Death and the Dervish

Last month was the first time I missed posting in this blog since I started it almost 2.5 years ago. Life caught on. Amidst all the chaos, I could still clearly feel how much I missed posting here. Now I am back and it feels great.

Background:

This month I write about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country in the Balkan peninsula, bordered by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The region was a part of the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Republic of Yugoslavia at various points in modern history. Currently it is a liberal democratic nation. The country is remembered the most for being the site of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand which proved to be a spark for the First World War. It hosts the immensely popular Sarajevo Film Festival as well.

BH

Source: https://goo.gl/vU2OL0

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich literary tradition going back to the middle ages. There is a wealth of fiction and non-fiction originating here aiming to shed light on the various conflicts . The most obvious choice to read is Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric with his The Bridge bridgeonthedrinaon the Drina, a historical novel where the bridge stands testament to the history of the place from Ottoman occupation till World War I.

For my reading, I have chosen Death and the Dervish by Messa Selimovic. Its a poignant tale of a dervish, who regularly misquotes the Quoran, loses his brother and tries to deal with the tragedy in a state of half delirium.  Its a Bosnian classic and I hope to enjoy reading it.

Review:

I have read quite a few depressing tales in my life – Khalid Husseini comes to mind – and the Death and the Dervish comes close to the top of the list. The entire book – all 473 pages of it – is monotonous monologue, except for sparse conversation, leading to more monologue. That, by no means, implies the book is unentertaining. The sadness of the deathandthedervishdervish living in a tekke(a kind of monastery) separated from the rest of the kasaba(city or village) and pining for everything from family, friendship, female companionship, respect, spiritual salvation and at the moment, his brother’s safety just sucks the reader in. He sees a beautiful woman and enjoys her beauty:

‘Without a desire to possess her, without the possibility of experiencing her completely, without the strength to leave.’

The dervish left his family a long while ago to take the order. The decision was mostly triggered by the separation from the woman he loved. He still cares about his brother immensely and is quite confident that he could not do anything unlawful or hurtful. In spite of this belief, he cannot bring himself to do enough to save his brother from a certain death in the hands of the authoritarian rulers. He loses a lot of time contemplating how to come out of the whole incident looking good and his brother safe. By the time he realizes only one among the two is possible, its too late. His momentary spur of efforts gets him imprisoned for a while. When he does come out, he takes up a higher position as a kadi(judge) and is eventually forced to rule against his best friend.

‘I don’t like violence, it’s a sign of weakness and bad judgement, a means by which people are driven to do evil. And yet, when it was exercised against others I kept silent and refused to condemn it.’

Throughout my reading I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. At some point I realized that it is the unquestioning acceptance of the cruelty of the absolute totalitarian rulers. There is no surprise, no indignant rebellion; just meek acceptance. The society is also almost homogeneous, probably set after the ethnic cleansing envisioned by the Ottoman empire ruling the county. Life in this society is nothing more than a slow march towards death:

‘There are no exemptions, no surprises: all paths lead to it. Everything we do is a preparation for it, a preparation that we begin at our birth, whimpering with our foreheads against the ground. We never move away from death, only closer.’

A more significant underlying theme throughout the story is the cowardice of the dervish. At the bottom of cowardice lies extreme selfishness, a desire to protect only oneself, at any cost. Cowardice leads to pain, loneliness, desperate search for a friend and definite depression. The story is supposed to mimic an incident in the author’s life who lost his brother to the Communist regime and blamed himself for not doing enough to save him. The entire story runs like a reprimand for failing to protect a brother or a friend who fills the soul, even at the cost of one’s own life – a self righteousness used to justify sending a brother to the gallows. Death and the Dervish is by no means an easy read. But if you persevere, the reward is an absolute classic with deep political and philosophical undercurrents.

