“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” George R. R. Martin wisely stated, and it’s hard to argue with him — there is no better way to live and understand the life of a Belarusian than to read something from the Belarusian classic literature. Even though more than a century has passed since the publication of some of these works, they still remain relevant.
All the listed works are translated into English. You can find them online, in libraries or on Amazon and eBay.
1. A New Land (1923)
A poem by Yakub Kolas
My native nook, dear land that bred me…
I have no power to forget thee!
These lines will touch the most tonic strings of Belarusian’s soul, regardless of acquaintance with this legendary poem. Yakub Kolas’ works were thoroughly imbued with love for the Belarusian peasant class, and that love is particularly well sensed in this piece.
If any literary effort deserves the status of the first Belarusian epos, it’s New Land.
The poem describes the life of a simple worker named Mikhail, who reveals his aspirations and love for nature and people of his native land. The author reflected in the brightest way the life of an ordinary Belarusian from the countryside, all his hopes, dreams, and fears.
2. The Locals (1924)
A play by Yanka Kupala
Together with Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kupala has effectively created a modern literary Belarusian language. They were friends and comrades in arms, while Kupala’s and Kolas’ styles differed fundamentally. Kolas’ works were full of romantic metaphors, and Kupala utilized vividly realistic, often ironic vignettes.
The satirical tragicomedy The Locals perfectly demonstrates how masterfully Kupala handled down-to-earth imagery. This bright comedy farce combines Belarusian folk stage traditions with unique rural humor, but the basis is the author’s reflections on the historical ways and the future of the Belarusian people.
The Locals shows the Belarusian land torn between Russia and Poland, and each scene of the play channels anxiety for the national identity of the Belarusians. The play will help to understand why many Belarusians react nervously when Belarus is called “Byelorussia”, aka “White Russia”.
3. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt (1964)
A novel by Uladzimir Karatkievič
This novel is probably the best way to get the taste of the classics of Belarusian literature.
Uladzimir Karatkievič, the undisputed heir to the ideas of Kolas and Kupala, took the Belarusian language to a new level and created his own unique pencraft — sparkish, beautiful and sometimes swashbuckling, full of timeless spoken expressions.
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a detective ghost novel set in the late XIX century in the Belarusian countryside. The novel has all the attributes inherent in the genre — a gloomy mansion, an ancient family curse, criminal intrigue, and a love story.
However, this is only the first layer of narration – under it, the author has built a picture of centuries-old Belarusian history, often tragic, and sometimes even scary. But keeping these morbid pages quiet means depriving yourself of part of own culture and giving new ways to undisclosed nightmares.
4. The Ordeal (1969)
A novel by Vasil Bykaŭ
The Great Patriotic War (or the Eastern Front of WWII) is one of those pages of Belarusian history that one would like to forget. Despite the fact that the Nazis failed to implement their plan to destroy the whole nation, the years 1941—1945 left the deepest wounds in the Belarusian land, which are recalled through generations, for instance, in the works of prose writer Vasil Bykaŭ.
As a man who went through the war, Bykaŭ was very good at picturing battle scenes, but in the forefront of his works is the psychology and emotions of people who fell into the millstones of this disastrous conflict.
The Ordeal is a tale of how war changes and breaks a man, pushing him to the brink of betrayal.
“Existentialism in this novel is comparable with what we find on Sartre and Camus, and often more acutely detected,” a young Belarusian writer Syargey Balakhonau once wrote.
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5. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
A non-fiction novel by Svetlana Alexievich
It would be hard to get around this author. Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel laureate, captured the psychological tragedy of virtually every person living in Belarus — the Chernobyl disaster.
At the time of the accident (April 1986), Svetlana Alexievich was a journalist living and working in Minsk. To gather material for the book, Alexievich spent over 10 years interviewing more than 500 eyewitnesses, including firefighters, the cleanup team members, politicians, physicians, physicists, and ordinary citizens of Belarus and Ukraine.
The book is worth reading to those who want to know where the roots of the Belarusian radiophobia came from, and those who just want to be introduced to one of the best examples of investigative journalism.
List by Anton Ananich. Want to add more to it? Share your books and authors in the comments.
Featured image: Belarus. Above expectation/National Tourism Agency