Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2016

Alpine Ballad (1964), by Vasil Bykau, translated by Mikalai Khilo

alpine-ballad Alpine Ballad is, as the title suggests, a beautiful book, uplifting and inspiring because it’s a testament to the human spirit even in times when it’s sorely tested.

Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) is well-known in Belarus and beyond for war-themed novels based on his own personal experience.  This translation of Alpiyskaya Balada is the first to be published without Soviet censorship – it had apparently attracted their displeasure because there are some minor criticisms of Soviet life, though you and I in the 21st century might find it hard to see what they were upset about.

Alpine Ballad is the story of a Belarusian prisoner of the Nazis who manages to escape the camp when an allied bomb they were defusing went off.  It’s towards the end of the war, and Ivan has been a prisoner for long enough to have witnessed some terrible things and to be very hungry.  On the other hand, the privations he has experienced have toughened him up, which stands him in good stead for what lies ahead.

He flees into the mountains followed by an Italian girl called Guilia, also from the same POW camp. She is loud, impulsive and sunny-natured and he tries to shed her company because her erratic behaviour puts his escape at risk.  As the ‘target badges’ sewn onto his clothes attest, he has escaped before, and he knows the perils and the punishment he faces if he survives and is brought back to the camp.  But before long they reach an uneasy companionship and travel together.

Their immediate problems, apart from recapture by the SS and their dogs, are hunger and their prison uniforms, striped garments that offer little protection from the elements.  Only one of them has shoes, and Guilia’s clogs keep falling off as they make their way over the rugged terrain.  So moral issues arise quickly.  Pursued by Alsatians (German Shepherd dogs) and with the gun stolen from a wounded German at the time of the escape, Ivan feels he has no choice but to shoot the dogs.  But he misses the second dog and there follows a horrible struggle between man and beast which leaves the dog helpless with broken legs but still alive.  Because he has only a few bullets, Ivan feels he has no choice but to leave it to die in pain, but he feels intense remorse about it.

It’s harder still when he robs an Austrian forester for food and a jacket.  As he makes his way towards the man he struggles with the dilemma:

He lay prone on the ground and waited, frequently looking downhill at a glistening turn in the path among the treetops.  He had no doubt that the man walking there was a civilian, that he would give away his clothes without resistance – after all, Ivan had a gun.  But what should he do next?  While his conscience would not allow him to kill an unarmed person, it would be almost suicidal to let him pass. No matter how he racked his tired brain, he could not think of anything and felt very bad about his indecision. It was obvious, however, that they would not be able to cross the main ridge without robbing that man. (p. 58)

It turns out that the man is friendly and offers to help, and when Guilia comes running down the path to warn of the approaching German search party, the man gives them bread from his pack.  But as they turn to go, Ivan also demands the man’s jacket at gunpoint, and is then tortured by guilt and wishes terrible misfortune on those who had forced him to do such a thing.

Was he a robber, a villain, why would he have stopped that peaceful fat man and pointed a pistol at him, let alone stolen from him, if it had not been for Nazism, for the war, for the captivity with thousands of tortures and indignities visited on people by the Nazis? They had forced him to commit that robbery, and he hated them all the more. (p. 63)

From a war where the collective guilt of nations still reverberates, Bykau reminds us about the culpability of individual actions.

At the heart of this novel is man’s struggle between looking out for himself and a sense of shared humanity.  Told entirely from the 3rd person perspective of Ivan (with occasional flashbacks to provide the backstory and some retellings of recurrent nightmares), the narrative shows that Ivan’s bond with Guilia is reluctant, tentative and contingent, but it contrasts sharply with his unmitigated hostility to the other escapee, characterised as a German madman.  This man is on his own but is never far away, miraculously distracting the German search party but always after Ivan and Guilia for a share of their bread.  Yet even with this man, one who represents nothing but a threat to their survival, Ivan feels moral restraint.

Alpine Ballad is not a Steve McQueen romanticised escape adventure.  It is a dogged, brutal quest for survival.  The reader can almost feel the cold penetrating their bones, can almost taste their hunger and their ever-present fear.  The love that grows between Ivan and Guilia blooms suddenly like the red poppies that cover the valley, but the path to freedom lies over the snow-covered mountains…

For those like me who are unfamiliar with the work of Vasil Bykau, there is a useful short introduction by Arnold McMillan which sets the author’s writing in context.

Author: Vasil Bykau
Title: Alpine Ballad (Alpiyskaya Balada)
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2016, first published 1964
ISBN: 9781784379445
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available from Fishpond: Alpine Ballad



  1. You read so much interesting foreign fiction it makes me quite jealous. As I’ve said before, the good books I am missing must eventually motivate to find a better source for the hundreds of audio books I borrow. And Steve McQueen and The Great Escape – talk about appropriating other people’s stories!


    • Hmm, thinking about my own local library, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any contemporary foreign fiction available on audiobook. I wonder why that is?


      • The WA state wide library system seems very ‘lowest common denominator’, very middlebrow. The classics are nearly all abridged and there’s almost no C19th, and yet there are occasional surprises as though most purchases were job lots from a remainder bin.


  2. Yes, I think that would be true of many libraries now. My own local library used to have a great collection, but someone had a great cull and now they are nearly all gone. That was the same person presumably who reorganised everything by genre so that all the Jane Austens had a ‘romance’ tag on the spine. That was a time that really tested my loyalty to my library.
    But the person doing the buying now is much better: I think she must read Stu’s blog because there is now a much better range of translated fiction – and also less middlebrow litfiction.
    But I think translated fiction is maybe not available in audio format…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a harrowing tale,Thanks for a great review.


  4. […] complained – most recently to Lisa at ANZLitLovers – about the indifferent (literary) quality of the audio books I get from my local library, […]


  5. Loved your review, Lisa! Loved what you said about how the book is realistic and not like a Steve McQueen movie. I loved that realistic aspect of the book – we could feel the cold and we could smell the flowers.


    • Thanks, Vishy, it was also so realistic the way he didn’t just immediately accept that woman, he was programmed for survival and she was putting that at risk so it took time for him to regain his lost humanity.


      • Yes, very true. I loved the way how their relationship evolved through the book.

        Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: