What If Your Language Were an Illegal Drug? An Interview with Viktor Martinovich
#language & literature
default, Belarusian author Viktor Martinovich, photo: Alina Krushinskaya, full_victor_martynovich_photo_alina_krushinskaya_770.jpg
Belarusian writer Victor Martinovich (Blr. Viktar Martsinovich) talks to Culture.pl about his political thriller ‘Mowa’, a dystopian vision of the future in which the Belarusian language has disintegrated into a mind drug and Poland’s capital is where the junkies score their highs. How likely does this innovative author think his vision is?
Mikołaj Gliński: Your newest book is entitled “Mova 墨瓦”. Mova is obviously ‘language’ in Belarusian... But what do these Chinese ideograms stand for? Can you explain this?
Viktor Martinovich: I would have to start from the beginning. The book is set in Minsk in the near future, around 70 years from now. Minsk is occupied by a Russian-Chinese Empire, there’s no mention of Belarus, no Belarusian words or toponyms on the streets. Actually, nobody even remembers the Belarusian language. There’s only a small group of junkies who take a drug called mova. This means they read small samples of classic Belarusian literature to get high. The whole system of drug distribution is obviously controlled by the Chinese, through the so-called triads. But the centre of production of the drug is actually Warsaw… That’s where the novel starts.
MG: That’s not very pleasant for Polish people...
VM: Actually, some Polish friends of mine were offended by that. The narrator says that Poland and the whole EU is decaying, there’s a lot of poor people, a lot of Arab migrants. But it’s sarcasm, it’s definitely not my position. Anyway, Poland and Warsaw are shown in the book as messy but likeable places where there’s no state control and you can buy everything, including this Belarusian drug.
MG: What happens next?
13 Things Lem Predicted About The Future We Live In
VM: There are two narrators: one is a drug addict, an intellectual who thinks that he’s very smart, he’s very fond of the French language – and he keeps using French quotes but they’re full of mistakes. The second narrator is a drug dealer whose job is to travel to Warsaw, buy a lot of drugs and then transport them to the border and trick the border control and their scanners. The whole thing is about insubstantial drugs, drugs that go into your consciousness without leaving a physical mark. And since the Chinese control the drug traffic, to buy the drug you have to go to the Minsk Chinatown and look for these two Chinese ideograms: the first Mo means ink, the second is Va – it means roof tile. This symbol means that you can find the drug in this place.
MG: So mova is basically a drug. What is this drug in your book made of, literally?
VM: It took me two years to go through all the Belarusian books I liked: I carefully selected the most powerful excerpts from Belarusian poetry and prose. I tried to stick to little-known or unknown authors. One of my favourite is Salomea Pilstinova – she was a Polish-Belarusian woman living in the 18th century who travelled around Asia and wrote a lot. I found fragments of Pilstinova translated into Belarusian and used them. I also used 20th-century poet Larissa Geniush. She is interesting to me because every word she wrote was founded on so much suffering she had gone through that it makes her a kind of a prophet. But there’s a big variety of fragments: you’ll find some powerful extracts from Karatkevich, Lastouski, and Dubouka.
MG: How does one actually take mova?
Drugi Obieg: The Underground Publishers That Defied the Communist Regime
VM: You read it. The thing is that the fragments should be written by hand – printed text is much easier to detect by scanners. That’s why these Chinese triads keep copying these fragments onto small pieces of paper. The problem is you can only get high by reading a new fragment. You read it and you destroy it because it’s very dangerous to have it in your pocket. And then you have to look for another fragment.
During perceiving this new language, what happens to your consciousness is that the structure of your Russian begins to change. You begin to make mistakes in Russian – and this is the way for the state to catch you. It’s an action thriller but with a literary touch. At one point in the book it turns out that there a small armed resistance group formed by Belarusian nationalists. They are not fighting the drug trafficking, they just want to restore the language and they need those scraps of paper to put them into libraries. They hunt for words which are lost forever.
MG: What words are they looking for?
VM: The actual plot centres around one word which is used in the Belarusian translation of Shakespearean sonnet, done by a Belarusian dissident Vladimir Dubouka, an intellectual who came through the Gulag and whose Belarusian lexicon was extremely large. Basically the search is for the third word for love in Belarusian: one is lubov (this is for intellectual kind of love), the second is kohanye which denotes erotic kind of love, the third word which I found in Dubouka and which is not used widely today, is for spiritual kind of love, emotional connection. This word is not specifically mentioned in the book but it’s in there – I’m just not saying where it is but it’s there. I’ve received tonnes of suggestions as to this word from people who’ve bought Dubouka and looked for the word. But I promised not to say what it is, it’s a mystery – but the answer is in the book, it’s in one of the mova fragments, that’s for sure.
