Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess

Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess

Even the Russian author’s most sincere explorations tend toward brutal deadpan satire, cartoonish extremes of violence, comically unsexy sex, and flatulence.


I’ve been waiting for years for Vladimir Sorokin’s second novel, Norma (The Norm), to appear in English translation. It wasn’t published in the author’s native Russia until 1994, a decade after Sorokin finished it, so perhaps there’s hope yet. The book, by all accounts, is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. A small chunk (of the novel, that is) appeared in the first issue of n+1, in Keith Gessen’s translation: A character from the provinces visits the capital and marvels at the quality of the local norm. “It’s so fresh… and soft,” he enthuses. “Ours is all dried out.”

Norma, regrettably, is not alone: Sorokin has written more than a dozen novels, and most of them are unavailable in English translation, even though he’s been publishing in Russian since the old samizdat days and has been widely translated throughout Europe, Japan, and Korea. But the four books of his that have made it onto local shelves are radically diverse—including the Ice Trilogy, perhaps the strangest and most wonderful work of science fiction that this century has yet produced. The most recent among them is The Blizzard, published in Russia in 2010 and now available in a translation by Jamey Gambrell (who also translated Ice and Day of the Oprichnik, both released here in 2011). All four texts exhibit Sorokin’s taste for barbed absurdist excess. Even his most sincere metaphysical explorations tend toward brutal deadpan satire, replete with cartoonish extremes of violence, comically unsexy sex, and a Rabelaisian dollop of flatulence and scat. All of which would get old fast if Sorokin weren’t such an extraordinary writer—a brash, Swiftian ventriloquist whose best work spars ably with the Russian greats of the last century and a half. His loyalties can be surprising, but usually he stands alongside naughty Sologub over earnest Solzhenitsyn, helping Gogol kick Tolstoy into a snowdrift, then tickling him while he’s down.

Sorokin’s gifts have not been universally appreciated. At home, he has long been tarred as a scandalmonger and, even worse, a postmodernist. In 2002, followers of a pro-Putin nationalist youth group constructed a giant papier-mâché toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and commenced to symbolically flush copies of Sorokin’s 1999 novel Blue Lard. The offending work depicted an erotic encounter between a clone of Stalin and one of Khrushchev. The joke went badly—or, perhaps, very well indeed. The Moscow prosecutor’s office investigated Sorokin for the “illegal distribution of pornographic materials.” His international reputation soared. The charges were dropped.

Curiously, Sorokin has maintained in interviews that his work remained pointedly apolitical until he turned 50, which would have been three years after the Blue Lard affair. The novelist told Der Spiegel an almost surely spurious anecdote, once current in his circle of the avant-garde, that as Hitler’s armies flooded the boulevards of Paris outside Picasso’s studio, the great painter ignored them and focused on drawing an apple: “That was our attitude—you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you.” He may have meant it, but Sorokin’s apple was a rotting, mutant fruit that for all its grotesqueness reflected the distorted and frequently ridiculous realities of Soviet life more accurately than the official realism could manage. Being apolitical in Brezhnev’s or Andropov’s USSR meant something different than it did in the West of Reagan and Thatcher, or than it does in Putin’s Russia. If political engagement involved submitting to communally approved narratives, the author of Norma wasn’t willing to take a bite. It’s no surprise that only later, after the dissolution of the Soviet state and the collective identity it had sustained for nearly a century—after, as Sorokin has it, “suddenly, everything, everything, turned to dust”—would the writer discover that “the citizen in me has come to life.”

* * *

Looking back, The Queue, the only one of Sorokin’s pre-glasnost works available in English, seems quite civic-minded by comparison. It may have felt raw and even rebellious when it was first published in 1985—in Paris, not Moscow—but it now reads as frankly tender. It’s written entirely in unattributed dialogue, like listening in on a chattering crowd. Characters emerge from the chaos of voices, all of them waiting in one endless, snaking Moscow queue for shoes, or maybe leather jackets, or perhaps jeans. They gossip, argue, chat about sports and the news and the Beatles, count off, get drunk, fall asleep. (Ten blank pages stand in for a nap.) Some take breaks to dine or make love: 21 pages of blank postcoital slumber follow five of vowel-heavy moans. The queue, that “many-headed caterpillar,” may have been the archetypal institution of Soviet life. It functioned, Sorokin explained in an afterword written in 2008, as “a quasi-surrogate for church,” the social space in which “the collective body” was ritually formed, “pacified and disciplined,” and rewarded with consumer goods and occasional orgiastic release. But the “many-headed caterpillar” is dead. Sorokin sounds almost mournful sometimes.

The sentiment doesn’t linger long. If the collective body fell to pieces, as Sorokin suggests, when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet late in 1993, it’s all the more ironic that the novelist brings back the figure of the many-headed caterpillar in Day of the Oprichnik. This is a very different world than that of The Queue, and a very different book—a vicious, dystopian romp set in the not-so-distant future. A hereditary monarchy has been restored and a high wall constructed to fence off Holy Russia “from the foreign without and the demon within.” The taming of the latter is left to the resurrected oprichnina, an elite corps of loyal czarist thugs established and later disbanded by Ivan the Terrible in the late 16th century. Sorokin’s oprichnik narrator dresses the part in red boots and a gold-embroidered jacket trimmed with weasel fur, but he lives in a Russia that is not far off from Vladimir Putin’s. The oprichniks snort cocaine and speed around town in bright-red “Mercedovs”—Western imports have been banned—adorned each morning with fresh dogs’ heads for hood ornaments.

