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Ana Prieto (Argentina)
Revista Ñ, 6.8.2015

The gaze that accuses or redeems

Many say that Belarus is a country with no memory, in which every outbreak of a collective belonging to a history and common identity has been uprooted by Communists, Nazis, post-Stalinists and, since 1994, by Aleksandr Lukashenko, the perpetual President, for whom Vasik Bykov was the incarnation of one of the worst internal ills, namely: dignity. The writer spent the last years of his life in Finland and Germany, where he was hosted with honors after the attacks of the Belarusian administration, which called him "literary traitor," banned him from the media and embarked on a systematic campaign of vilification by the end of the 90s to hit back at this ever-vexing, ever-critical war veteran.

Basil Bykov was born into a peasant family in the city of Vitebsk in 1924, less than a decade after the Bolsheviks seized power and the history of Belarus began to be rewritten by Communism. In 1941, aged 17, he enlisted in the Red Army to fight against the German occupation. He survived, but the war left him two chronic conditions: sickly lungs and a gloom that he transformed into literature starting in 1960.

Much of the fiction that Bykov wrote during the Soviet era is about war, and focuses on small and isolated episodes in which moral crossroads do not always coincide with a heroic narrative and thus are forgettable for any official historiography. In this sense, Bykov is not unlike many of the Russian classics that he admired, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But the translations of his work into Russian in Soviet times were often manipulated to eliminate any hint of Belarusian identity and replace certain expressions with others that were accommodating to the system. This is why Bykov would end up translating himself.

The Obelisk, just published in Buenos Aires by Blatt & Ríos, is a novella written in 1971. The scenario is the small village of Seltso or, rather, the selective memory of this town, to which a young journalist arrives to attend the funeral of a rural teacher. This unexpected death fills him with guilt, as he had repeatedly postponed a visit that the teacher was awaiting to tell him about some forgotten episode. The book is the revelation of that episode, hidden in a modest monument erected in Seltso to honor five students murdered by the Nazis.

The Obelisk explores the way in which a community chooses to live with its own traumas; it is a look at the collective consciousness that accuses or redeems, and decides irreversibly which victims are worthy of history and which are unworthy. It is also an essay on the bias that shapes the memory of desperate acts, and on the value of educating and objecting even as the world breaks apart.

"The most rewarding task of art in general, and literature in particular, is to raise a question” said Bykov in 1998. "I never intend to provide a complete answer to the questions I raise because I consider such a thing to be the prerogative of a narrow-minded person or a charlatan." That unchangeable principle, which the author maintained until his death in 2003, is the essence of the pages of The Obelisk.

 

Revista Ñ

August 6, 2015

Originally published: http://www.revistaenie.clarin.com/literatura/resenas/Obelisco-Vasil-Bykov_0_1404459567.html