MG: How was ‘Mova’ received?
The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature
VM: I couldn’t expect the reception to be any stronger. I was shocked when shortly after the book’s publication I saw photos of young people tattooing these Chinese symbols onto their bodies. You could also see mova graffiti on the walls in the streets of Minsk. It became a kind of a secret sign, and it was fashionable to know what mova was.
MG: How real is the situation which you described in the book when the Belarusian language is not spoken anymore?
VM: I wrote the book to warn people about it. Because I feel like there’s a big probability that the language will disappear in say 50 years. The whole country could actually disappear. A lot of Belarusians are very sympathetic to Putin. The idea of the Russian world (ruskiy mir) is very attractive – they listen to the radio, watch Russian TV and feel part of it. But this is problematic. In a way our whole historical existence is a mistake – we gained independence in 1991 without fighting for it. We just received it as a gift. And as everything which you didn’t pay for it can be easily lost. Yes, if Putin was more interested in Belarus, and there are signs that he will be, Belarus would disappear. He would need only to say ‘I will give you pensions as high as in Russia’ and everybody will vote for him, simply because Belarus is less wealthy than Russia.
MG: You said at the meeting in Warsaw [in the beginning of October 2015] that in this political situation writers like you could be useful for the regime.
VM: Yes, their problem is they rarely think strategically. They react only when some kind of threat appears. Now, when we’re having elections soon, they treat me as a kind of tactical threat – since I’m an intellectual and I’m open in my political views, that is, I don’t support anybody.
In a way we find ourselves in a situation where everybody who creates texts in Belarusian helps Lukashenko to stay away from Putin. I think Lukashenko perfectly understands that Putin is a bigger threat to him than any Belarusian nationalist or Belarusian intellectual. We are not as powerful as Putin. But if he thought strategically he would use us and promote us, turn us into some kind of national heroes. Because in a way we are now in the same boat as him.
MG: This is ironic...
When Poland Neighboured China
VM: Yes, considering he has very different aims from what we have: my aim is to write books and his aim is to stay in power. He wants to keep Belarus away from Russia, and I want to drag readers away from Russian literature and make them read Belarusian literature.
MG: What’s the situation of Belarusian culture and language today?
VM: I have a feeling that 20 years ago to understand Belarus one had to read Russian literature because the two countries were quite similar. But it’s not like this anymore. We have two very different societies, we in Minsk are more like Eastern Europeans. And the city is very different from Moscow despite the same language being spoken here and there [Russian]. It’s like with South America where most countries speak the same language, yet they are all very different. So language is not always the answer, at least not the only answer. We can remain Belarusian without the language. But the language is, of course, very important.
MG: What was your road to Belarusian? Because your first language is Russian…
VM: Yes, Russian was my first language, I studied in Russian, and I actually never thought I could speak or write in Belarusian. It was all because of my second novel Stsyudzyoni Vyrai – this means ‘Cold Paradise’, it’s an interesting religious and ethical concept. Vyrai in popular belief is on the one hand a place were birds fly during cold months, and on the other it’s where spirits go after death. So it’s a paradise and a warm country at the same time.
The concept of the novel was that it starts with an American guy writing in Belarusian. Of course he makes a lot of mistakes, he says that he is travelling (he’s currently in Istanbul), he is a fine arts dealer. He meets a girl from Belarus, and this girl somehow gets him interested in Belarus. As it turns out she is a dissident hiding from the KGB. So to impress her he starts, or so he says, to learn the language (he claims his ancestors are from Belarus). He writes notes in this language that get published in some literary magazine. Via these notes he tries to invite her to a meeting, but she’s in hiding. So he suggests that they meet in Vilnius – and he waits for her every week at the same time in the same café. The second narrator is the girlfriend of the girl, who apparently is lesbian, and she says this guy is a KGB agent – he’s not a proper KGB agent, but he made up that he was American to catch her in a trap. The girl disappears in Vilnius and is put into a mental hospital in Minsk. And then another guy says that this girl is also a KGB agent. So it’s a kind of self-discrediting story of three narrators.
MG: But how did this political thriller impact your language choices?