Other Options from Bosnia:

Sarajevo Marlboro –  Miljenko Jergovic

sarajevomarlboroStory collection set in Sarajevo

 

 

Sarajevo, Exodus of a City –  Dzevad Karahasan

sarajevoexodusNon-fiction essays about Sarajevo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bolivia: American Visa

Background:

Bolivia is the largest landlocked country in the Americas. It was colonized by Spain in the 16th century. The Spaniards built their empire in great part upon the silver that was extracted from Bolivia’s mines. Modern Bolivia is constitutionally a democratic republic but is still a developing country and ranks at or near the bottom among Latin American countries in several areas of health and development, including poverty, education, fertility, malnutrition, mortality, and life expectancy. Home to lake Titicaca along with Peru, Bolivia is a part of the Like-Minded Mega Diverse countries, due to its rich biodiversity.

bolivia

Source: http://www.29travels.com/travelmap/index.php

laketiticaca

Source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Lake-Titicaca

Although Bolivia has a large body of literary work – most of them based on Central American themes – very little is available in English. According to the Latino Author, ‘literary works are still subjected to intense scrutiny, but there is some progress…While there is some exposure to literary works from within their main culture, there is not as much exposure to the rich literary works of the world. The country has much to offer from the native peoples, however, there is little written about them.’

For my reading, I have chosen American Visa by  Juan de Recacoechea. The author is a Bolivian TV mogul and was also a journalist in Europe in his previous avatar. I expect the writing to be contemporary along with the ‘local feel’ the reviews promise it has.

Review:

American Visa captures one’s imagination about Bolivia. It checks off every stereotype out there about the country and many about Third World countries in general.

‘Our national consolation is possessing the highest everything, whether it’s the world’s highest stadium, highest velodrome, or highest anything else. It’s compensation for our frustrations.’

It delivers what is promised by the title – the struggle of a man without hopes to reach the land of opportunities. This story line is enhanced with numerous back stories about each character and several encounters with prostitutes; embellished with platonic romance and surprise sexual encounters. There is a crime in the making to ensure the reader keeps turning the pages. Despite all these valiant efforts, what the novel wants to convey remains a bit questionable. If poverty and debauchery is all it set out to show, then it definitely served its purpose.

The broader plotline is of the protagonist, Mario Alvarez from Oruro – ‘Bolivia’s famed folklore capital’ – who has been sent tickets to travel to the USA by his semi-estranged son, who does menial jobs himself over at the US. The sole purpose Senor Alvarez has in life is to get the visa to travel to the States and work in a pancake house. However what the story is actually about is his time in the dingy hotel in La Paz, the bonds  he forms over there and the slice of his life in the big city.

americanvisaThere is the plotline of the crime Alvarez commits to gather the money for the visa, which is predictable and falls flat. The interesting plotline is his relationship with Isabel, the niece of the local political, who is the witless victim of the crime. Isabel clearly likes Alvarez, and is one of the few characters in the novel evolved enough to be capable of having a meaningful relationship, but does not commit herself to take the step forward. Her decision to nip the relationship in the bud lays bare, the pitiable state of affairs in a country riddled with poverty and hopelessness, more than any other grizzly encounter the author feels compelled to narrate.

‘She could tell me anything, her secrets, her confessions. Since I didn’t have her social standing, conversation was a cinch for her. I didn’t have the right to demand anything; love and sex weren’t in the cards. I was just some forty-something, borderline-poor guy who served as human experience for her, as a complement to her college education.’

I found it hard to reconcile with the biting cynicism about and general hatred towards prostitutes and transvestites – people who survive on the margin, have enough to put up with as it is and have all been uncommonly and unnecessarily kind towards the narrator –  all through the narration. Here is one such conversation of the many throughout the book:

‘The nurse was witness to this affectionate encounter between a sentimental whore and a survivor. Had she been a priest, she would have married us on the spot.’

Even with all my issues with the storyline, I did not find the writing dull for a moment. As the Afterword by Illan Stavans, the translator’s professor says,

‘American Visa is a by-product of the ’90s, a period of intense reaction to magican realism and its forgotten generals, clairvoyant prostitutesm and epidemics of insomnia.’

Not all reactions need to be pleasant, but they are worth being heard. I did not lose by my choice of reading for Bolivia.

Other Options from Bolivia:

Juan de la Rosa – Nataniel Aguirre

juandelarozaBolivian War of Independence narrated by an old revolutionary.

