By Daniel Kalder
At the London Book Fair earlier this month, Russia was featured as Guest of Honor. Nearly every Russian writer of distinction was in attendance, save for one: Vladimir Sorokin. It’s no surprise, since anyone who has followed Sorokin’s career knows he has hardly been one to follow the crowd. Yet this weekend, Sorokin will appear twice in New York as part of the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival, first at 4:30 EST in conversation with Keith Gessen and then at 7 p.m. as part of a staged reading with Hungarian film and theater director Kornel Mundruczo. It will be his American debut.
Why? On March 15th, two books by the Russian author were published simultaneously in the US: his satirical 2006 “novelette” Day of the Oprichnik (FSG) and the 700-page historical-metaphysical-science-fictional epic Ice Trilogy (NYRB Classics). Until now scarcely available in English, Sorokin’s sudden exposure is long overdue as he is probably both the most acclaimed and the most controversial author in Russia today, hailed by critics as a ‘living classic’ even as his subject matter — violence, coprophilia, violence, rape, violence, aliens, violence, clones and more violence — takes the tradition of Russian grotesque into areas Gogol or even the Stalin-era absurdist Daniil Kharms never dared venture.
Experimental, humorous and prolific, Sorokin is a cultural phenomenon, composing not only novels and short stories but also plays, film scripts and even a libretto for the Bolshoi Theater (it was about clones, in case you’re wondering). But will Anglophone audiences accept — or even make sense of — the provocative fictions that have transfixed and appalled Sorokin’s own countrymen?
A Career in Controversy
Vladimir Sorokin was born in 1955. After pursuing an education in engineering, he worked as a book designer while establishing a reputation in Moscow’s artistic underground. His first novel, The Queue was published in Paris in 1983: it consists entirely of dialogue uttered by citizens standing in a line, “the quintessential Soviet experience.” An English edition came out in 1988, a year before any of Sorokin’s work appeared in the USSR. Aside from a few fragments in the magazine Glas, it would be eighteen years before Sorokin saw print in English again, with NYRB Classic’s 2007 publication of the middle volume of The Ice Trilogy.
During this interval, Sorokin had built up a considerable body of work. He revels in the collision of styles and genre and his books mirror in microcosm the process in the 1990s whereby the Soviet floodgates opened and Russian culture was all at once overwhelmed with hitherto forbidden voices and ideas, whether violent, trashy, pornographic or elitist. Sorokin co-opts this chaos into his texts, blending it with styles from the Russian canon. A gifted mimic, he frequently juxtaposes radically contrasting registers. In The Thirtieth Love of Maria for instance, the heroine enjoys a series of pornographic encounters until she joins the communist party, at which point the rest of the book is rendered in the langue bois of Soviet bureaucracy.
In the 1990s Sorokin developed a fruitful relationship with Ad Marginem Press, which in 1999 published the novel Blue Lard. Four years later the pro-Putin youth group Moving Together took offense at the scene in which clones of Stalin and Khruschev have sex, and erected a large toilet in front of the Bolshoi into which stout-hearted young patriots tossed copies of Sorokin’s books. Author and publisher were charged with obscenity, but the charges were dropped and Sorokin seems only to have benefited from the notoriety. He now works with bigger publishers; he wins prestigious prizes; he writes a blog at a website owned by a billionaire; and in 2005 I watched in amazement as the enigmatic, bearded ‘literary monster’ participated in a corny hidden camera show on Russian TV.
Out of Whose Womb Came the Ice?
Sorokin wrote ICE, the middle volume of The Ice Trilogy first. “The idea came to me in Japan,” he told a Swedish interviewer in 2008, “…where I was teaching Russian language and literature. It was a very hot July, and that was how I started thinking about ice. When I had written the novel, however, I was sure that it was already finished… But it wouldn’t let me go.”
The Ice Trilogy is the story of the sentient Light that created the planets and stars but accidentally trapped itself on earth when it was refracted in the water that covers our globe. Now the Light sleeps inside the hearts of 23,000 blond-haired and blue eyed men and women. These hearts can only be awoken if hammered upon with ice hammers crafted from a meteor that landed in Siberia in 1908. The vast majority of hearts do not contain light, but the Brotherhood of the Light regards the hammer-induced deaths of “meat machines” with complete indifference. Their goal is to awaken all 23,000 hearts, after which the world will dissolve in Light.