The plot unfolds over the course of a single day, and it’s a busy one. Sorokin’s oprichnik accepts bribes and fixes shady deals on behalf of the order, visits a soothsayer who warms herself over a pyre of Russian novels—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky burn cleanly—and, when not otherwise engaged, cheerfully rapes and kills the enemies of His Majesty. The caterpillar comes late in the evening, when the oprichnina celebrate the monarch’s announcement of a fresh purge with an exclusive, oprichnik-only orgy. They pop pills, then bond by buggering one another in a long, conjoined chain—their enormous, surgically modified members glowing bright—until, finally, “the caterpillar is ready. It’s complete.” But the night is young, and before they retire they play some more, assaulting one another with electric drills. Thus is the collective body reborn.

The Ice Trilogy, published in a single volume in English, could not have been more different. But then it’s hard to think of any work to which Ice is similar. The premise, delivered deadpan, is that we are a gigantic, cosmic mistake (“we” meaning the earth and especially humans). So learns Bro, the eponymous narrator of the trilogy’s first installment, on a 1927 expedition to find the Tungus meteorite, which fell in eastern Siberia on the day of his birth. The closer he gets to the impact site, the more crazed he gets, until he strips off his clothes, burns the expedition’s barracks, and, setting off by himself, finds a giant hunk of celestial ice (henceforth, “the Ice”) preserved beneath the permafrost. He slips, smashing his chest against it, and awakens to the Music of Eternal Harmony.

In a flash, Bro understands: “In the beginning there was only the Primordial Light,” shining for itself in the void. In joyous harmony, the 23,000 rays comprising the Light created the stars and the heavenly bodies. But they made a mistake: On one planet, orbiting one star, they created water, which in its mutability introduced change into the timeless equilibrium. It made of the earth a mirror that reflected the 23,000 rays, trapping them as incarnate beings, “prisoners of the water and time.” Developing “an enormous tumor called the brain,” they evolved into humans, enslaved by language, growing more and more cruel, devoted equally to self-­propagation and mass destruction. “And the Earth turned into the ugliest place in the Universe.” But Bro is just one of the 23,000 rays. If he can find and awaken the others—by smashing their chests with specially constructed Ice hammers—they can all clasp hands and fix their mistake, erasing the earth and restoring the universe to eternal, empty harmony.

What follows over nearly 700 pages is a history of the 20th century told via the growing Brotherhood of the Light’s mission to distinguish its still-unawakened members from the discardable “meat machines” who populate the earth (which is to say, the rest of us). Like sublimely creepy cultists, the blond and blue-eyed brothers and sisters of the Light insert themselves into positions of power in the Cheka, precursor to the KGB, and later the Nazi SS, the Mafia, and the corporate elite. More disturbing than any of the violence he depicts—and there’s a lot of it—is that Sorokin makes it nearly impossible for a reader not to ambivalently identify with the brotherhood’s goals. Only toward the end does he allow any of the meat machines a voice. In all their coldest longings for a final stillness, Bro and his brethren’s urges are familiar, even intimately held, and basic to every attempt, secular or religious, to escape the pain-filled dynamism and chaos of earthly life: Surely this was all a mistake?

But Ice’s premise allows Sorokin, with a chilly alien eye for human foibles, to trace out the intricate historical ironies that embroider the tragedies of the last hundred years. Here we are, dumb clumps of flesh, exposed in all our baseness. There’s no parsing out the good bits, no clever scheme that might render us fully good or kind or pure. He leaves us no choice but to swallow the entire package—either uncertainty, fragility, and radical imperfection, or a metaphysics of utter nihilism craving release. The key to the endeavor is Sorokin’s unblinking dryness, his near-absolute refusal of any sentiment that might give away his loyalties. They are mixed, I suspect, but mainly fall with the meat.

* * *

The Blizzard is set in a more securely human universe, back in the familiar realm of parable. Still, the void is never far. A doctor sets out on an urgent journey in the middle of a snowstorm. The plot has deep roots in the Russian canon: Pushkin wrote a short story that hinged on a character getting lost in a blizzard; Tolstoy published two. Chekhov wrote one about a doctor riding through a storm to see a patient; further to the west, with more hallucinatory angst than sober melancholy, so did Kafka. But then a blizzard in the days of travel by horse cart was likely a memorable event. The familiar world is suddenly annihilated; the horizon disappears, and the sky, and the posts marking the road. In Pushkin’s version, the snow concealed fate’s caprices: A groom fails to make it to the altar and another man takes his place. For Tolstoy, a blizzard was an opportunity for atonement: A greedy merchant discovers the spiritual power of altruism, then dies. One of the most famous poems by the symbolist Alexander Blok, whose lines provide Sorokin with an epigraph, followed suit: The swirling snow blinds us to history even as we create it, and to the Messiah, trudging along just out of sight. Chekhov’s doctor, watching “white dust that filled all visible space,” isn’t convinced: “What kind of moral sense can you draw from all this?” he wonders. “That there’s a blizzard, nothing else.”