 

 

 

 

Plant Teacher – Caroline Alethia

plantteacherThe story of a syringe of LSD travelling through Bolivia

 

Bhutan: Home Shangrila

Background:

Bhutan is a tiny landlocked country bordering my own. In this year-end post, I put forth a personal account of my travel to The Land of the Thunder Dragon, which brings up many pleasurable memories. We set out to visit our next door neighbor in 2013 for the first time. Being Indians, me and my husband did not need a Visa for entry. We cross an arch from India and there we were! The dirt and crowd of West Bengal suddenly giving way to the quiet and calm of Bhutan. We simply needed a stamping at the border town of Phunsholing, which was facilitated by an agent. We stayed for a night in the border town, which is a buzzing commercial center and were surprised to see all kinds of wares for sale and some enterprising Indians having thriving businesses.

bhutan

Source: http://www.29travels.com/travelmap/index.php

The next day, we drove to Thimpu, the capital city via the hilly roads. We stayed in a place away from the city center, yet close enough to be reachable by walk. We visited the National Stupa, Buddha point overlooking the city, the oldest Chorten(temple) of Bhutan, the arts school, the central clock tower and the beautifully lit Thimpu palace.thimpupalace

Each evening we took pleasant walks around the city, looking at the market consisting of Bhutan-made scarfs, paper, ties, bags and other handwoven clothing items. From Thimpu we went to the Drochula pass, the home of 108 memorial stupas for Bhutanese ssolders, the Punakha palace – the previous house of the royal family, the fertility temple and finally the city of Paro, near which we did a 4-hour trek to the spectacular Tiger’s Nest monastery.

tigersnest

The aspects of Bhutan that I remember the most are the traditional attires mandatory for both men and women for any official business, the hospitality and friendliness of the people, the delicious Ema Datschi(chilly cheese) which is the staple food and the preference of Indian money over Bhutanese currency, even though both are equal in value!

The Mountain Echoes Literary festival is being hosted at Thimpu, the brainchild of queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the first wife of His Majesty, the king Jigme Singye Wangchuk is the pinnacle of literary interest in Bhutan. The country also captures the imagination of many a Western traveler due to its dream-like location, serene beauty, the culture deeply rooted in Buddhism and the emphasis on Gross National Happiness Index over Gross Domestic Production(GDP). There is a healthy curiosity about the country and there are any number of books out there with scholarly studies as well as trying to romanticize the life in Bhutan. However there are really few books available from Bhutanese authors in English.

For my reading, I chose Home Shangrila from Dorji Lingchen  because this story is very close to the experiences that were related during my travel. The novel talks about the trials of a student who studies from a prestigious institute in Bhutan but struggles to find a suitable job. This is very close to the accounts I heard from students I met during my trek to the Tiger’s Nest monastery who lamented over the obligation to leave home and travel to New Delhi in search of better prospects. I hope to learn more about the situation on the ground from this book.

Review:

Home Shangrila tells the story of Rinzin, a humble, sensitive boy from Bhutan. He finishes his education from the prestigious Sherubtse College, is currently living with his sister and her family, is looking for job prospects in Bhutan as well as scholarship opportunities to Universities abroad and aspires to fly to Europe or America, live there for some years and ‘return home a rich man’.

homeshangrila‘I was fed up of my provincial life in Bhutan and I really wished that I was living in some cosmopolitan cities of the world with plenty of jobs and money. ‘

He finally wins a scholarship at Scotland in Library Science and is ecstatic about it.

‘The charming anticipation of strange lands and adventures wouldn’t let me fall asleep.’

He sets out on this life-altering journey. His first stop in New Delhi to collect his Visa turns out to be a cultural shock.

‘Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and auto rickshaws weaved all over the road, pushing and honking incessantly from all sides. My heart thumped in my chest at every brake and stop. I was frightened as a cat on hot coals and thought that it was the end of my life. I thought that even hell would not be as scary as this. The ride through the road in Delhi was definitely not for a faint heart like me.’

He gets his Visa stamped in Delhi and travels to Scotland for his course. However life there is full of small humiliations – most of them perceived by himself – due to cultural differences. His attempts to approach acquaintances at the University welcome dinner are not accepted, which is a big blow to his self esteem.

‘It was a feeling of being abandoned, of not belonging to the foreign culture and for the first time, I experienced the discomfort of being a part of a minority and felt stupid, ugly and awkward – and odd face in the crowd’.

His stay has its pleasurable moments, mainly during his short trips around Scotland. For an individual from a landlocked country, the proximity to the ocean is an exhilarating experience.

