A dystopian love story brings out the rampant paranoia in Belarusian society.
by Alyaksandr Yanusik 14 May 2010
MINSK | Viktar Martinovich, author of a novel painting a nightmarish surveillance society with some distant parallels to Belarus, was surprised to find his book on sale at almost every bookstore when he returned from India in November after a month's vacation.
Within a few weeks, after some 1,800 of the 3,000 printed copies had been sold, the novel disappeared from bookshelves.
"I can write a new novel about how the book was banned - Paranoia Over Paranoia," the 32-year-old author said.
LOVE AND THREAT
Paranoia is a love story set against the background of a totalitarian regime. "This is a work of fiction : but its setting is slightly reminiscent of the environment in which I live," Martinovich said.
Although the book was not banned officially, sellers said they removed it from shelves for fear of losing business. "No one who cares about his business will dare sell it," one bookseller said. "We were strongly advised [by officials] against selling it."
The author says that most likely the order came from a midlevel official. "Somebody made a round of calls. Such calls work effectively when a ban is imposed, but are not as effective when some restrictions are to be lifted."
Although the story takes place in an unnamed country ruled by a man called Muravyov, who as chief of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) appoints the country's presidents, a reader can recognize Minsk after flipping through the first few pages by the names of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods.
In the book, three of Muravyov's opponents have disappeared - the same number of prominent opposition figures who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 in Belarus. The MGB chief shares a family name with the Russian governor known as "the hangman of Vilnius" over his suppression of an 1863 anti-Russian uprising on what is now Belarusian territory.
The ban might have been prompted by these vague allusions to politics in Belarus, where paranoia is common among opponents, who have to exercise caution, mindful of the fact that they are watched and followed by the KGB.
The story itself, the author says, has nothing to do with real political developments. The protagonist, writer Anatoly Nevinsky, falls in love with a girl, only to discover that she is close to Muravyov, who treats her as his daughter. The affair between the writer and the girl lands both in trouble.
The second of the book's three chapters, told in the form of cynical, sometimes repellent surveillance reports, shows how the relationship is ruined by jealousy. The final chapter describes Nevinsky's ordeal only getting worse after he is arrested on a murder charge.
IMMIGRANT WRITER AT HOME
As he worked on the book, Martinovich knew he might run into problems with officialdom. This prompted him to strike a deal with a Russian publisher for fear the book might never see the light if he attempted to have it printed in Belarus.
When the manuscript was finished, he gave it to several friends to read - copying it on memory sticks rather than sending it by e-mail, for safety - finally sending it to the publishers when assured he was unlikely to face persecution if the book were to appear.
He admits that the ban has made it extremely difficult for the book to find its way to the reader, while the publisher, Russian publishing giant AST, is reluctant to print additional copies apparently for fear that the move may affect its business interests in Belarus. AST's subsidiary in Belarus, Harvest, is the largest publisher in the country. The book still can be ordered online or downloaded.
Nevertheless, the book made quite a splash. At one point it topped the best-seller list on oz.by, Belarus' leading online bookstore. At least 12,000 Internet users have downloaded it for free. "This Belarusian novel has hit some common nerve in the post-Soviet space," reviewer Aleksei Nomand wrote on newslab.ru.
The novel attracted media attention not only because of the ban but also because the author was a prominent personality before his debut in literature. Martinovich is a deputy editor and popular commentator with the independent Russian-language weekly BelGazeta, known for his critical and sarcastic approach to both government and opposition political players. He also teaches political science at the Vilnius-based European Humanities University, a Belarusian school in exile.
Although the author was disappointed with the novel's press coverage, complaining that it focused on the ban and on the issue of censorship rather than on the strengths and weaknesses of his work, Paranoia received some good notices, and excerpts were published in the newspaper Narodnaya Volya and in Arche magazine.
Prominent Belarusian literary critic Alyaksandr Fyaduta, himself the author of a banned book on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, describes Martinovich as a bright, talented stylist, but has some reservations about the work.
"Belarusian realities have left their traces [on the novel], but I'm not sure that this is good. Although the novel is not about the current political situation in the country (the author stresses that his novel is about love), the current burning issues literally pervade the plot and narrative. This is fascinating today, but what about tomorrow?" he said in an e-mail.
Aside from its commercial success before vanishing from book shops, Martinovich's novel, although written in Russian, also found some favor among the compact community of Belarusian-language cultural activists. The author says he feels himself a bit of a stranger in a writing community dominated by Belarusian speakers, who are in turn marginalized in the predominantly Russian-speaking society.
"They are internal immigrants because society is wary of people speaking in Belarusian. But a Russian speaker in their [Belarusian cultural] environment is a double immigrant. This is weird," Martinovich says.
But at the same time Russian-language books dominate the market. Stores across Belarus sell mostly Russian books, most of which are printed in Russia, and have tiny Belarusian-language sections with Belarusian titles making up a single-digit percentage of the titles on sale. Minsk's largest book market has just one stall offering books in Belarusian. In all, 12,885 titles were published in Belarus in 2009 with only 1,884 being in Belarusian.
PASSION AND CONSUMERISM
Andrey Dynko, a member of the Belarusian PEN Center and editor of the Belarusian-language Nasha Niva weekly, says Paranoia aroused interest in the Belarusian-language writers' community and many see its author as a competitor and an associate at the same time.
For Dynko, Martinovich's novel stands out among the hack detective novels and thrillers that are the typical products of Russian-language writers in Belarus.
"The author depicts the Minsk of the early 21st century as no one has depicted it before. This is Minsk populated with elite whores and elite security agents, a city of great passion and great consumerism," he says.
Book censorship is nothing new in modern Belarus. Several books touching on Lukashenka's presidency and other sensitive themes have been prohibited, but Paranoia is apparently the first work of fiction barred from sale in Belarus during Lukashenka's 16 years in power.
Martinovich has written another novel, unrelated to Belarus, which he calls "audacious, in a different sense than Paranoia, but really audacious."
But he admits that the chances of getting it published are slim. "I already have a reputation as a dissident, among Russian publishers, too. But I continue writing despite the distribution and publishing problems because writing is a great relaxation and an opportunity to feel like a real person, in whom the whole universe spins."
Alyaksandr Yanusik is a journalist with the BelaPAN news agency in Minsk and a contributor to TOL's Fourth Estate media column.