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Vasil Bykaŭ: Альпийская баллада (Alpine Ballad)

This is Bykaŭ’s earliest novel available in English – several later ones exist – and has been translated by Mikalai Khilo from the Belarussian, unlike the previous edition of this novel and most of his others, which were translated from the Russian (though the Russian translation was invariably done by Bykaŭ himself from the original Belarusian). Unlike many of the later works, it is set in a foreign country (his books are usually set in Belarus), features a foreigner as a main character, has more dialogue and features more descriptions of nature. The Russian version, however, had been somewhat censored by the Soviet authorities, as Ivan, the other protagonist, criticised the collective farm system. In short, this edition published in 2016 by Glagoslav is a distinct improvement on the 1966 edition published by the Soviet publisher, Progress.

Our two heroes are Ivan Tsyareshka, a Belarus soldier and prisoner-of-war, and Giulia, an Italian communist and prisoner-of-war. Both are interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Austria. Ivan has tried to escape before. Indeed, he was free for thirty-two days. He managed to make it to Ukraine, where he thought he was safe. He went into a village to get food but the local Ukrainians, who were pro-German and anti-Soviet, handed him over to the Germans.

His fellow prisoners-of-war, all Soviet citizens, feel that if they do not escape, they will die in the camp. Their chance comes when the US Air Force bombs the area and they are detailed to deal with an unexploded bomb. The bomb is still viable. It is merely that its detonator has been damaged. One of the prisoners manages to get a viable detonator from another bomb and carefully fits it to this bomb. However, this means that someone has to strike the detonator with a hammer to make it detonate and naturally no-one is keen to volunteer. The first drawing of lots sees a man with tuberculosis win but he is too weak to hit the detonator. They are about to draw lots again when an SS officer summons Ivan to find out what is going on. The officer makes Ivan polish his boots. When he drops cigarette ash on Ivan’s head and burns him, this is too much for Ivan who strikes the officer. The officer falls but is about to recover when the bomb explodes. Ivan finishes off the officer with a lump of fallen concrete, grabs his gun and runs.

As he escapes, he tries to flee for the hills. Initially he is pursued by dogs (on their own, with no guards) and manages to shoot one and injure the other, when his gun jams. However, as he is fleeing, he hears a voice calling him (she shouts Russo (i.e. the Italian for Russian) and eventually catches him up. She is Giulia, daughter of an Italian Fascist but herself a communist. She knows some Russian, having learned it in the camp, and both know some German so they are able to communicate. Together they set out.

Initially they are not sure where they are going. At first, they have to evade their pursuers and are helped by being able to walk in a stream. It then rains heavily, which is unpleasant but helps hide their trail from the dogs. They do see pursuers and, indeed, feel that the Germans are after them, till they see that the Germans have seen another prisoner and once they shoot him, they leave. They bump into an Austrian forester. He is prepared to help them and, as he had been in Siberia, speaks some Russian. However, albeit very reluctantly, they steal his bread and his jacket. Ivan feels very guilty about this afterwards.

Ivan thinks that the best place to go would be Trieste, where there are a lot of partisans, including, in particular Yugoslav partisans. However, the Alps are in the way. They slowly make their way up the mountain, not helped by the fact that Ivan has no shoes and Giulia has only clogs. It is cold and miserable and they are hungry and tired.

Much of the book tells not only of their journey but, inevitably, of their relationship. They get on well with one another and though Ivan is, eventually, attracted to her, it seems that he accepts, at least initially, that that is not a priority. They talk about their respective countries. In particular, Ivan is critical of the collective farm system (omitted, as mentioned above, from the Russian edition of this book). However, he does extol the beautiful landscape of Belarus (of which, of course, Giulia has not heard). Giulia praises the Soviet system where, she says, there is freedom, as opposed to the situation in Fascist Italy. She is horrified to learn from him of the 1933 Ukraine famine. (She would have been even more horrified to learn the truth, namely that it was man-made and not, as implied by Ivan, merely an unfortunate event.) Ivan tells her that his father died in this famine. He is also mildly critical of the collective farm system. She has only heard the positive propaganda about the Soviet Union through Italian communist circles and does not want to know the negative side.

As well as the inevitable pursuers, they also have one other problem – the mad German. He seems to have escaped when they did and seems to be following them, popping up on several occasions, demanding bread, which he knows that they have, and generally being quite threatening. They are worried that he will attract the pursuers.

Bykaŭ tells an excellent tale, keeping us guessing all the time as to whether and how they might escape. He skilfully describes their various problems but also shows the positive. When the weather improves, his description of the Alpine landscape is quite lyrical. He also shows the development of their relationship and even makes a comparison between Ivan’s feelings for Giulia and the feelings he had for a nurse with his Soviet unit. It is an interesting addition to the World War II literature and it is good that we can now read a translation of the Belarusian original.

Publishing history

First published by Sovetsky Pisatel’ in 1964
First published in English by Progress Publishers in 1966
Translated by Mikalai Khilo