June 14, 2024


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Review by Alherd Bašarevic: “The Dogs of Europe”

Review by Alherd Bašarevic: “The Dogs of Europe”

Balbota is the name of the nascent language that provides air and light in The Dogs of Europe. Its creator is Oleg Olegovich – a misanthropic and lonely man – who, thanks to “conlang” (constructed language), escapes into a world of freedom, beauty and poetry.

Escape from life in Minsk

In this artificial language, there is no collective, manipulative “we” – but rather a multitude of “free and unique selves.” Language promises an existence that transcends national affiliations and social appropriation. And shared enjoyment: Oleg shares his obsession with “Palbuta” with two young men who, like him, want to escape the reality of life in Minsk.

Deviant and isolated characters in a monolithic (and oppressive) society are a recurring element in the six parts of this monumental work. At first glance, they seem completely unrelated – the sound, settings, heroes and genres are very heterogeneous. After the first 150 pages of Balbotta's real-life story from the big city, village prose follows including a thrilling spy thriller: “Geese, People and Swans” – set in the year 2049 in the Western Province of the Great Russian Empire.

One language, six stories

The focus is on 14-year-old Maun, a “silent and silent man.” He dreams of flying away on the back of a goose like Nils Holgerson until a spy unexpectedly falls right in front of his nose.

Parts Four and Five return to a realistically drawn Minsk before the novel heads toward a dystopian sci-fi finale in the year 2050 in the final part, “The Road.” The adventurous road movie takes its non-binary hero Teresius Scima from Berlin via Prague and other cities to Minsk behind the Iron Curtain. Sakima searches for the identity of a deceased writer who wrote in the made-up language “Balputa” – the circle closes. The characters, motifs, and narrative of all six stories repeatedly touch upon each other in a subtle way. Similar decorations can be found there, as well as a cameo by the author Bašarevich and his wife, the poet Julia Semavieva.

The victory of imagination over reality

The Belarusian imaginatively weaves together time, space, places, characters, stories and genres (including poetry) in his remarkable novel, The Dogs of Europe. The complexity of this masterpiece rests not only on virtuoso narrative force, which achieves effective impact – even without deciphering the many literary and pop culture allusions and quotations. The content is also convincing: it is surprising and shocking how visionary and meticulous Bacharevich describes the return of the Great Russian Empire in 2017.

Yet, above all, his remarkable novel celebrates the triumph of imagination over reality. The emphasis is on the beauty and freedom of literature. Escape as liberation. “We are as light as paper” is the name of the first part of the novel about the Balbota trio. Thanks to its almost divine independence, it has succeeded in creating a language that transcends national and national borders – and avoids various rulers.

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Balbota dictionary included

Thomas Wyler has translated the eloquent epic brilliantly, and reveals much from the various intertextual references on his home page. It is also worth noting that in his translation he worked with both the original Belarusian translation and the Russian translation.

Aalherd Bacharevich himself translated his novel into Russian and made some changes. A small bonus is that the book comes with a short Balbota dictionary.