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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Viktor Martinowitsch

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Title: Мова
Author: Viktor Martinowitsch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 394 pages
Original in: Belarusian
Availability: Mova - Deutschland
  • Мова has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : easy-going, creative slice-of-the-future vision

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation of Мова by Thomas Weiler, published as Mova (2016); all quotes are my translations, based on the German translation]

       Early on in Мова, one of the narrators notes that the action takes place in the year 4741, according to the Chinese calendar; much later another explains: "Time was the first victim of the Chinese", and he can't get any more precise than figuring it is also: "the year two thousand something according to the Gregorian calendar, in case anyone remembers that". In fact, it's not all that far in the future -- 2043-4 -- but the different time-reckoning already shows just how much things have changed from the present-day world -- and how unmoored the traditional 'West' is in this new world-order: they've lost their hold -- even in time -- and are beholden to the new (but now already well-established) masters. The old-style year-counting is just one aspect of so much that was swept away by a Chinese wave that pushed to the old European Union borders, leaving Belarus -- the site of most of the action -- now part of the vast Russian-Chinese Union. The former western Europe is now a run-down also-ran, with even Switzerland impoverished, while the: "wealthy, stable, ethnically homogeneous Russia-China" is the new dominant world power.
       The bulk of Мова is narrated in alternating chapters by a 'Dealer' (eventually identified as Sergej) and a 'Junkie'. (The Junkie is eventually also revealed to be one of Sergej's customers, but their paths are only shown crossing late in the novel.) Yes, Мова is a drug-novel -- but the eponymous 'mova'-drug at the heart of it is very different from your usual drugs.
       The novel opens with Sergej in Warsaw, which is where he sources his mova, and from where smuggles it across the border. The secret of his success ? His blue-eyed innocent-looking face: he looks so harmless that they never stop him at the border -- as he perhaps boasts a bit too much on this particular trip. Still, he's in good spirits when he sets off back home -- not only because of the more-than-usual number of glasses of beer he's downed, but because he got a particularly good haul, and a whole backpack worth, at a good price. He does wonder why that backpack then feels so much heavier as he makes his way to the train -- but good luck holds, just, and he makes it back to Minsk safely -- only to have someone try to harpoon the backpack right off his back after he gets off the train.
       Alcohol, marijuana, and medical opioids are state-controlled and allowed; mova -- Chinese: 墨瓦 -- is something else entirely, and possession is punishable by long jail-sentences. 'Мова' is Belarusian for 'language', and, as Thomas Weiler explains in his Translator's Afterword to the German edition, has also come to be 'quasi-synonymous with the Belarusian language' itself. And in the novel 'mova' is, in fact, nothing more than pieces of writing. Belarusian writing, on pieces of paper -- which affects the mind only when read -- and only affects locals: Chinese, Russians, Vietnamese are all unaffected. The three kinds of mova consist of bits of handwritten copied text, longer sections of handwritten copied text, and the ultimate, printed text.
       It turns out that years earlier, when the new masters came to power, all books written in Belarusian were destroyed, by the authorities and also by the locals, who feared being caught with any illegal texts. While other drugs were legalized, the punishment for possession of mova was increased. The anti-drug campaign was so effective that not a single book printed in mova (Belarusian) remained in the (former) country; soon even practically all the copies remaining in foreign libraries had been stolen and vanished. The biggest -- and practically only -- remaining source of mova was from the Chinese triads who controlled the (drug-)market, their scribes abroad copying mova-text that was then smuggled into the country and sold, bit by small bit.
       Sergej got a great haul in Warsaw -- and, as he finally figured out when he got home and unpacked, an even greater treasure: an actual printed book someone had planted on him: an edition of Uladzimir Dubouka's famous translation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It's a book of absolutely unbelievable value -- and it's no surprise that there are parties interested in getting their hands on the book (as are the authorities, who certainly want it disappeared ...). Sergej is first contacted by the Chinese gang that had already tried to fish the backpack off his back, while later a Belarusian nationalist organization -- believing the book itself to have been destroyed -- desperately hopes that Sergej had at least salvaged some of the contents in his mind for their revivalist purposes.
       Мова is, of course, about cultural and linguistic imperialism, a not-quite-allegory of the Belarusian language -- the essence of Belarusianness -- being wiped from the face of the earth, and from collective and individual memory, and by extension the complete elimination of Belarusian culture and identity. It's a clever idea, to make language a drug: a stimulant and psychedelic, and forbidden -- indeed, absolutely illegal -- fruit. The set-up doesn't entirely work -- it's hard to imagine a text-drug of this sort, working in this way (only on first reading, and only on this select population), but Martinowitsch goes with it about as far and as well as one can.
       Eventually, Мова also becomes a resistance-story, Sergej getting caught up in a movement that looks to bring back the language (and thus also the culture, and Belarusian identity). But given the forces they are ranged against, the resistance has little chance.
       The set-up, and the way the drug works, also allow for a very nice conclusion to the novel, a dark but nicely turned wrap-up presented in an Epilogue, after the two narrators who had done most of the telling have been dispatched. It's a clever play with the nature of the drug, the final diary entry then in English, beginning: "They destroyed mova".
       Using snippets of actual classical Belarusian texts (including Dubouka's creative Shakespeare-translations) -- as well as the occasional translated and foreign text (since Belarusian is similar to, even as it is distinct from Ukrainian and Russian) -- Мова is very much a local, national dystopia: it obviously works even better in the original, in a language and country that has long lived with the threat of being (even more completely ...) swamped by near-by -- indeed, all-around, for all intents and purposes -- Russia and Russian.
       Martinowitsch's two main narrators both present this modern world -- and its differences (not all that great, in many ways) from the contemporary one -- quite entertainingly, with enough adventure to their stories to make for a thriller pace and feel to much of the book. If the conclusion, with its clever final twist, suggests the whole could have been presented much more neatly simply in and as a short story, it's still a good, enjoyable read in this long (but hardly long-winded) form.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 March 2018

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Мова: Reviews: Victor Martinovich: Other books by Victor Martinovich under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belarusian author Victor Martinovich (Виктор Мартинович) was born in 1972.

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© 2018 the complete review

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