Back in his student days, Victor Martinovich followed his father‘s advice and chose to study journalism instead of philology. After writing numerous news articles, an art history dissertation on Marc Chagall, and multiple novels, he‘s now one of the most prominent fiction authors in Belarus. Oh, yeah, and his latest book, Revolution, is both on the banned and the national bestseller lists. Today, Martinovich shares with us what he reads, how he writes, and why he thinks good books should be banned.
Of all the stories you’ve read and heard, which one has stuck with you the longest?
Oddly enough, I’d say C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I read it after my mother had passed and found great comfort in it. It’s been 20 years and I’ve prohibited myself from reading it ever since, anticipating how I’ll pick it back up the day I need to overcome deep sorrow once again.
Somehow, C. S. Lewis went above and beyond the bar set by Lewis Carol. He didn’t just create a magical world, but in doing so, managed to inspire in his readers – both young and old – a great sense of joy as well.
Since the dawn of time, we’ve only had a handful of authors capable of such magic. The only one who’s ever achieved anything even remotely similar would probably be Borges, with his short stories. More often than not, the experience of reading them isn’t just enriching, but strangely uplifting too. Regardless of the actual subject at hand, be it eternal life or infinite knowledge, each of his stories – including Aleph – convey this sense of quiet confidence in the notion that our world and every person in it, everything has its own little seed of happiness, and all else depends on your ability to nurture it and choose the right perspective on life.
How, if at all, has becoming a writer influenced your reading habits and the way you approach a book?
There are books for readers, and then there are books for writers. That’s something I’ve noticed long ago. If you write in Russian and want to sharpen up your prose, then Anatoly Marienhof, Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mikhail Bulgakov are your guys. These four are the greatest masters of style of the 20th century who use more or less the same kind of language we do today. Story-wise, the gold standard for young writers wishing to develop an eye for detail would probably be Nabokov’s Cloud, Castle, Lake. I myself have recently and quite unexpectedly found another level to this story, where we see it unfold backwards.
Alas, all books for writers can just as easily do more harm than good to those who write, because the purpose of art, at the end of the day, is to say something new; to seek out your own unique language. So, if a writer creates what seems even the slightest bit like an imitation if they travel down a beaten path – their work simply won’t survive. It’s no longer worth the scrap of paper it’s written on. Therefore, whenever I sit down to work on a new book, I set aside everything I’m reading. Actually, this ‘fast’ begins about a month before any of the writing. Without it, echoes of other people’s voices will just continue to ring in your ears, filling your head with overworked phrases. Anything by Nabokov and Brodsky is especially ‘catchy.’
Before expanding into fiction, you studied and worked in journalism. How difficult was the transition?
Not at all, because fiction and news stories are two much more different animals than they might seem at first glance. See, while a journalist reports on reality, an author creates one. The only thing these two kinds of writers have in common is that both must be truthful.
However, in fiction, where you come up with everything from the beginning right through to the very end, this pursuit of ‘truth’ isn’t always easy. But how could you possibly ‘lie’ in fiction, if you’re the one who’s made the whole thing up? Well, as any writer will tell you, every character has their own ‘truth,’ and so does the plot. Thus, as soon as you ‘embellish’ anything by, say, making a part that’s supposed to be completely dry more ‘dramatic’ – you lose the plot, your characters drop dead, and you’re forced to spend another ten or so pages rearranging these newfound zombies like deck chairs on the Titanic, until you eventually go back and just tell the truth, breathing life and truth back into your story.
Between the releases, the presentations, the translations, and the bans – what would you consider the moment you’d ‘made it’?
A writer’s life is nothing like an athlete’s, though people often like to measure the highs and lows of our careers using racecar drivers or footballers for reference. Let’s take a runner, for example: winning a marathon requires putting tonnes of effort into rigorous training. The victory is merely the result of all that combined effort manifested on the day of the race. A writer works much in the same way, just on a different schedule. It can take anywhere from 6 months to a year for that manuscript you’ve submitted to be turned into a book. If you’re having it translated – it might take 2 years. Just think of all the things that go on in a restless mind – the kind that most artists tend to have – over 6 months.
I remember yesterday, during a Zoom interview for the Leipzig book fair, a German critic asked me about a particular character from the novel Mova, published in Germany back in 2016 – and I caught myself thinking I don’t really remember them that well. See, by the time you achieve certain accolades – awards, film adaptations, or what have you – often you’ve already burned out and moved on from the stories that earned them in the first place. So, there aren’t really any ‘I made it!’ moments, not like the ones you have in sports. Or rather there are, but I prefer to focus on the little victories – coming up with new ideas, or unique plotlines, or going back over the final draft of a newly-finished book and getting the hunch that it’s really something, it turned out great. From then on, the book starts living a life of its own and I let it go, like a child who’s all grown up and ready to leave the nest.
One of your earlier novels, Lake of Happiness, has been adapted into a short film. What did you think of the adaptation and its reception?