‘I set my eyes on the North Sea, I felt every cell dance inside me with pleasure.’

His efforts to find a part-time job are futile for a long time. Loneliness makes him embrace spirituality, that was always latent in him, even further. He actively explores the principles of Buddhism, the teaching of the masters and tries to imbibe them.

‘When one is weak, one tend to be kind.’

His country’s unique principles and way of living turns out to be a source of inspiration in his academics.

‘I explained to Keith about how Bhutan was following the policy of high value low volume tourism in order to maintain its living culture intact in the face of rapid changes taking place in the country.’

In the end, his experiences in foreign lands only serve to bring to the forefront the immense love he has for his homeland and culture.

‘Here was my country Bhutan, the last Shangrila on earth, with its unique tradition and culture embedded deeply with the Buddhist values of love and compassion and the overwhelming spirit of untouched nature thriving over the centuries. Here everything appeared to be resting at its natural ease, perfectly peaceful and tranquil. i felt incredibly lucky to be born in Bhutan and my gratitude to my Kings increased more than ever.’

As travel usually does, it helps the author to discover his identity and his place in the world.

‘I became more Bhutanese by going to the West than I was when I was in Bhutan.’

This is a simple little book, definitely worth a read for everyone curious about the changing landscape in the serene land of Bhutan and a reference and inspirational for new generation of Bhutanese youth facing similar questions. I am completely satisfied with my choice of reading from Bhutan.

Other Options from Bhutan:

Room in your Heart – Kunzang Choden

room-in-your-heartFolktales from Bhutan

 

 

 

 

 

When loss in gain – Pavan K. Varma

when-loss-in-gainA broken man misdiagnosed with cancer finds solace in Bhutan

 

 

 

 

Benin: Will Do Magic for Small Change

Background:

Benin is a West African, tropical, sub-Saharan nation. The region was named ‘Slave Coast’ due to the large number of slaves shipped to the New World during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Precolonially, Benin was home for the ‘Kingdom of Dahomey’ which was a prominent West African kingdom known for its cultures and traditions. The military achievements of Dahomey earned it the name ‘Black Sparta’. The practice of Vodoo originated here. The country celebrates a National Vodoo day. Post the colonial era, the country issued a formal apology for the African involvement in slave trade. Currently Benin is one of the stable democracies of Africa.Economy of the country is mostly cotton export based or agriculture dependent. Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world and has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality.

(Source: wikipedia and everyculture.com).

benin

Source: https://goo.gl/YLSqvZ

slavecoastofbenin

Slave Coast of Benin;monument erected by UNESCO(Source:http://www.gettyimages.in/detail/photo/point-of-no-return-monument-route-of-the-high-res-stock-photography/108120238)

 

Literature in Benin had a strong oral tradition long before French became the dominant language. When I tried to source a book for this blog, there were any number of them available on Benin, but not so many from Benin, specially in English.

Will Do Magic for Small Change‘ by Andrea Hairston, an American author, is set partly in modern day America and partly in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th Century. The fact that it promises a story filled with magic was sufficient to convince me to go for it.

Review:

Will do Magic for Small Change‘ is one of the most unusual books I have read in recent times. It begins on a somber tone, at the funeral of Sekou, the half-brother of Cinnamon. Her father is already in a coma from a gunshot during a random shooting incident. Her mother is wasting away under the pressure of it all. Cinnamon is clutching onto sanity through the ‘Chronicles of the Great Wanderer’, the book Sekou gave her. The story set in the kingdom of Dahomey, feels strangely relevant. There seems to be some connection between it and her family. Cinnamon’s elderly grandparents – ‘older than the hills’ – try to heal her spirit with gentle Vodoo practices like ‘Mojo. A prayer in a bag.‘ to glide her through it all.

willdomagicforsmallchangeThe Chronicles record the experiences of the Wanderer, an alien being living across dimensions, who meets the ahosi (warrior wife) Kehinde when she is being hunted as a rebel against the Fon kingdom.

‘I was stunned by the magnetic field and the urgency of desire – for food, for touch, for expression and connection. The first experiences are paradise.’

