Both the title and the note preceding the text were strong clues that I was in for some heavy reading when I picked up Paranoia, by Victor Martinovich. The note at the beginning of the book reads:
“All the events related herein are fictional: the protagonists have never existed in any reality other than that of the present text. Any unsanctioned comparisons with historical figures or persons alive today may be qualified as a criminal offense punishable under international and national law. To avoid unintentionally committing acts prosecutable under the Penal Code, the author – fully aware that, essentially, he should never have written it in the first place – enjoins readers not to read this book.”
Indeed, according to the book’s foreword, Paranoia was pulled from the shelves only two days after its release in Belarus, and the author is living in exile. Belarus is a former republic of the Soviet Union, and the people of that country are still subject to many Soviet-era policies and practices.
The book features a pair of young lovers in the Belarusian capital of Minsk who are caught up in an unfortunate love triangle, with the third member of the triangle being the country’s leader. This would be a problem even in a democracy, but under an authoritarian government where the president is essentially a dictator, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The book’s protagonist, Anatoly, is a writer of some acclaim. He leads a rather mundane life in Minsk until the day he spots Lisa in a local café. They meet and fall in love, but it’s not long until Lisa confesses to Anatoly that she’s the mistress of the country’s president. In addition to the turmoil this causes in their relationship, it creates an upheaval in other aspects of Anatoly’s life, as he suddenly becomes a person of interest to the country’s state security police. Everything comes to a head when Lisa, who has just revealed that she’s pregnant, disappears and is presumed from the bloody evidence left behind to have been murdered.
I thought the circumstances of the blossoming relationship between Anatoly and Lisa were unconvincing, and the characters’ dialogue was much too flowery and scripted. Martinovich’s descriptions of life in an authoritarian state, however, seemed chillingly authentic. Timothy Snyder’s foreword to the book describes a country in which “all that is not expressly permitted is forbidden,” and in which repressive policies of the former Soviet Union are still in effect. One passage in the book sums up the situation this way:
“The German press agent who handled his work had once said, ‘What’s distinctive about the present epoch is that nowadays anti-utopias can be based on entirely factual material. There’s no more need to invent 1984: just look around.’”
In Paranoia, Martinovich paints a stark portrait of Belarus as just such an anti-utopia. As the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.
I wasn’t sure I’d find any good food references in a book about such a dark subject. After all, who can think about food when they’re being targeted by the brutal state security police? Happily, there were a few decent food mentions, including a reference to pelmeni dumplings. Anatoly and Lisa had rented a small apartment, with a kitchen about which Anatoly says, “The ceiling lights, the clumsy dripping faucet, the ceramic boot full of burned matches, the range hood with its broken clock, the kitchen cupboards with bay leaves, coriander, and black pepper ready at any moment to help us boil up pelmeni meat dumplings…”.
I found a recipe for pelmeni on a website called Dacha 2 Table. I substituted flaxseed meal and water for the egg in the dough recipe, and substituted Beyond Meat beef crumbles for the meat in the filling. The recipe suggested serving the pelmeni with vodka sauce or sour cream, so I opted for vegan sour cream. I also cooked the filling before putting it in the dumpling.
They look beautiful, but considering how much work they were, I wish I liked them better.
When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster occurred in 1986, 70 percent of the radiation fallout fell on Belarus. The health effects to the people there have been severe and long-lasting, resulting in an outpouring of support from people around the world, especially directed toward the children of Belarus. Dozens of organizations arrange for children to travel to other countries during the summers or to uncontaminated areas of Belarus, where the children receive medical attention and spend time in a clean, healthy environment. One such group, which received my donation for Belarus, is the American Belarussian Relief Organization. ABRO has brought more than 5,000 children from Belarus to the United States “for rest and medical evaluation. Another 400 children have benefited from the summer camps held in the uncontaminated region of Belarus.” More information about this organization is available on their website at http://www.abro.org/.
NEXT STOP: BELGIUM