It’s not something that comes up too often, but Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Except Conrad’s story takes place in Africa and has nothing to do with the Vietnam War. And yet, both versions leave you with the exact same ‘aftertaste.’ The same can be said about Aliaksei Paluyan’s adaptation of my book – he changed some plot points, like moving the main heroine Jasja from a luxurious villa in a wealthy suburb of Minsk to a backwoods village in the countryside. In the book, she has to cope with her cold-hearted father, a powerful oligarch currently enjoying a marriage of convenience – one that grants him access to more money and power – as he desperately tries to get her, the estranged daughter from his first marriage, out of his hair and out of the country. Aliaksei’s version condenses the story into a sort of parable, but the tone stays exactly the same. That bitter aftertaste of feeling lonely and unloved is captured perfectly.
When speaking about fiction, people often divide into one of two camps: those who never fail to remind us that the author and the narrator are completely different things, and those who scrutinize every little detail that suggests the opposite. In your experience, how factually and sentimentally autobiographical is the average fiction book?
There’s no use looking for me in my works. I’m only there to narrate and impassively watch the drama of my characters’ lives unfold. I never let the background noise around me influence how the plots progress. All in all, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m quite a boring person, a hungry bookworm, and there’s no real reason that stories from my childhood or my everyday life would interest anyone. So I try to keep my distance. Frankly, the only thing I care about is having characters who I can understand, who I wouldn’t mind meeting up for coffee and a chat – about music, art – or just about life. That’s about the only say my ‘normal’ self has in the way my work reads.
How do you balance your work with your personal life? Considering how voraciously you read, has your family ever tampered with your bookmarks?
My endless love for travel, the kind of life that – before the pandemic – I’d spent almost exclusively on board of some bus or train between Vilnius and Minsk, or wandering through Southeast Asia for months on end, was probably a much more viable cause for concern to my loved ones than my interest in literature. After all, a writer is first and foremost a good storyteller. So, imagine, if you will, having around a person who reads two books a week, and then engrossingly retells them to you over dinner. It’s a win-win all around! You stay well-read without ever lifting a finger. So, to my nearest and dearest, I’m like a brain fitness trainer – the kind who does all the work for his clients.
“While a journalist reports on reality, an author creates one. The only thing these two kinds of writers have in common is that both must be truthful.”
In an earlier interview, you mentioned being the ‘extracurricular’ author – one who might never make it on the official reading list, but who gets recommended in classrooms anyway. How do you feel about such a title, especially from ‘generation Lukashenko’?
I still remember my own school and university years perfectly well. Back in the 1990s, the students at BSU – much like the ones at any other university – used to love reading anything that was outside of the curriculum, reluctantly working their way through the ‘required reading.’
Whenever they were assigned any Thomas Yates, people would immediately crack open a Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg or a Charles Baudelaire – only to return to Yates as soon as he was no longer the assignment. So, I feel perfectly fine outside of the school and university curriculum. Besides, I have my doubts about whether we actually need these ‘required readings’ in the first place. After all, the better the books you put on the official list, the less of a chance anyone will read them properly. If I wanted young people to actually read the works of talented authors, I’d blacklist and ban them. That’s the kind of thing that really makes people curious and compels them to hunt down a copy.
Perhaps more impressively, almost six hundred copies of your most recent book were confiscated amidst the protests, while any remaining ones were prohibited from being mailed. Firstly, how did you react when you heard the news? Secondly, what genius looked at your interviews – wherein you’ve spoken extensively about how quickly all books seem to find their way online – and banned them from the post office?
And on top of that, there’s also the fact that the head of the national book distribution network declared it a bestseller – after my publisher was searched and the copies confiscated. Franz Kafka couldn’t make this stuff up. First, we sell the 3000 first-edition copies in 2 days. Then, everything from the third reprint gets confiscated – and then we’re left with a maybe-banned-possibly-bestselling book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the current century, banning a book is absolutely pointless.
A book’s made up of two things: the text, words, and letters are the soul. Then there’s the paper, the binding, and the cover – these are the body. Sometimes the body’s beautiful, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you can hold it, sometimes you can’t. But in the age of the internet, you can only ban the body. By doing so, by ‘killing’ this body – confiscating it or banning it from travelling – you only make the ‘soul’ immortal. Because then people immediately start searching, downloading, and reading – and that cycle is unstoppable. But maybe the answer to this question lies in my previous answer and I have my own share of unnamed well-wishers who support me in any way they can.
Another one of your novels deals with the concept of paranoia. What compelled you to write about such an unpleasant emotion and how did you articulate it?
Onwards from about the mid-2000s, I started catching myself thinking that in a society that isn’t free, paranoia is the strongest feeling there is. The Belorussian system runs on fear, and not an innate fear, but the sort that was perfectly described by Bulgakov and invented by Joseph Stalin long ago. But when fear evolves into paranoia, it becomes truly unbearable. It turns into an incurable illness that can be alleviated neither by fleeing the country nor by improving your behaviour.
