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Taras on Parnassus: Literary Detective

Taras Na Parnase: Literary Detective is the movie by CTV reporter Dmitry Boyarovich on one of the most mystical poems in Belarusian literature.

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Taras on Parnassus. The most mysterious poem in Belarusian literature. It’s the matter of dispute between scientists. It’s edited all around the world. What does Haradok, Vitebsk region, have in common with St. Petersburg? How could the main character get to another world? Why does the question of authorship is still open? It’s time to get some answers.

This amazing and prophetic poem became a kind of a dream for the readers who lived in Belarus in those times. And this dream made them wake up.

Belarusian literature seemed to be in a torpid state after the epoch of great Francysk Skaryna.

He was a Belarusian humanist, physician, translator and one of the first book printers in Eastern Europe, a man who laid groundwork for the development of the Belarusian language. Who would have thought that after centuries an ordinary forester, who depicted Belarusian spirit so well and who got to mythical Parnassus, will take Belarusian language and literature to another level?

Taras was the first character of Belarusian literature who got to the other world while still being alive.

Of course, he wasn’t the first in the world: Orpheus, Heracles, Dante Alighieri were before him. But Taras wasn’t a czar. He also was neither a demigod nor a genius. He was just a Belarusian peasant with a cigarette in his mouth.

The paradox is that Taras is allowed to get to Parnassus. An Angel even shows him the way. He passes boyars while they’re climbing the mountain and finally gets to Parnassus and he’s allowed to eat celestial food.

In the poem you can find such protagonists as Faddey Bulgarin and Nickolai Grech (writers) who are on their way to Parnassus. Their names aren’t mentioned but these characters are satirically outlined. Experts say that it’s because they were close to semiofficial circles of Russian literature and the forester couldn’t help but highlight it.

Near the Parnassus Taras notices that not everybody could enter it. He knows what the writers like Bulgarin, Lermontov, Zhukovsky, Gogol and Puskhin look like, so at least he can read and he is familiar with this literature. And he understands why Bulgarin is kept out of this place while the classics can enter.

After getting to Parnassus Taras notices that the gods are simple peasants. However, scientists underline that they’re prosperous.

They are not strangers to working, they do the laundry and so on. They do the housekeeping and have enough delicious food.

Humorous remarks by Taras refer us to tragic events of the Russian Empire that took place in 1853 and to the following years of the country. The waters of the Black, the Baltic, the Azov and the White Seas were red because of the blood that was shed for lands and power. When the author talks that Mars wins over Hercules it’s not just a humorous trick. It’s a hint at certain events of Crimean War (1853 - 1856) where Russia suffered a serious defeat.

The scene with dancing gods literally knocked the readers of those times off their feet. Who? What? How?

Jupiter, the dodderer, nasty Neptune, Amour drinking horilka (vodka)… It was a sensation. People never saw gods behaving this way and they couldn’t imagine a forester with them before.

Taras was dancing so nicely and soulfully that almost all the gods stared wide-eyed at him. He was dancing at the place that was unavailable for humans, he was dancing in his boots and wearing his hat aslant. This self-confidence was attractive and charming and it couldn’t help but won over readers, experienced theorists of literature and even famous writers. If we take the poem away from the Belarusian literature of those times, the culture will take great losses. If this poem didn’t exist, it would be worth to be created.

One more mystery: why did the author decide to remain anonymous? Most experts think that this anonymity was purposed.

One of the reasons is policy. Just imagine: it’s the middle of the 19th century, north-western region, the periphery of the Russian Empire. National press is forbidden, the language isn’t studied in schools, native writers migrate to Poland and suddenly a poem like this appears. The poem is written in Belarusian! It was dangerous for the author to put his cards on the table.

The very term of mova (Belarusian language) and the name Belarus were forbidden.

From 1855 the poem went viral. People made handwritten copies, learned it by heart, changed something in the poem.

For example, people in Western Belarus replace Pushkin and Lermontov with Belarusian writers Adam Mickiewicz and Jan Kochanowski, who were more relevant in those days.

It’s one of the reasons explaining the absence of the original script. Those variants that are the closest to the original version are kept in so-called “spisy” (lists).

