Sasha Ilyukevich: dictatorship blues

Rocking against repression in Belarus.

In the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, change is needed but the voices of dissent against Europe’s last dictator are few. Rob Dumas’s debut documentary, The Nonsense Express, portrays Sasha Ilyukevich as Belarus’s answer to Bob Dylan, although the 32-year-old “folk’n’roll” songwriter now lives in London and rejects the label of protest singer. After writing a string of politically charged songs, however, he found his music banned from radio play in his home country.

“One song [“Son of the Motherland”] was a fable where I compare myself with a street dog, just barking with nobody understanding me,” he explains. “At the end, I say, ‘Well, maybe it’s good to be a milk cow so I can get looked after and milked and be part of that society, where you obey everything they say.’ I then start barking and mooing and it’s a contradiction – I’m questioning myself. Some KGB agents heard the song and forced it off the air. After that, they banned the rest of my songs.”

As a response, he wrote “Kolya”, his most overtly political song to date, performed with his band, the Highly Skilled Migrants. It’s about President Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, nicknamed Kolya, who, at the age of nine, is already considered the nation’s leader-in-waiting.

“This boy goes everywhere with his father, to all the important meetings and military parades,” says Ilyukevich. “He’s visited the Pope, he’s met Hugo Chávez and once the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave him a gun made of gold, because he collects guns.”

In 2011, a journalist was detained by the Belarusian KGB for being in possession of a banner that read: ‘Where is Kolya’s mum?’ The identity and whereabouts of the boy’s mother is unclear, though she is believed to be the president’s former doctor. “It’s really strange and quite disturbing,” Ilyukevich adds.

Last dance

There’s a disturbing quality, too, to his song and accompanying video. Over a chugging electric rhythm guitar, Kolya’s name is angrily repeated, while animated images show faceless citizens, storm clouds, animals and soldiers. By moving from subtle criticism to outright expressions of dissent, Ilyukevich and his band have received what most emerging acts crave – media attention. Not all of it, however, has been welcome.

“I had an interview on the BBC about [the song],” he says. “It was a Monday and I remember we had about 680 views on Youtube. The next day, we got over 20,000 hits and it was all over the news in Ukraine and in Belarus. The same day, someone tried to hack into my Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts and I got quite a few insulting emails and comments. As a musician, you want to be heard but when this kind of song is heard and it’s all over the news, I don’t know if I should go to Belarus for the next few months.”

It's not the first time Ilyukevich has got on the wrong side of the state-controlled Belarusian media. The Nonsense Express follows the band on their tour of Russia and Belarus in 2010. The hard luck tale of poorly attended gigs and broken instruments reaches its climax with the group travelling to Minsk and finally securing a big audience reaction – only it comes in the form of patients of the city’s mental health hospital.

“A friend of mine worked there and invited us to play,” he explains. “They have very basic conditions; they don’t even have mattresses to sleep on – just wooden beds. But when we came, the people were so happy and welcoming, dancing and interacting with us. It was an amazing experience.”

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. A journalist who witnessed the concert wrote a stinging appraisal, which criticised the group's decision to interact with the patients. Soon afterwards, Ilyukevich's friend was sacked from her job and the studio where the gig had taken place was forced to close down. “These people are left out and the studio was where they would do painting, make dolls and try out different crafts,” laments Ilyukevich. “But they just closed it down. Our gig was the last event there.”

Homeward bound: Sasha Ilyukevich (far left) with his band in Belarus in 2010.
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era