by Victor Martinovich
St. Petersburg: Astrel SPB 346 pp., 166 rubles
In the summertime, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, young couples rent boats. They float, seemingly aimlessly, with the current of the Svisloch River, until they find themselves under a bridge. Then they row against the current for as long as they can, hoping to find shelter from the sun and from prying eyes. The premise of Belarusian writer Victor Martinovich’s Russian-language novel Paranoia is that this is impossible. As a police state such as today’s Belarusian dictatorship approaches perfect control, someone is always watching. The young lovers are watching each other, whether they understand this or not. The only way to be safe in such a society is to abandon love, but true solitude courts paranoia.
As the novel opens, the young writer Anatoly finds himself alone, his lover Lisa having disappeared from her apartment on Karl Marx Street. He pushes notes for her under the door, where they are duly intercepted, copied, and interpreted by the KGB. These police documents open the novel, inviting the reader to see the young man from the perspective of the authorities. Anatoly then recalls a relationship that at first seems startling in its purity (his last name, Nevinskii, sounds like “innocent”). In a café a young man greets a young woman by asking “Have you been waiting long?” and gets the reply “All my life.” A love affair proceeds with such passion that the lovers don’t even learn each other’s names until they fight. The source of tension is Lisa’s other man: Muraviev, the minister of state security, who controls the (obviously Belarusian) state, holds all the important offices, and can make people disappear.
Muraviev, not just a dictator but also a pianist, is not so much a Big Brother as a Big Lover; in Paranoia the conventions of menage à trois are artfully overlain with those of dystopia. Lisa seems to be with child. Who is the father? She seems to suggest to each man in turn that it is he. Lisa seems to have been murdered. Who did it? Muraviev claims not to know, but this seems unlikely, and of course he would hardly admit to such a thing. At first, Anatoly seeks Lisa and confronts Muraviev, but under interrogation he admits to the murder. Does his confession bear any resemblance to what actually happened? Or, in confessing to the deed, is Anatoly helping the regime cover up its latest killing? Are he and Muraviev, in some sense, in it together?
Martinovich, born in 1977, matured under the dictatorship that Aleksandr Lukashenko has consolidated in post-Soviet Belarus since 1994. In the novel, he renews some of the major themes of the classic Eastern European dissident literature. The system is not simply the rulers, it is also the ruled. Self-policing is more important than policing; lovers betray each other wittingly or unwittingly; we all betray ourselves …