A bizarre blend of science fiction and New Age metaphysics? Maybe. But The Ice Trilogy also draws deeply upon Russian history. Indeed, some of Sorokin’s most fantastic ideas reflect things that actually happened. The Tunguska event is well-known, although it was not — as far as I am aware — celestial ice that destroyed large tracts of Siberia. The 23,000 members of the Brotherhood, who are practically sexless but commit acts of extreme violence against the body, recall the Russian religious sect the Skoptsy, which sought to castrate 144,000 people in the belief that this would bring about the dissolution of the world. Like the Brotherhood, the Skoptsy attempted to assume control of the Russian state in order to further their aims during the reign of Alexander I, the sect’s leader actually converted members of the Tsar’s court; in Sorokin’s novel the Brotherhood ensconces itself in Stalinist, Nazi and post-Soviet hierarchies.
Sorokin sheds literary skins repeatedly as he moves through epochs, countries and narrators. The first part of the trilogy initially reads like a memoir of Russia’s Silver Age. Then the narrator’s heart is awoken and the voice becomes increasingly alien, as Sorokin describes the Light’s developing self awareness. This shifting between alien and human, contemporary and historical, personal and depersonalized is repeated throughout the trilogy to great effect — we hear the voices of whores, Nazis, aliens, gangsters, a retarded child and a bizarre mole man among many others–as the author leads us to the inevitable, catastrophic climax.
The Ice Trilogy ultimately transcends its many genres, reading like a strange, secret history of the 20th century, with the Brotherhood functioning as a metaphor for the totalitarian elites who viewed the rest of humanity as mere chattel to be disposed of as they pursued their visions of paradise. However nothing is quite so straightforward in Sorokin’s world. For then comes the ending which flips everything on its head, as Sorokin takes the reader beyond metaphysics, satire and historical inquiry and quite unexpectedly answers the Biggest Question of Them All. Or is this simply another layer of genre, of illusion, of metaphorical complexity?
As Long As the Oprichniks Are Alive, Russia Will Be Alive
Day of the Oprichnik (from the same translator as The Ice Trilogy, Jamey Gambrell) is a satirical attack on Putin’s Russia. This degree of political engagement marked a radical change for Sorokin, who in 2007 told Der Spiegel:
“In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist…. I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: As German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.”
The title comes from the Russian word oprichnina, which refers both to an era of repression, violence and terror presided over by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and the state within the state he established during this period. Oprichniki were Ivan’s elite secret police: dressed entirely in black and wearing long beards, they tortured and killed for the Tsar. In Sorokin’s future oprichnina a new Tsar has re-established the oprichniki and built a Great Western Wall to keep out foreign influences — well, not quite. Reflecting a very real anxiety in Russia today, the Russian East is heavily populated by the Chinese, who make everything the Russians use.
Oprichnik is a frequently hilarious portrait of an immensely corrupt, stagnant, inward looking, paranoid police-state. The “hero” spends his day raping, torturing, murdering, extorting bribes, and acting as government censor; however he also gets high, carries out secret missions for the Tsarina, and then… well, I won’t reveal the ending. Interspersed throughout is intentionally bad doggerel, archaisms, and verse poetry that the translator makes valiant but not always successful efforts at rendering into English.
“In Russia,” Sorokin told Der Spiegel, “No-one is surprised when an official accepts a bribe while at the same time portraying the state as some sacred entity to which the bourgeois should pay homage.” This contradiction lies at the heart of the book. The Oprichnik really does love Russia; he really does believe that his depredations are necessary for the country’s survival. He is villain and patriot and buffoon.
Or is he? While FSG’s publicity for Oprichnik portrays Sorokin as the literary nemesis of the Kremlin, the fact remains that he can publish a scabrous portrait of the modern Russian state as a criminal kleptocracy run by drug fiends, idiots, murderers and rapists and win acclaim from his peers at home and abroad. The Masters of the Kremlin may tightly monitor the mass media, but they are shrewd enough to know that Russia’s religious reverence for the printed word is dead. Who knows? Perhaps the Tsar himself has read Sorokin’s book — and laughed.