Nowadays, the feeling of constantly being watched described in my debut novel might seem familiar not only to fellow Belarusians – everyone who uses Google and Facebook has encountered it. But to reiterate, the reality of life in an ex-Soviet republic intensifies this feeling to such an enormous degree that it could probably work as part of a gripping political thriller. I’m interested in people’s personal happiness. I’m sitting here answering your questions and listening to the nightingale nestled in the branches of the oak that grows beside my terrace. What’s comforting isn’t the hope for change, or the chance to get rid of the Soviet burden and the Soviet fear. For me, it’s that nightingale. Knowing that soon the sun will set and the stars will come out. And I’ll sit on my porch and watch the wind usher a stream of clouds across the night sky. And that is how you escape the paranoia.
Why do you think what resonates with readers worldwide the most – from Ales Adamovich to Svetlana Aleksievich – seem to be the Belorusian necrologies?
We Belarusians are true masters in all matters of misery and death. We’re like this, not only because of all the wars fought across our land but also because during the Soviet era we’d become ‘the most Soviet of all the republics.’ Meaning that the walls of our little concentration camp were extra high. Besides, when you pick up a book or film by an artist from a depressive ex-Soviet republic you don’t exactly expect fun. I don’t subscribe to this logic. In spite of a rather joyless debut, in my later books, I’ve tried to give my readers some joy and comfort – the kind C. S. Lewis’s work had. Even when the plot of a particular book ends in tragedy, I try to find the same sense of balance in my characters that I feel looking up at the stars or listening to a nightingale.
Your body of work includes not only novels but also academic papers. As an art historian – what’s your speciality area and does it often bleed into the rest of your life?
My doctoral dissertation and the later monograph that’s based on it study the years that Marc Chagall spent in Vitebsk. It's interesting that in various galleries around the world, like in Zurich, I’ve encountered Chagall’s works where he’s labelled as the ‘Russian French,’ or even just the ‘Russian’ artist, though he was born in and devoted his entire life to a city that’s currently a part of Belarus – eulogising its crooked alleys, its churches, its Jews, its lovers. But I digress.
While going through archival documents, I discovered that having returned to Vitebsk in 1914 and having received Anatoly Lunacharsky's offer to become his ‘Commissar of Culture’ in 1917, Chagall wasn’t exactly what you’d call successful. The artistic community very clearly rejected him and the story of how the People's Art School was founded – an ordeal which involved bringing in Kazimir Malevich – was upon closer examination a real tragedy. I managed to find involved, amongst others, testimonies of Chagall's students admitting that when they’d run out of blank canvases for studies, they resorted to tearing apart and reusing the paintings they found at the school after Chagall's departure. Neither his colleagues nor students liked him. Malevich, being an ordinary lecturer, was being paid twenty times more than Chagall, who’d worked as the principal of the school – all because Chagall was an absolute outcast in his so-called ‘homeland.’
What else have you learned?
On the other hand, I discovered that it was precisely in Vitebsk, when faced with these very difficulties, that Chagall stopped copying Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne and found his own visual language – one without which nobody would remember him today. If you compare the style of Chagall in 1909 and in 1919, just before leaving his hometown, it’s impressive how far a single artist can come in such a short period of time. Of course, in order to evolve from what was a talented master into a real genius, Chagall had to overcome many challenges – the betrayal of his students who left his workshop for Malevich – every last one of them – the arrest of his wife's relatives, and even eviction from the apartment where he lived with his wife and newborn daughter. But these losses, this relationship with the ‘homeland’ are what gave us a genius.
This revelation compelled me to refuse my German publishers when in January 2021, after the arrest of my Belarusian publisher, they offered me to emigrate to the country. I realised that no matter how bad and frightening things were looking in Belarus, it was precisely the loss and relationship with the homeland, where you could be despised and banned, that makes you noteworthy.
Looking at the stories of Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Frédéric Chopin, and many others – why is it so hard for Eastern Europeans to divide custody of their ‘prodigal sons’?
This is the sort of question that loses all of its rhetorical beauty the moment you try to answer it. Is it because Eastern Europeans have always been dealt a sort of extra share of hardships in comparison to their Central and Western neighbours? Is it because around these parts, culture seemed to be a secondary concern because in order to get into Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals, you’d have to feed and clothe your kids first? And to sing them well you’d have to commit to the task entirely, forgetting everything else – something that could be quite tricky at times in Eastern Europe? Or maybe it’s because around these parts, anyone ‘from around here’ had to leave and come back a ‘somebody’ to be seen as one? Truth be told, I don’t know.
Is there anything people could listen to, watch or read to better empathise with what Belarusians are going through?
I highly recommend Aliaksei Paluyan's second film. It’s called Courage and it happens to deal with our recent events. I foresee it having the same sort of bright future as its predecessor – it’s already been nominated at the Berlinale and I hope it will win.
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