Sunday, February 6, 2011

Modern Minsk: Martinovich’s Paranoia

Ah, paranoia! Ah, Minsk! Viktor Martinovich combines the two in Паранойя (Paranoia), an absorbing but not-quite-satisfying novel about life in a Belarus run by the security ministry. Paranoia is a mashup on several levels: Martinovich calls his genre mix “reality antiutopia” and says fear is the main character, though I’d probably call it a police state love story with documentation. Martinovich scatters in references ranging from Lewis Caroll’s Alice to Dante’s “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” to a line from The Matrix to the Marks & Spencer name. And so on.

On the simplest plot level, Paranoia is a boy-meets-then-loses-girl novel: Anatolii Nevinskii, whose last name means “innocent,” meets Liza in the Chess coffee shop. She likes latte macchiatos, parks her Lexus SUV illegally, and tells Anatolii she’s been waiting for him all her life. Anatolii, a writer published in the West who drives a BMW he calls his frau, is smitten. They take a walk in the park. A romance ensues, and they rent an apartment in which to meet.

The love nest is bugged, and the middle of the book is transcripts of listening sessions, with some analyst commentary that made me laugh. Our lovers, by the way, are code-named Gogol and Lisa (лиса/lisa in Russian means fox). Liza isn’t any old poor Liza from Russian literature: she’s rather well-to-do, thanks to security minister Muravyov himself, who’s given her real estate and cars. Their relationship isn’t quite clear but when Liza becomes pregnant, she tells Anatolii that Muravyov may be the father. Romance in a dictatorship – particularly when the dictator is one side of a triangle – involves lots of people and no privacy. So: End of romance with Anatolii. And end of Liza: she disappears and Anatolii becomes a suspect.

Descriptions of the Liza-Anatolii relationship weren’t very interesting, perhaps because they reminded me so much of the romance in Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 that was also intended to be illicit and mysterious. Like Slavnikova, Martinovich employs a sea of metaphors at the start of the book, most memorably comparing used condoms at the park to jellyfish. Paranoia’s characters felt both hyperreal – the bug transcripts are oh-so voyeuristic – and abstractly hollow, with Liza seeming to represent some desired post-Soviet Feminine and Anatolii and Muravyov seeming to represent some yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, or similar cliché for complementary opposites. Liza, by the way, sees a kinder side in Muravyov and likes hearing him play the piano, particularly Mozart’s 24th piano concerto. Even Anatolii admits, after hearing Muravyov perform the concerto at a concert, that the maestro’s playing is sincere.

Absurdity, appropriately jittery language, the Minsk setting, humor, and odd details, such as Anatolii’s Rasta friend with helpful connections, give Paranoia appeal, and Martinovich’s observations often show humor. I particularly liked this line about two musicians:

Старички имели на лицах лучезарное выражение наивности, отличавшее людей, всю жизнь отдавших нотным партитурам в стране, которая меньше всего напоминала мелодию для флейты и клавесина.


“The radiant expression of naïveté on the old men’s faces identified them as people who gave their whole lives to musical scores in a country that reminded one least of all of a melody for flute and harpsichord.”

It’s difficult to explain why Paranoia disappointed. The ending, with Anatolii’s state-induced retreat to a combination of fantasy and his new reality, felt inevitable after talk about how “they” control people, but the last pages felt weak, easy, and indefinite. More disconcerting were long passages about love – we already know Anatolii’s in love! – and all those literary and cultural references. Early on there’s a mention that Anatolii’s literary agent says there’s no need to invent books like 1984 because we have reality. Fine. But I thought the balance in Paranoia tilted far more heavily toward references to brands and reams of other authors’ work, e.g. 1984, than toward an account of reality, despite Martinovich’s vivid descriptions of present-day Minsk and all the surveillance.

I don’t care about the “reality-antiutopia” balance but I thought the references loaded the book down and made it feel derivative, even as its final third sucked me in because I wanted to learn Anatolii’s fate… then the end reminded me of Mikhail Elizarov’s Librarian finale. I realize this may be a personal problem: I don’t know if Martinovoich has read The Librarian or 2017 or some of the other books I felt traces of in Paranoia. I’m probably just catching a lot of zeitgeist in all the contemporary Russian novels I read; many contain elements of fantasy and/or dystopia.

Unfortunately, Paranoia always seemed to remind me of other books instead of announcing itself as a unique novel called Paranoia. I’m especially sorry to report that because the book is generally quite readable, with good material. I think it’s more important as a political statement about Belarus than as a literary work, though it left me feeling a little empty, without new or unusual insights into totalitarianism or paranoia itself. Of course the banality of totalitarianism and paranoia might be part of Martinovich’s point, but I don’t think that makes the book feel any deeper or less muddled.

For more:

-The New York Review of Books ran an article-review by Timothy Snyder.

-The first 30 pages of Paranoia are online in PDF form here.

-Reader reactions have been positive on Ozon (here) but less so on TextExpert (here), where I concur with commenter Afineja’s thoughts: Paranoia needed more editing but is worth reading. The beginning of the TextExpert review piece seems to provide a clue to the editing problem: reviewer KoLibri refers to a Martinovich blog post (here) in which Martinovich says he thought about the book for a year and a half, then wrote it in a month and a half, writing a large portion on a Nokia qwerty keyboard.

Level for nonnative readers of Russian: 3.5 out of 5.0, moderately difficult at times, with lots of metaphor, references, and odd speech.

Up next: Iskander’s stories about Chik or Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Толмач, which I think I’ll call The Interpreter.

Photo credit: Lhoon, Ilmari Karonen, via Wikipedia. Government building in Minsk.


  1. "I think it’s more important as a political statement about Belarus than as a literary work"

    I feel this can sadly be applied to too many books. A key point, excellently put.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Biblibio. Yes, there's a lot of this going around!