Monday, November 07, 2016

Belarus: Down Among the Fishes, by Natalka Babina

The blurb on the back of this book was a bit misleading. "Two twin sisters, natives of Dobratyche, a small Belarusian village on the Buh river close to the border with Poland, set out to examine the events that led to granny Makrynya's unexpected death. Their trek quickly turns into a murder investigation."

After reading that, I was expecting a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie, or Midsomer Murders. In fact, there is very little direct investigation of the murder in the book, although it does get solved in the end. Instead, there is a rich tapestry of other events - politics (one of the sisters is the local electoral agent for an opposition candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections), a treasure hunt, and the general daily life of the small village. This is a modern village. So there are not only cows, pigs, and mushroom hunting in the forest, but also the internet, crooked property developers, corrupt politicians and so on, with elements of magical realism and glimpses of history thrown in.

I found the mix enormously entertaining, and also fascinating in its look at life in a little known country. What intrigued me was that the book managed to get published in Belarus, despite its hugely critical attitude towards politics in that country. Despite a fictional name being used for the president of the country, the description of the election process, of vote rigging and of trumped up criminal charges and violent attacks on opposition candidates, it does seem to target the current President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, and is widely believed to be involved in vote rigging and other undemocratic processes (known by some as "Europe's last dictator"). All this makes the book sound rather grim, but it's not - in fact, all ends joyfully and the human spirit triumphs.

the author is a journalist for Nasha Niva, one of the leading independent newspapers in Belarus.

"Down Among the Fishes" by Natalka Babina, translated from the Belarusian by Jim Dingley, published by Glagoslav Publications 2013.

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