Soon in the XIX century people tried to translate the poem into Russian. This attempt was made by Ostrogozhsky who was most likely a Russian interpreter or a scientist. The first translation wasn’t published because of the “extreme vacuity of the story”. At the end of the century, Russian censors looked at the script and were deeply surprised because of the letter ‘Ё' because it didn’t exist in Russian. However, it was widely used in north-western area. This letter also pointed at the fact that the author was from Vitebsk region. Academicians argued about whether it was Belarusian language or a dialect used by the author. Nevertheless, the poem proved its adequacy in a few years and even the most sophisticated readers accepted it.

34 years after the poem was written it was published for the first time. Taras on Parnassus was published in the newspaper Minsk Paper and became a mainstream poem. The original copy of the first publication is kept in the National Library of Russia St. Petersburg. The library got it according to the special order by Alexander I. According to the document, copies of all Russian editions must have gotten to this library. The circulation of the regional periodical was very large: 1,000 copies.

The annual subscription cost 4 rubles. It’s close to the cost of buying a smartphone today.

It was too expensive and not everyone could afford it. That’s why it was better for those who bought that periodical to be able to understand all the jokes, irony and intertextuality of the Belarusian poem. It attracted additional attention to the newspaper in 1889.

In the 20th century a Russian writer Ivan Chegrinov turned to the main mystery of the poem and said: “People will never fulfill two tasks: finding the author of the poem and getting to the Moon”.

Four years after Neil Armstrong and Apollon-11 landed on the Moon, the Belarusian researcher Gennady Kiselev found the name of the author of Taras on Parnassus. Searching for the name became his lifetime project. Gennady found out that it was Konstantin Verenicyn who wrote the poem. Kiselev managed to solve the greatest riddle of Belarusian literature by accident. It became the logical result of 10 years of research.

The former citizen of Belarus, Anton Adamovich, published an article in 1968. He wrote that he was a student of the philological faculty of Belarusian State University in the 1920s. He said that their professor of Belarusian literature brought notebooks of Alexander Rypinsky (a Belarusian poet, folklorist, graphic artist and book publisher). One of these notebooks contained 2 poems: Two Diablos and Taras on Parnassus.

In these scripts Kiselev found a signature. It turned yellow but still was very expressive: “K. Verenicyn, 1855, Haradok”.

Later a question arouse: what if it was the signature of a scribe? But the suspicious coincidence of facts (Verenicyn lived in the place where the poem was written and the time was also the same) didn’t leave any doubts: the answer lays somewhere in the north of Belarus. It was found in the village Ostrovlyany, Haradok district, Vitebsk region.

To all appearances, Verenicyn wrote his poem at the age of 21 during the study in Horki Agricultural Institute. After the poem was written he disappeared as a writer. Then he studied in a medico-surgical academy and worked in the Ministry of Transportation of the Russian Empire. He died in a flat in St. Petersburg.

More than likely that this state counsellor, civil servant and respectable man didn’t even have an idea that he will be remembered not because of his status but because of his immortal poem.

The scene of returning of Taras back to place Putevische where his adventure started looks like a fairy-tale. But the author left a short-hint here. It helped the scientists to define the time of the mysterious journey. It turned out that the adventure took place on November 14, 1852.

Almost 160 years passed. The Haradok heritage became national. The poem is studied in schools in Belarus and it has even been adapted for stage. The Belarusian composer Nickolai Aladov even wanted to operatize it, but this dream didn’t come true.

Taras on Parnassus made Belarusian literature democratic. That’s why Belarusian people are proud of it. Later appeared such literary works as New Land by Yakub Kolas, Hunting Watercolors by Yanka Luchina, and Own Flesh and Blood (Родныя Дзецi) by Nil Hilevich. Researchers think that each quatrain has a hidden message that is still not decoded.

According to Kiselev, the probability that Verenicyn was the author of the poem is about 90%.

But there are still many questions that need to be answered. Where are the other works by the author? We don’t know. Their existence wasn’t proved. Why did he locate the gods on Parnassus? And finally, thanks to whom was the poem published for the first time? 125 years of research but we still have many questions.

Dmitry Boyarovich, CTV reporter