Kehinde is fierce, aggressive and a trained killer. She is also kind, aching and ready to sacrifice everything for someone she loves. And what greater sacrifice is there than giving a kind death to a loved one in prolonged suffering. Kehinde is with a man, whom she mercy-kills. She is drowning under the sorrow and clutches the Wanderer for support, the only being who does not want her captive or worse. The Wanderer is hungry for experience and tries to learn everything from the only person near it.

‘Spying on Kehinde felt wrong; yet, I rehearsed her dance in the theatre of my mind, her love and anguish calmed me. I resolved to be a good witness.’

They start running from the kingdom together. Kehinde says,

‘Hurry, civilization comes this way to tame us.’

They are looking for a woman the dead man desperately wanted to be found. The kingdom is in tatters and their task is near impossible. Their journey takes paths beyond their own wildest imagination.

For me, the most unsettling part of the book was the Wanderer – cursed with immortality – returning to modern day Benin and trying to look for the any sign that there was a time past, in which it was here. How might it feel to search for the past truth in the present? It says,

‘Tourists and pilgrims take this staging of a legendary past as the past itself, as stolen memory restored, as healing for the aching ancestors in our hearts. I found not a building or a rock or a tree that looked familiar, not an echo of Kehinde or our past anywhere. It was as if we had never happened.’

This is a saga for a lost soul’s search of self, a warrior’s struggle for dignity and freedom, a boy’s embrace of love even though it is with someone of the same sex, a man’s urge to stand up for what’s right, even if it lands him in a coma for life, a woman’s struggle to get to grips with a life of loss after loss and of a girl’s coming to terms with her family secrets. It is a beautiful novel about tolerance of all shapes and forms, of all kinds of love. Although, in no measure a short read, I feel enriched because of reading this story.

Other Options from Benin:

theviceroyofouidahThe Viceroy Of Ouidah – Bruce Chatwin

A Brazilian making his fortune in Benin. Can he survive the madness of the Slave Coast?

 

 

amazonsofdahomeyThe Amazons of Dahomey: An Account of the Female Warriors of an African Kingdom Kindle Edition

Collection of articles that appeared in the New York Sun

 

 

 

Belize: A Child Grows Up and Wonders

Background:

Belize is a tiny country in Central America. Previously called the British Honduras, Belize has Mexico to the North, Guatemala to the West and South and Caribbean Sea to the East. Belize lies on the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and has rich terrestrial and marine biodiversity. It acts as a natural bridge for animal migration from South to North America. The beautiful Belize Barrier Reef is a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, one of the largest coral reef systems in the world. Belize is a Central American and Caribbean nation with strong ties to both Latin American and Caribbean regions. It is in the Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch and the head of state. It has been one of the core regions of the Mayan civilization. It has a diverse ethnicity with Mayas, creole, Gerinagu, Mestizo(a mixture of Spanish and Native Americans) and Mennonites of German descent. According to moon.com, it has a ‘friendly, accomodative people who live mostly in harmony.’

belize

Source: http://www.29travels.com/mymap.php?j=BZ&k=&c=ccea00ff&cf=cc99ccff&mode=g

belizebarrierreef

Source: http://asenkbelizebarrierreef.blogspot.in/

The main language spoken is a dialect of English mixed with creole. When it comes to literature available in English, the spectrum of options are not broad. everyculture.com says ‘a small body of written literature is published locally.’ thelatinoauthor.com says bekalambthere is quality literature in English.‘ When I went about looking for books from Belize, one author whose name popped up everywhere was Zee Edgell. The work everybody pointed to was Beka Lamb, a poignant, coming-of-age story set in Belize.

For my reading I am choosing ‘A Child Grows Up and Wonders‘ by Felicia Hernandez. The unique charm of Belize lies in the fact that the multiple, disjointed ethnic groups live in the shared space. One of the most important groups is the Garinagu people, the colored residents of Belize. It would be interesting to read a first hand account of the life of a Garinagu family. Hence I am choosing this memoir and a collection of poems. I hope to emerge richer from this reading!

Review:

A Child Grows Up and Wonders‘ is a very personal account of the life of Felicia Hernandez and her family, since the time they resided as immigrants in Puerto Barrios till the adult Felicia, with a family of her own, lives and works in the United States and dreams about returning to Belize. The accounts of her early childhood are honest recollections, although tad simplistic. The tradition of sending messages to the departed with a dead child reminds the reader of the African ancestry of the Garinagu people. Even as immigrants they are proud of the Garinagu tradition and culture and want their children to be educated only in English; not the native Mexican in Puerto Barrios. They try to pass on their folklore to the children through oral rendition of tales such as the Annancy stories and other rituals:

‘there was a superstition, a folklore, among the Garifuna people that the spouse or the mother of the deceased had to stay at home to guard against additional tragedy.’

childgrowsupandwondersWhen the author eventually returns to Belize with her mother and siblings, her feelings are mixed:

‘It was a strange feeling climbing up on the wharf; stranger still was being surrounded by the crowd of men and women chatting among themselves and grasping at the passengers. They were not a welcoming party. They did not seem to be there to help, and one of them even tried to grab the yamadi (straw basket). My mother knew this stranger and hollered “Aye, Cato, leave that alone.”

Gradually she falls in love with the life in Belize. The accounts of her adult life, career and marriage are more mature in tone. For the most part, the book feels self-indulgent and at times, reads like a documentary. However there is no substitute to the first hand accounts of people from a cultural group documenting their life and experiences. For this fact alone, ‘A Child Grows Up and Wonders‘ becomes a valuable read. That said, if there are alternative options available for reading from Belize, I would suggest the would-be readers to seek them out.

Other Options from Belize:

belizeanovelBelize, a novel – Carlos Ledson Miller

Two brothers, one American and the other Belizean, face unique challenges

 

 

 

memoriesfreamsnightmaresMemories dreams and anthologies – A Short Story Anthology by Balizean Women Writers

Untold tales of women’s life in Belize

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belgium: The Dancer at the Gui-Moulin

Background:

This month, we enter the Schengen area in Europe, through Belgium. Categorized as a developed country, Belgium is known for its medieval towns, Renaissance architecture and for housing the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. It also has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the ‘battlefield of Europe’, a reputation strengthened by both the World Wars. The country has a unique setting of being divided into French, Dutch and German speaking regions. This has resulted in a complex system of governance, made up of six different governments. The culture is also a fusion of Flemish, French and German cultures. The name Belgium reminds most of us its famous beer, chocolates and waffles. Some of us mystery lovers might also reminded of Hercule Poirot, the famous protagonist from Agatha Christie’s novels.

belgium

Belgian literature comprises of literature from all the 3 main languages of its provinces. As the website everyculture.com says, ‘Sometimes it is denied that there is a Belgian literature, with only Flemish and Walloon or French and Dutch writers who happen to be Belgian citizens’. Of late, there is an increase in the number of writers in English as well. Thrillers and mysteries is a favorite genre.

Books from Belgium almost immediately brings to mind, the world famous Tintin comics, which i was very tempted to choose for my reading. In the end, I decided to go with tintinanother world famous mystery novelist namely, Georges Simenon, a prolific author with more than 500 novels to his credit. However, I had a tough time fishing for a Detective Maigret novel set in Belgium, as the setting of most of the novels is Paris.Hence, I was very happy when I found The Dancer at the Gui-Moulin, almost on the verge of giving up. Nothing like a whodunit to lighten the mood at the end of the day 🙂

 

Review:

The Dancer at the Gui-Moulin is set in Liege, the city the author grew up in. The story starts off as a minor offence attempted by two teenagers, who have lost their way and are headed towards darkness. While Delfosse is reveling in the shadow of this rich father, Chabot has to work to earn a living. Things quickly spiral out of control, when they encounter a dead body at the Gui-Moulin, a shady bar they frequent for the cheap drinks and the opportunity to meet the beautiful, albeit tired dancer Adele , ‘a woman who had long been expecting disaster to strike’.

thedancerattheguimoulinThe case is investigated by Inspector Delvigne, who seems to look up to anything Parisian. The politeness of the Belgian police, as described in the novel, really surprised me. Things are very different here in India. I do not want to give away too much of the story and destroy a would-be reader’s pleasure. However I will say that, the way the story unravels is unique. I could not see the surprise in the middle coming or guess the ending, which isn’t something I can say for too many whodunits. Although, in the end, as Inspector Maigret himself puts it, ‘its a banal case’. I am sure I can find better Georges Simenon mysteries, if I go looking for them. This book was ideal for a light reading from Belgium.

 

Other Choices from Belgium:

Castle Keep – William Eastlake

castlekeepWill a platoon of American soldiers be able to defend an ancient Belgian castle against German attack?

 

 

 

 

Rear Entrance – David Barun Kumar Thomas

rearentrance4 Indians in Brussels, struggling for a visa to UK.

 

Belarus:King Stakh’s Wild Hunt

Background:

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, neighboring Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Because of it’s geographical position, the country has been fighting for its identity and independence from its neighbors throughout modern history. About 40% of it’s area is forested with many streams, rivers and lakes. The economy is dominated by services and manufacturing industries. Belarus has an authoritarian rule and has been in the ‘Lukashenko era’ since 1994. It has been raked at 157th among 180 for freedom of press by “Reporters without Borders” in 2013-14. It is the only country in Europe to still retain Capital punishment. In 2005, the US listed Belarus as Europe’s only remaining “outpost of tyranny”.

Belarus

 

Belarus has a long literary tradition and a huge body of literature, dominated by its many poets. According to theculturetrip.com , modern literature has two main themes – national allegiance and the existence of a common peasant. There are also an overwhelming number of works portraying the suffering caused by the war – the havoc wreaked during and the devastation left after.

Any reading from Belarus would have to be a reflection of the pain the region has gone through during the wars and the impact it has had on the culture. The book I have chosen is one such gem of contemporary literature. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich is deemed a Belorussian classic. It was a hard choice, considering the options available from Belarus. However, my love of historical fiction prevailed in the end. I expect this to be a unique read.

Review:

King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a dark tale as hinted from the setting and the title, reminding of the Headless Hunt. In spite of the darker elements, it is far from depressing. It is set in a remote estate in the middle of nowhere, with a huge gaping marsh leading to it. The love of one’s land is the basic trait of all species of this planet. A deviation from this fact is shocking. The people here are bound to the land by a curse and lack of alternatives.

‘It is our land, a land we do not love, a terrible land. May God forgive us!…’KingStakhsWildHuntd

The story unfolds on a dark night. A young heiress inhabiting the huge crumbling house, living on a meager income and almost complete isolation from civilization, is haunted by a curse placed on her forefathers. Each step of the way, this fragile girl of barely 18, is aware of the sins committed by the ancestors, the suffering caused by them, the blood shed on this land.

‘How many murdered or frightened to death, how many unfortunates! We haven’t the right to exist, even the most honest of us, the very best of us. The blood in our veins is not blue, it’s dirty blood’

Being the sole survivor of the family, she carries the unfortunate additional burden of strong ethics. She has remorse enough for all the generations of the past. She has almost accepted her role of paying for her ancestors’ sins and lives life in a state of constant fear, expecting the worst:

‘Not the fright that makes one’s hair stand on end for a moment,but the fright that finally becomes a habitual state impossible to get rid of even in one’s sleep.’

This delicate balance is disturbed when the night brings in an intruder in the form of the narrator, an ethnographer, an outsider with an active interest in legends and a willingness to help. His attitude can be summarized by his lines below:

‘People say that fate usually grants long life to fools so that they should have enough in which to acquire rich experience, experience that will make up to them for a lack of wisdom. Well then, I wish I were twice as foolish and might live twice as long, for I am an inquisitive fellow.’

How he gets dragged into this relic of history is the crux of the story. The novel also upholds starkly the class conflict between the peasants and the aristocracy, the basis of so much strife in the region.

I loved the narrative style which is a curious combination of desolation felt by the aristocracy and the hope, cheerfulness and a distance from the past as personified by the narrator, a representative of the post-war era. In the translation I read by Mary Mintz, extensive notes were given for the Belorussian terms, which not only provided a meaning, but also a context from history or mythology. They greatly enhanced the understanding of the story. I highly recommend this enjoyable tale for a reading for Belarus.

 

Other Options from Belarus:

The Dead Feel No Pain – Vasil Bykau

thedeadfeelnopainPortrayal of WW II from a soldier’s perspective

 

 

 

 

 

Down Among the Fishes – Natalka Babina

downamongthefishesTwin sisters set out to explore the conditions of their grandmother’s unexpected death in Belarus countryside