Structurally, if not philosophically, Sorokin’s The Blizzard is closest to Tolstoy’s story “Master and Man,” which it echoes with a savage delight. The district doctor, Platon Illich Garin—his initials spell out the English word “pig”—is nearer kin to Tolstoy’s merchant than to any of Chekhov’s careworn humanists. He’s arrogant, impatient, sporadically abusive. Crouper, the driver he hires to bring him and the precious vaccine he carries to the village of Dolgoye, where an epidemic has broken out, is another recognizable Tolstoyan type: the simple, stoically good-hearted peasant, resigned to every fate. He is Russia in oversize mittens and old felt boots. But Russia doesn’t always fare that well. In Tolstoy’s story, the driver was a cuckold. Sorokin’s Crouper is kind but impotent, and far from bright.

Much of The Blizzard will be recognizable from old novels: the pince-nez worn by Garin, icons and samovars, a warm berth above the stove, distances measured in versts. But this is Sorokin. Anachrony reigns. Relics of Russia’s past mix with a fantastical future, and both stand in for a cruel, uncertain present. The “Red Troubles” and the “distant Stalin era” are long gone, but their language lingers, and not that alone. “The lives of honest workers are in danger,” Garin says, urging on a hesitant Crouper. “This is an affair of state.” Although we never see it head-on, as in Day of the Oprichnik, Sorokin hints at a re-established czardom. They can’t turn back, Garin goes on, because “it wouldn’t be Russian. And it wouldn’t be Christian”—as if those two conditions are once again synonymous. The miller’s house, where they spend a night, is lit by lanterns, “a portrait of the sovereign on the wall.” An archaic double-barreled pistol hangs from moose antlers beside a Kalashnikov. The “radio,” concealed beneath a cozy, is in a fact a hologram projector, but as in the old days, it transmits just three dreary state-run channels.

Sorokin metes out the foreseeable with the absurd, the banal with the fantastic. Gasoline has become a luxury unaffordable to all but a few, so Garin must travel by sleigh. Yet horses are hard to come by in a snowstorm, so he ends up with Crouper’s team of 50 “little horses,” each one “no bigger than a partridge.” They all fit beneath the bonnet of his carved and painted “sled-mobile.” There are “big horses” too, three stories high, and “little men,” like the foul-tempered miller, who is no bigger than the vodka bottle from which his wife nurses him, pouring shots into a thimble as he clambers up her breast. Late in the book, Crouper’s sleigh hits a drift and one of its runners lodges deep in the nose of a giant who, drunk, passed out in the snow and froze where he fell. “Russia…” mutters Garin in disgust.

Again and again, the doctor and his driver lose their way. They ride in circles, veer off into gullies, get caught in drifts. A runner breaks and needs repairing and breaks off yet again. The snow keeps falling and the wind screaming, but Garin’s task can’t wait. The epidemic, we slowly learn, is a nasty Bolivian strain of plague that turns the infected into mole-like zombies capable of tunneling through the frozen earth in search of human prey. “Mole-Paw Syndrome” is the technical term, and the urgency of his mission boosts Garin’s already bloated self-importance. But the night is long, and men and horses of all sizes need to rest. They run into a band of nomadic Kazakh drug dealers who shelter themselves in tents of living felt. Garin accepts a taste of their “latest product,” a weightless, translucent pyramid that induces hallucinations when heated—in Garin’s case, of being boiled alive in a cauldron of sunflower oil as the townspeople cheer his helpless cries. “Brilliant!” he enthuses, and buys two for the road.

No idols are spared: Garin is left reeling in an ecstasy that recalls—and mocks—­Dostoyevsky at his most mystical. “All people are brothers,” the doctor tells a bewildered Crouper. “What a miracle is life!” he goes on. “The Creator gave us all of this, gave it to us unselfishly…. He doesn’t ask anything of us in return for this sky, these snowflakes, this field!” The rapture lasts until their sleigh gets stuck again (another gully), and the little horses catch scent of wolves and become too frightened to proceed. Garin tries to whip them, slugs Crouper, loses hope. “Our life is nothing but a pile of shit,” he concludes, then breaks out the rubbing alcohol for a drink.

I won’t tell you how the voyage ends, except that they don’t make it to Dolgoye. Tolstoy and Blok would have both been let down. No savior hides in this blizzard, nor any non-narcotic path to redemption. There’s only “the snow, the endless snow,” and Russia yawning on. It’s not a void, exactly; it’s not so pure as that. Wandering off alone, maddened by cold and despair, Garin comes across an enormous snowman, two stories high, with cobblestones for eyes. A frost-packed tree trunk protrudes from its middle, “a huge, erect phallus of snow.”

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