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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Alpine Ballad

Vasil Bykau

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To purchase Alpine Ballad

Title: Alpine Ballad
Author: Vasil Bykau
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: Belarusian
Availability: Alpine Ballad - US
Alpine Ballad - UK
Alpine Ballad - Canada
  • Belarusian title: Альпійская балада
  • Translated by Mikalai Khilo, edited by Jim Dingley
  • With an Introduction by Arnold McMcMillin
  • Previously translated by George Hanna (1966)

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Our Assessment:

B : rough and tumble -- both story and translation -- for better and worse

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Alpine Ballad begins with Ivan Tsyareshka desperately trying to get clear of the Nazi concentration camp deep in the Austrian Alps he has just escaped from. With great immediacy, Bykau pulls the reader into Ivan's headlong flight -- on which Ivan is soon joined by another prisoner, the Italian woman Giulia. Alpine Ballad is an escape-tale, following Ivan and Giulia as they try to stay ahead of and out of the way of the pursuing Nazis, perhaps somehow making it across the inhospitable terrain to safety -- distant Trieste the destination they aim for.
       The story begins in the frenzy of explosion and escape. As to his fellow prisoners: "There were probably no survivors", Ivan realizes: having "lost almost all hope of survival" in the death camp, the escape attempt had been a last, desperate one. Ivan survived the initial blast, but in the chaos that follows shots rings out all around, and dogs are in pursuit, and he's lucky if he can just get clear of the camp. He has a pistol, so he's not entirely defenseless, but the odds are clearly overwhelmingly against him.
       Only once Ivan has at least gotten initially clear does Bykau circle back and reveal how the escape had come about; later, too, there are recollections of other parts of the past -- including a previous, successful escape that had seen Ivan make it all the way back to Ukraine, only to be turned over to the Germans again by Nazi-sympathizing local militants. The bulk of the story, however, follows Ivan and hanger-on Giulia as they make their way through the mountains and forests in a desperate fight for survival. The cold weather -- which they certainly aren't outfitted for -- and the lack of almost any food make it an arduous journey from the beginning. A single loaf of bread is, much of the way, the only food they have -- and it's not nearly enough.
       Giulia's red triangle marked her as a political prisoner; she's sympathetic to the Russian and Soviet ideology, despite her bourgeois background (which Ivan remains suspicious of); though Ivan yearns for a peaceful return to his homeland, he is no ideologue -- and indeed expresses some criticisms of aspects of the Soviet system.
       Giulia is something of a burden to him, slowing down his flight, but they're in this together and he looks out for her. Giulia is a vivacious young woman, and they communicate -- at least the fundamentals -- in an effectively rendered mix of German, Italian, Russian, and Belarusian. (The German and Italian terms and expressions are helpfully translated in footnotes; unfortunately, they are not always accurately rendered in the original in the text (e.g. "Ich möchte Ihnen gut machen" is not how an Austrian would say: 'I'd like to do something good for you'.)
       Unsurprisingly, some feelings also develop between the two -- but the moments of calm interaction are limited in the few days of their flight. Stray encounters, including with another escapee who has gone mad, intrude -- and the Germans always pose a threat.
       Bykau presents a suspenseful escape story, and the drama heightens again towards the conclusion and dramatic end; a brief 'In lieu of an Epilogue' -- a letter, penned a few years after the events -- ties up what loose ends there were to the gripping final scenes.
       It is quite well done, Bykau keeping the tension at a high level but also managing to fill in a great deal beyond the arduous flight itself, from the background of the two main characters to some of Ivan's other experiences. The writing is -- perhaps appropriately, given a story full of uncertainties at every turn -- rough and tumble, and even more obviously so in a translation that too often is rough-hewn rather than natural-sounding. Still, it is a fine, and consistently exciting, -- and ultimately also affecting -- (chase-)story.
       "The Nazis had achieved a great deal through their Entmenschung" [dehumanisation], Bykau notes, and Alpine Ballad is a memorable story of a struggle in and with these conditions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 June 2016

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Alpine Ballad: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belarusian author Vasil Bykau (Vasil Bykov: Васіль Уладзіміравіч Быкаў) lived 1924 to 2003. He was a leading writer in the Soviet Union.

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