Poland Didn't Always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe
VM: Because it’s all about language – it’s about mistakes that prove that this guy is not the person he claims to be. An American would make very different mistakes from a Russian. By writing this novel I started to write in Belarusian – naturally, at first I made a lot of mistakes. It took a lot of time to write it but by the end I was quite fluent in Belarusian. I found this person in me who is Belarusian-thinking and Belarusian-speaking. I received the Maxim Bahdanovich prize for this book and a lot of good reviews – and I understood that I can write in Belarusian. Stsyudzyoni Vyrai has never been translated into any language, even into Russian, because it’s just too difficult. The book is all about mistakes and bad Belarusian language, which was initially my own bad Belarusian.
MG: ‘Mova’, which you also wrote in Belarusian, was translated into Russian. How did that work?
VM: The translator of the book Lidia Mikheeva decided to keep all the mova fragments in Belarusian – she just provided the Russian translation for all these fragments. We had a lot of feedback from people who were deliberately buying this book in Russian, saying that in Russian this book works even better. Because of this barrier, the difference between Russian and Belarusian. The first time you see the mova fragments, you’re shocked – you say: ‘All right, so this is mova!’ And you are actually getting high, intoxicated by it. Interestingly I had numerous requests from many institutions and plants in Belarus to sign the book for their directors who couldn’t read the Belarusian version. So the Russian version was a big success too. I told Lydia: ‘Wow, your book is more popular than mine!’ And now the book is being translated into German – I really look forward to seeing how Thomas Weiler will do it because he will have to stick to one language. I think he will want to work with dialects of German to express these mova fragments.
MG: Could mova, that is Belarusian language, be dangerous for the regime today?
Just in Case! Polish-Language Tips for Intermediate Speakers
VM: It’s not about being dangerous to the regime. I can easily imagine Lukashenko speaking Belarusian. He can – and it’s not dangerous for him. It used to be dangerous in the 1990s when we used to have a strong national front. But we don’t have this any more. Lukashenko is the only one there and Belarusian is not dangerous for him – but he still hasn’t overcome this fear that Belarusian was causing in the 1990s.
MG: You said at the meeting in Warsaw that the whole revival of the Belarusian language is in a state of decay right now. What should one do to keep it alive?
VM: Five years ago, speaking Belarusian was a political statement, saying ‘I speak Belarusian’ meant that you were politically involved... But it’s bad motivation to speak a language just to show off. Today it’s more about fashion. Young people in creative business, PR, copywriters, also film directors, musicians – all of them have been speaking Belarusian because it’s fashionable. But fashion is also a very weak motivation. Fashion comes, fashion goes. What we are experiencing right now is the decaying of fashion.
I think the key approach for us is to create a lot of products which would help to glue people to the language. For us intellectuals and writers, it’s important to create good products in the Belarusian language – we should create more interesting texts in Belarusian, more interesting Belarusian movies, etc.
MG: By ‘products’, do you mean good pop culture?
Wearing Adibas & Fuma: Memories from Growing Up in 1990s Poland
VM: I would like to say ‘We should introduce pop culture rooted in the Belarusian language’, but I’m not comfortable with the concept of ‘pop culture’ anymore. We live in a world where the Venetian festival’s jury is headed by Quentin Tarantino – so, the most elite film festival is judged by the most pop film director. Isn’t it a sign that the arrogant concept of ‘pop culture’ is running out of time? So, I think Mova can be treated as an extreme example of pop culture, since its about Chinese triads and the armed hunt for the words of a forgotten language, but, at the same time, it can be treated as something deeply intellectual.
MG: What are you working on right now?
VM: Well, I’m finishing my fifth novel, it will be quite simple in terms of the plot, as simple as say David Lynch’s Straight Story. It will have a narrative about a girl who is getting older in contemporary post-Soviet cities, the set is Minsk, Moscow and Vilnius. My idea was to create a big panoramic mirror in which every Belarusian could recognise his or her life. And, at the same time, to make this mirror transparent, so that everybody outside Belarus could understand the dramas of the protagonist and laugh a bit with the funny things she’s going through. I think that this text treats Belarus as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s texts treated Colombia.
Victor Martinovich (Віктар Марціновіч) – Born in 1977, Belarusian writer and journalist, author of four novels: Paranoia (2009, written in Russian), Stsyudzyoni vyrai (Сцюдзёны вырай, 2011), Sfagnum (2013), and Mova (2014). His debut novel Paranoia was published in English with a preface by Timothy Snyder. He is assistant professor at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. His academic book on Marc Chagall’s Vitebsk years (1914-1920) will be published later this year by EHU Press .
Interview conducted in Warsaw by Mikołaj Gliński, 8th October 2015
Ponglish Pop: The Phenomenon Of Polish Songs In English