Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: No Need to Invent ‘1984’ when Belarus is Available, Banned Novelist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 15 – The Belarusian authorities have banned a novel written in Russian and published in Moscow by a Belarusian journalist who teaches in Vilnius, an indication the author says that “it is no longer necessary to invent ‘1984;’ one can simply look around!”
Six weeks ago, Viktor Martinovich published his novel “Paranoia,” a story about love between a journalist and the lover of the president of an invented country. Two weeks ago, the Minsk banned it. But now he has described this remarkable and in Belarusian conditions unprecedented event on his blog and in an interview given to the Chaskor.ru portal.
On his blog – vicmartinovich.blog.tut.by – Martinovich says he found out about the ban when he was in Tallinn where his novel was one of the 14 literary works presented as part of Estonia’s annual Black Nights festival. “I cannot describe,” he says, “the feeling you have when you go online to read news from home and encounter this written ABOUT YOURSELF.”
No one should be deceived, he continues. “’Not recommended’ in our conditions is the most serious and terrible prohibition,” an outcome especially strange since “in the novel, there is neither Lukashenka nor even the KGB.” Consequently, the question inevitably arises: “Why have they done something so stupid?”
Given the Internet, Martinovich asks, “why prohibit that which it is impossible to prohibit? Even more if this is a novel with invented persons?” And he calls on everyone his case to raise their voices “so that they will hear about it in Ukraine, in Russia, in Bykhov!” Otherwise they will prohibit Harry Potter and Orwell, ‘The Possessed’ and ‘Clockwork Orange.’”
In his Chaskor.ru interview, the Belarusian writer provides more details about this remarkable case, one in which the Belarusian authorities have gone so far as to make it impossible to purchase the book on line even though it can be read on the net in a PDF file
Martinovich tells that Moscow outlet that “a specific feature of our time is that it is possible to write an anti-utopia on the basis of completely real materials. One need not think up a ‘1984;’ one can simply look around” and find plenty of suggestive examples of dystopian and anti-utopian situations.
Asked why a novel about love could elicit such a reaction from the powers that be in Belarus, Martinovich says the best explanation he has hear came from a cultural specialist who told him even before the book was published by AST in Moscow that there were good reasons to think his book would be banned.
That is because, she said, readers will find on many pages the words “monitoring,” “president, “KGB,” and “paranoia,” all words that “Belarusians frequently use in their conversations about the powers that be.” Consequently, “bureaucrats when they see this will automatically draw parallels.”
Martinovich says that he did not write the novel to offend the powers that be, but he did write about what he knows: “Living in Belarus, it is impossible to write about a society like the one that exists for example among the Papuans of New Guinea.” Instead, he said, he “wrote about what he frequently sees around himself.”
For a book to be popular, he continues, “it should be sharp, but there was no such special goal” in this case. In the final analysis, “the image of the dictator in ‘Paranoia’ is very far from that of the president of Belarus,” even if some of his readers and especially those in the Belarusian bureaucracy do not make those distinctions.
Martinovich says he expected his book to be banned but was not prepared for how he would feel. “You write a test and you think that they may prohibit it. But when you find out that this has happened … and a few minutes later that ‘they have taken it off the Internet,’ then you understand that nothing like that had happened in Belarusian literature in the last 20 years.
He explains to his interviewer that “this is the first novel which has been banned in [Belarus] over the course of its entire sovereign history. Before this, the powers that be prohibited the books of Pavel Sheremet and Aleksandr Feduta, but these were documentary histories about the current system of power.”
Moreover, he continues, “journalists have noted that [this ban] is also the first Russian-language prohibited artistic work. Earlier it was considered that everything that was possible in Russia was possible for us.” But clearly, Martinovich says, his case shows that that comforting assumption is no longer the case.
“Paranoia” was selling well before the ban, he says, with about two-thirds of its roughly 50,000 copy print run having been bought up in Russia, something that earned him “less than 1,000 US dollars.” But even if the ban brings him attention, he does not welcome it because it has left him uncomfortable in the extreme.
Still worse, he says, the whole experience has shown him how much paranoia there is in his own life. On the one hand, he says he was so frightened while writing the novel that he did not compose parts of it on the computer. And on the other, he says he was frightened by two men at the Minsk airport who only wanted him to buy duty free alcohol for them.
Martinovich nonetheless says that he has the impression that the ban on his book may yet be lifted and that Belarusians will gain access to it, adding that he believes he could achieve that if he met with “one of three important bureaucrats.” But he notes that “he did not write this novel in order to spend time in government offices.”
In one respect, the Belarusian novelist clearly is trying to make that outcome possible: He says that he is “trying not to give this scandal the chance to acquire an international character,” something that would make it more difficult for the powers that be in Belarus to change their decision, and he adds that he does not blame the very top of the Minsk pyramid.
“In all my commentaries,” he says, “I am trying to stress that what has taken place is the work of the hands of not very highly placed idiots. I would like to believe that the administration of the president did not participate in this” and “I hope that someone higher up, the chief of these idiots will allow the book to be sold.”
“Banning what should not be prohibited is stupid,” Martinovich concludes, and “in reality, “one need not be afraid of a story about love.”

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