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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Victor Martinovich

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To purchase Paranoia

Title: Paranoia
Author: Victor Martinovich
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 273 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Paranoia - US
Paranoia - UK
Paranoia - Canada
Paranoia - India
Paranoia - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Паранойя
  • With a Foreword by Timothy Snyder
  • Translated and with a Preface by Diane Nemec Ignashe

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well done portrait of a contemporary totalitarian state

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/10/2010 Timothy Snyder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/6/2013 Arkady Ostrovsky
Publishers Weekly . 21/1/2013 .
TLS . 26/4/2013 Donald Rayfield

  From the Reviews:
  • "Along with the recognizable topography of Minsk, Paranoia also has a literary topography filled with references, quotations and artifacts. (...) Paranoia has an energy and a nerve of its own -- a refreshing sign that cultural life in Belarus has not been defeated. Yet the danger for a writer working in an oppressive regime is not only that his book will be banned, but also that one day it may be allowed. The K.G.B. can fashion a good biography for a writer; it cannot write a good book for him." - Arkady Ostrovsky, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Both dense and intense, the novel, full of passionate intelligence and incisive wit, defies easy pigeonholing." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Indeed, Paranoia may not be the most appropriate title for Martinovich's novel: the hero's predicament and his interpretation of what is happening is not so different from the perfectly sane analysis of Belarus given in the foreword by Timothy Snyder. (...) Martinovich's achievement is to show how, in such an 'Absurdistan', a hole can open up in the ground and drop you into hell. (...) The translator hasn't shrugged: she's put her shoulder to the wheel. But some aspects are untranslatable. (...) Nevertheless, whether read in the original or in translation, Paranoia is an exciting novel that is not easy to forget." - Donald Rayfield, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The country Paranoia is set in may not be explicitly identified by name, but it is closely based on the author's native Belarus (and its protagonist's best-known work is a collection of essays titled: The Country whose Name begins with B). The: "Head of State, Commander in Chief, Minister of State Security Nikolai Mikhailovich Muraviov" -- who plays a significant role in the novel -- is known as the: "last dictator in Europe", just as the actual Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is, and the states they rule over truly are totalitarian.
       The central figure in Paranoia is a successful local author, Anatloy Petrovich Nevsky -- well-known abroad:

not because Anatoly's prose -- especially after having been raked over in translation -- held any real interest for anyone, but because the world was interested in Muraviov's name and the situation in the country he governed
       His international reputation doesn't exactly earn him many privileges, but certainly is advantageous. He describes his own situation -- that he's:
A writer no one can do shit to. Because he's more popular than Sierakowski. Sierakowski's the guy who disappeared, remember? So. The writer Anatoly Nevinsky cannot be put in prison insofar as he'll continue to write there and become even more well known. He can't be killed insofar as that would only triple his print runs. He can't be made to disappear as that would decuple his print runs.
       But, of course, he can't feel entirely safe -- not in a country where everyone is so closely watched. And it's not even personal safety that he's really worried about; what's so crushing is that: "they know everything" -- and hence: "they can deprive us of our very selves".
       Paranoia is a three-part novel. A brief opening section introduces Anatoly, leaving letters at an apartment which the state security services open and read; his girlfriend has vanished, and it's not entirely clear whether she abandoned him or other forces removed her. The novel proper then begins with the story of Anatoly and this woman, Elisaveta Supranovich -- Lisa. He falls in love with this mysterious woman who apparently has some sort of high connections, and he chases her down; they fall madly in love. One thing that might be problematic: she is also involved with Muraviov -- to the extent that he, who on paper owns practically nothing, has a fortune in her name ("My total net worth is -- I'm not entirely sure -- more than a billion dollars", she casually mentions).
       The second part of the novel consists of transcribed surveillance reports and some commentary on these made by the state security services. Anatoly and Lisa's love-nest is bugged, and everything they say and do is recorded (and faithfully recounted and transcribed by the security services). While paranoid, they do lower their guard here and speak freely -- at times even taking the batteries out of their phones, so as not to be spied upon, not realizing that the apartment itself is compromised (and the watchful security services inescapable). The record of what 'Gogol' (Anatoly) and 'Fox' (Lisa) say is revealing, their story here unfolding largely in (overheard) dialogue.
       Amusingly, the secret service reports on everything with straight-faced would-be objectivity, rarely acknowledging the occasionally explosive revelations the two lovers make. Not quite everything is treated equally, but the point is certainly driven home: no aspect of their lives is left unmentioned (no matter how mundane) and unexplored. The state really is aware of all -- even as, eerily, it does not necessarily get involved.
       The relationship continues -- as does the continued presence of Muraviov (who, Lisa suggests to Anatoly, is: "the same kind of man as you, only twenty years older" ...) -- and builds up to a rather dramatic revelation. And then Lisa is gone.
       The final section finds a more desperate Anatoly more directly involved with the authorities, a Kafkaesque downward spiral for him.
       With its literary games and allusions, Paranoia isn't just a straightforward depiction of the totalitarian state. There are the predictable satirical elements -- Marx replaced by Marks & Spencer as consumerism trumps ideology even here -- but Martinovich uses the country's leader, Muraviov, in a fairly effective way, and evokes a world that is not so much black-or-white but rather a pervasive, all-consuming grey.
       Written two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Paranoia still reads unsettlingly like a novel of that system -- as, indeed, that system has been maintained in not too greatly altered form in Belarus (complete with continued deference to big brother-motherland Russia). A fine variation on the novel about totalitarianism, it nevertheless feels very familiar, too: we've read this story often, and Martinovich doesn't really bring enough that is new to it -- technically or substantively -- for it to stand too far out from the piles of similar novels from the past.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2013

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Paranoia: 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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© 2013-2022 the complete review

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