In Paranoia, Victor Martinovich has crafted a novel so real that the government of Belarus banned it two days after it was published in that country. It tells the story of two lovers, Anatoly and Elisaveta, who try to hide their affair in a state where nothing can be hidden; as paranoia sets in – are we or are we not being watched? – the fate of the lovers becomes sealed. We Americans have been given a light dose of surveillance paranoia over the past few months and some of the incidents in this book might sound scarily familiar (as well as the justifications: “the vigilance of one of the listeners made it possible to prevent a terrorist act…I am calm, for I know the right people are watching me”). Yet what we know of surveillance here at home is nothing compared to what is happening in Belarus. Shall we take Martinovich’s book as a warning?
There is paranoia, a clinical diagnosis of fearing the government is watching you, and then there is justified paranoia, when the government is watching your every move and you know it. Even worse, there is little you can do about it. And worst of all, the fear of being watched all the time just might drive you crazy. For those living in Belarus today, justified paranoia is a way of life. It can be dealt with by ignoring it (the government provides entertainments to preoccupy the body and mind), drinking it away (the government makes sure vodka is cheap and easily available), or by writing about it.
Martinovich has chosen writing. His book is an encompassing and moving exploration of how an unchecked political leader like Alexander Lukashenko, the permanently elected President of Belarus, can use weapons of surveillance and punishment, and yes, paranoia, to maintain power over a quavering populace. For how better to induce fear than to induce the fear of going crazy and being watched while doing so?
Not all of Belarus quavers however. There are artists, writers, and every day activists exercising their gifts of writing, performing, and demonstrating in order to expose the horrors of life under Lukashenko. Anyone who has seen the productions put on by the Belarus Free Theater will find many aspects of Paranoia reflected in the theater works of that brave (and banned) theater troupe.
Martinovich’s book is a true story mixed into a novel; it is an expose of a horrible regime presented through a love story and a mystery and an incisive, sometimes homely, sometimes funny portrait of a nation (picnics with “cut piles of cucumbers and tomatoes” – as the daughter of a Belarusian refugee, I was raised on such picnics). Martinovich uses the story of the two lovers – their intimate moments and special nicknames and secret meeting places and inside jokes – to show just what a terrifying violation it is when the government watches, listens, and documents every one of those intimate and special moments. The novel made me feel as if I were there; the reality exposed made me glad I am not.
“We’re shaking because they – oh what a terrible pronoun! – because they know everything. Because they can deprive us of our very selves. Because just by narrowing their lips during an interrogation, they can crush us. Because they see right through us and know what we’ll say next…”
The all-powerful dictator Muraviov (aka, Lukashenko) is the ultimate watcher, outdoing any Orwellian nightmare, and ultimate paranoia is the only outcome possible. Martinovich illustrates how subtly the paranoia begins (“the sight of your own reflection in glass behind which you were attempting to find something rational to explain your gut fears”) and then maneuvers into a deeper experience of it, as when the two lovers debate whether a chair was moved or a spoon replaced.
Does the fact that a gadget has gone inexplicably missing mean that someone is watching them? Guess what? It does. Welcome to justified paranoia. The bad news is that the next step is full-fledged insanity: “For everyone of my arguments [that I am not KGB], your paranoia will obligingly find ten counterarguments.” The lovers face off, with paranoia turning them from loyal to suspicious, and the rest is tragedy.
The English translation of Paranoia (with thanks due to Northwestern University Press and translator Diane Nemec Ignashev) includes an excellent introduction into the history of Belarus and the current regime of Lukashenko, making it easier for all readers to understand the story of Anatoly and Elisaveta. I trembled and shook while reading this novel, for I encountered the truth of a regime, and truth is stranger, and even more horrible, than fiction.