Banned in Belarus

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A book on paranoia disappears. Two days after it hits Minsk bookshops and Belarus’ Internet retailers, it is suddenly “unavailable.” It is as if the book never existed. But it does, and free electronic versions of the elusive novel are now spawning on the Net.

Paranoia is a novel about love in time of dictatorship. The love between a man and a woman is described with freshness, depth, and joy. In the background is the dark, sinister world of authoritarian rule, with its frozen emotions, unspoken truths, and bizarre understanding of reality–so entrenched in people’s heads that they are unsure which thoughts and fears are their own and which are implanted into their minds by overbearing power.

The book never mentions Belarus. The dictator is not the president but the secret-service minister, and his character is deliberately crafted to differ from the current Belarusian leader. The author, Victor Martinovich, opens the novel with the pointed statement “All characters are fictional.” Yet Minsk’s landmarks are tangible in his social dystopia.

The Belarusian authorities’ nervousness is understandable. The regime depicted in the novel is more melodramatic in its behavior than the current reality–for example, the secret services kill dissenting young people rather than incarcerating them or expelling them from universities. Thus the novel runs against the message of “changing Belarus” the government is keen to present to Europe and the world beyond. Also, the country portrayed has the atmosphere of a worried and lonely individual, far from the happy collectivist atmosphere the Belarusian authorities seek to project.

It is not the book but the ban that does the authorities a disservice. This is a regime that has sustained itself on the deft crafting of a populist national ideology. Here, the silent and unexplained prohibition of Paranoia erodes the image of trust that the government is painstakingly trying to disseminate.

For the first time, the country has on offer a dynamic cultural product that could reach a worldwide audience. The Belarusian authorities could have jumped on its bandwagon and celebrated the book. Instead, this censorship will only fuel Paranoia‘s international reputation. The authorities have transformed a piece of good literature into a political cause.

This is an excerpt of a story that first appeared online at openDemocracy. We spotted it in Transitions Online (Feb. 3, 2010), a publication that covers political, social, cultural, and economic issues in the formerly communist countries of Europe and Central

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