Уладзімер Арлоў

Arnold McMillin

A Prize-winning Book of Psychological Fantasy:
Uladzimir Arloŭ’s Tancy nad horadam

Uladzimir Arloŭ
Tancy nad horadam.
Minsk: Lohvinaŭ, 2017. 194 s.
ISBN: 978-609-8213-08-9
Prizes, not least those for literature, tend to be contentious. When Uladzimir Arloŭ b. (1953) won the prestigious Belarusian Giedroyc prize in 2018 the selection committee showed both boldness and sound judgment, in the opinion of the present writer, even though it meant loud complaints from a very aggrieved Alhierd Bacharevič, who came second for the fourth time (not to mention a third place in 2015). He might have consoled himself by recalling how the great Vasiĺ Bykaŭ (1924-2003) was passed over for the Nobel prize for literature.
Arloŭ’s book is both original and, in many ways, surprising. It consists of thee novellas (hereafter referred to as stories), the first of them gave its title to the collection, the second, ‘Čorny čalaviek na zialionym dyvanie’ (A Black Man on a Green Couch), and thirdly, ‘Dom z damavikami’ (The House with Brownies). The first two stories, told in the first-person, are closely interconnected through characters as well as themes, whilst the third has a central personage, Marcin, not previously found in the book. That said, all the stories are full of (sometimes shared) dreams and nightmares, constant concern with sex and death, and personal uncertainty (including thoughts of re-incarnation as well as of characters who seem to have more than one existence). Literary references also play a strong role throughout, as do coincidences, and other events on the margins of reality and imagination.
All three stories are immensely detailed and full of incidents and real or imaginary events, as well as close description of people, nature, physical surroundings or, indeed, events. In this review any account of detail is intended simply to indicate a phenomenon that is ubiquitous, since a fuller description of this book is not possible in the compass of a review. The first book, ‘Tancy nad horadam’ (Dances above the city, 25 August 2015), is an account of the author’s childhood and the baneful effect his sleepwalking had on it. Far from leading to madness or epilepsy, as he suspected from his own researches in a children’s encyclopaedia, it eventually provided, in fantastic form, the central theme of the book. Before this time (although time here is very fluid) he graduated from university and taught there before falling foul of one of several purges by the regime. Thus thrown on his own resources, he became the author of the historical books for which he is still best known.
The (imaginary) dancing in the title takes place at night barefoot on the roof of a deserted building, and the dancers are from the narrator’s daytime experience, including school: the teacher of astronomy who seems to feel he has a different kind of soul, the English teacher who initiates him sexually, the gym teacher who performs spectacular acrobatics, a girl from the ticket office of the local cinema, a ‘golden snake’, with whom he has an intermittent romance, and a cat, whose presence in the group is undisputed. In a later incident when the narrator has undergone a chaotic visit by the great poet Anatoĺ Sys (1959-2005) and his accompanying dwarf, the latter asks the narrator, whom he meets later, why he is not dancing on the roof with the cat. The dwarf’s inexplicable knowledge is just one example of the interconnection between the characters in this convoluted and fascinating story. Less fantastic is the acrobat’s death by accident or design, the kiosk girl’s disappearance, and the astronomy teacher’s, death from a sniper’s bullet during an anti-government demonstration, with details of his heavily monitored burial. The switching between reality and fantasy is one of the features that lends particular fascination to this story and, indeed, the book as a whole.
If the genre of the first story might be described as quasi-autobiography with a strong admixture of fantasy, the second story is essentially metafiction, but similarly with a central fantastic element. It begins with a well-known quotation from a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, Terentianus Maurus (fl. 3rd century CE), a Mauritanian from North Africa: ‘Habent sua fata libelli’ (According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny), and describes the author’s attempts to contact an unknown black man who appears to present himself in the narrator’s study, at first as a threat (against which elaborate plans are hatched) and later as perhaps his guardian angel and even a participant in the dancing group from the first story, although he is, of course, a fantasy provoked by reading Maurus. The story gives a very full account of how the author was trying to write a book about somnambulists despite this major distraction against which he fortifies himself by wine. From books in his study we learn of his childhood reading, including one by Fennimore Cooper that was stolen and possibly ended up in a North American café.
A keen and occasionally risky swimmer, the writer witnesses the results of a young person drowning, and he wonders whether the youth died instead of him, and whether he had foreseen his fate, like the talented poet Dzianis Chvastoŭski (1976-2001). Later the drowned youth remains a presence among the fantastic company of dancers on the roof, and the narrator dreams of making love to his girlfriend, although without shame, as he had himself become a woman, and the girl had no male features but appeared to be covered in a monkey’s fur (p. 114). The full moon plays a significant role throughout the book, and it ends this story, apart from the author giving a title to what he has been writing, ‘Čorny čalaviek na zialionaj kanapie’.
After the considerable interconnection between the first two stories, the third comes as a surprise by having a completely new character at its centre, Marcin, and a new setting in Sweden. On the other hand, dreams, fantasies and personal insecurity as well as a strong literary element, will be familiar to readers of the earlier works, and here too we have an interesting and realistic picture of Marcin’s childhood. He has become obsessed by Shakespeare and Cervantes and their having been born on the same day, and decides that this is a ‘magic day’, and quotes the bard’s sonnets and his favourite passages from Don Quixote, especially when drunk. Marcin, a geographer turned ethnographer, is being fêted with a presentation of his richly illustrated guide book in a Stockholm library. In this story, as in its two predecessors, ordinary events assume fantastic proportions, and characters appear is different guises. During a fire alarm in his hotel (which he relishes) he sees some of the other guests, who he also encounters later during his stay in Stockholm. Perhaps most interesting is the female half of a pair of lovers, a high-class Indian woman who on second and third sight seems older, but subsequently younger, leading Marcin to wonder if for her time is moving backwards. The presentation ceremony, at which he becomes quite drunk, ends when an attractive strange woman seems to be proposing to him; shortly afterwards he sees her, apparently naked, at a window opposite the library, and recognizes his former English teacher (by her distinctive nipples). Everything appears to be a huge mosaic, with a few pieces missing (p. 192). The story ends with Marcin deliberately setting off the hotel fire alarm and laughing hysterically in an armchair.
Arloŭ’s triptych is not for those with literal minds, but it is undoubtedly a most original extensive depiction of dreams and fantasies as subconscious windows on reality, richly detailed in masterly descriptions of all kinds and anecdote and reminiscences. Highly readable, it may be recommended not only to those who think reality stranger than fiction, but to all who are open to a fascinating, at times quasi-autobiographical, picture of a hallucinatory dream world not unfamiliar to anyone who has experienced troubling nightmares. It is a masterpiece of reconstruction and imagination.
Arnold McMillin