A book judged by its cover
A review of Revolution. By: Victor Martinovich. Published in Belarus by Knihazbor, Minsk 2020.
The latest book by Victor Martinovich, one of the most well-known contemporary Belarusian writers, was published by a Belarusian publishing house last autumn. As expected, this novel, tellingly titled Revolution, had generated a lot of hype even before it appeared on the bookshop shelves. Thus, we can say that it was either the author’s luck or curse that his book, with such a title, was published in Belarus in 2020. Needless to say, such a publication could not go unnoticed by official censors. Consequently, the first published copies were stopped from distribution by the Belarusian law enforcement and meetings with the author were cancelled. As a forbidden fruit, the book obviously became even more interesting and tempting to Belarusian readers.
As it often happens, the nervous reaction of the authorities to the publishing of the novel turned out to be groundless. Revolution is not a book about Belarus. It was censored mainly because of its title to which some decision-makers reacted like a bull to a red flag without even making an effort to check what was inside.
If read more closely, the book title may suggest some kind of intellectual provocation intended by Martinovich, who at the time of writing had no intention of making any references to the Belarusian revolution in 2020; the protests only coincidentally overlapped with the publication. Having said that, only time will tell whether I am right about this. With the book itself, Martinovich showed a new literary face, quite different from his previous ones. Prior to publication, Martinovich focused on the Belarusian reality, creating his own artistic universe. Through these works he popularised contemporary Belarusian literature. However, due to the nuances and details of contemporary Belarusianness that is presented, Martinovich’s prose is often very difficult to translate into other (apart from East Slavic) languages. The situation changed a bit with his 2018 novel, titled Night. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, masterful and universal; it could probably be used as the basis for a popular series on Netflix or HBO. Two years later Revolution came about, moving these earlier works somewhat to the background.
The plot takes place in Moscow in the first decade of the 21st century. At that time Moscow was a place that, even 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, remains the main centre for many citizens of the independent post-Soviet republics. It is a metropolis, still not hit by the 2008-2009 financial crisis, where the rhythm of life is set by dizzying money and modern predatory inhabitants: a place where a man exists in the intersection of submission and temptation, where the will most often is the will to have power.
The novel’s main character is an immigrant lecturer from Belarus, who finds himself in a whirlwind of trials that makes him re-understand why the denial of personal freedom and the possibility of total submission is often so temptingly sweet. He meets a “dinosaur of Soviet power”, who is a former member of the Politburo and still exercises power in the post-Soviet world. The man is in charge of a special organisation which resembles a para-state or mafia. This is an organisation where every – even the most unexpected – dangerous and drastic order must be immediately carried out.
Its leader, who is nearing the end of his life, is still thinking about the heir. His choice falls on the main character, a university lecturer who was manipulated into joining the organisation. To keep his place and to fit the new hierarchy, he is subjected to various tests and trials. The protagonist slowly gives up his old beliefs, love and universal moral principles. With time, he comes to the conclusion that he must initiate a revolution within the ranks of the organisation.
Martinovich admits that it took him 12 years to write the novel which he did in various European capitals. It is probably a result of these experiences that his main character warns us by saying: “the public power that we see every day is only a version of power for the broad masses, a pop-cultural power that exists so that every citizen does not think too much about why s/he should pay taxes, submit to the orders of public services and be loyal to the state. The true power, on the other hand, is something completely different, it is written in our genetic code and it rules us through our instincts. This true power is the ancient code of our world that lives in our every cell and manifests itself in every reflex of our social life.”
Indeed, Revolution is a novel about power in general, even though it is set in the post-Soviet reality. It is also a story explaining why the so-called escapes of freedom have become more and more popular. For those who are less interested in the recent history of Eastern Europe, Revolution can be an engaging political fiction thriller. In turn, those who are more familiar with this region in their everyday life will find references to some of the most famous political processes in Russia (and not only) that have taken place over the last two decades. Although probably as a result of coincidence, it is more evident that Martinovich’s Revolution is gaining more universal relevance. This may be due to the recent protests in Russia and Belarus.
Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in the post-Soviet space. He has a PhD in Political Science and Administration from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and lecturer and researcher at the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw.