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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge