Russia's Enfant Terrible: On Vladimir Sorokin

It’s not the first time that Russian literature has, like Russia itself, emerged from isolation to find itself lagging behind Western developments. Decades after the surrealism and excesses of capitalism were taken up in Western literature, free market fiction arrived in Russia in the '90s, ushered in largely by Vladimir Sorokin—dark horseman of the ’80s underground, inserter of casual cannibalism into wholesome literary formulas, and purveyor of other shocks to the nervous system of Homo Sovieticus. In Sorokin, Russia found its Pynchon. This year, the US has found Sorokin. In addition to headlining the 2011 PEN festival, two US publishers—New York Review Books and FSG—are introducing his work to an American readership.

A now-notorious provocateur, Sorokin earned his dissident cred with his 1994 novel The Norm, in which Party members eat a daily serving of an unnamed “warm, brown, and not delicious substance.” Four more books followed in the ensuing six years—including one that got him charged as a pornographer for a gay sex scene involving Khrushchev and Stalin clones—and Sorokin spent the ‘90s as a wry observer of Russia’s frenzied transition to a free market economy. While, like Pynchon, he avoided interviews and publicity for the first half of the decade, Sorokin morphed into a public figure during the second half, dressing as Batman for a glossy magazine cover, and taking cameo roles in movies for which he had written the scripts.

As Russia began to evolve into something more authoritarian (and thus more familiar) under Putin, Sorokin found himself facing the conundrum that has challenged Russian authors from the czarist through Soviet eras: Should he withdraw into introspection and satire, or cast his lot with the intelligentsia-led opposition and become politically committed? Sorokin chose the latter, returning to his role as a dissident while maintaining his affinity for the absurd. Now, published simultaneously in English, are two books that characterize both of his literary impulses. One, The Ice Trilogy (2002-2005), is an apocalyptic futurology rooted in the present; the other, Day of the Oprichnik (2006), is a depiction of the future as it devolves into the patterns of the past.

The 700-page Ice Trilogy is a pulpy, new-age-inflected genre mash-up, a sci-fi alternative history of the twentieth century as seen through the ice blue eyes of a maniacal cult of blond supermen intent on “reawakening” the hearts of their sleeping brothers. To do this, they mine ice from the crater caused by a mysterious meteorite that struck Siberia in 1908 (the "Tunguska event," a real-life occurrence that still inspires adventurers, occultists, and conspiracy theorists) and fashion it into hammers. The meteorite’s strike is invoked as the beginning of a century-long quest to transform cult members into rays of light that would bring about the apocalypse.

The book, a mix of millenarian concern and the usual sci-fi influences, falls in the the “loose, baggy monster” category of Russian novels long ago dismissed by Henry James. Powered by Sorokin’s meandering geekiness, Ice Trilogy provides original interpretations for world historical events (the cult uses the Soviet purges as cover for kidnapping blue-eyed potential converts) before careening into modern-day Moscow, home of a brisk black market that traffics in illegal ice. Ice Trilogy is an expression of Sorokin’s disgust with social mores in the first half of Putin’s neo-imperial premiership, and it marks the author's heady plunge into nihilism before his return to more politically engaged work.

The Day of the Oprichnik, published a year later, finds Sorokin at his most historically astute and socially engaged. Set two decades in the future, after the restoration of the monarchy, Russia has withdrawn from the rest of the world, starting with a bonfire of passports in front of the Kremlin. Melding the Russian state under Ivan the Terrible with the behavior of the Kremlin, the book centers on the Oprichniks, a cadre of virulently patriotic and ruthless secret policemen, as they protect the interests of the state within the state.

We follow senior Oprichnik Andrei Danilovich through a typical day of defending the new-old order with details of sumptuous (but folksy) meals and hedonic rituals, massive consumption of drugs (heroin is legal, psychedelics are not), extortion, and torture. He jet-sets around the empire solving taxation issues, dines with the czarina, and holds forth on her “Jewish problem.”

Throughout, the ever-watchful eye of the all-powerful state is given its due. Though our protagonist twice denounces the genre of cyberpunk, it’s clearly Sorokin’s guiding principle here. Oprichnik is a technocratic take on older forms of barbarity: The torture rack and the whip coexist with the ray gun and the holographic thought bubble; the electronic seal of state is surgically embedded in each person’s palm.

Both books are translated by the indefatigable Jamey Gambrell, a feat all the more impressive given Oprichnick’s pastiche of pre-revolutionary figures of speech, slang, and discordant Russian-mobster argot. Despite the occasional infelicity, Sorokin’s language comes through in translation, and Gambrell captures the contradictions between old-world restriction and rapacious self-indulgence. The czar has outlawed profanity (making exceptions for army commanders and executioners), but his enforcers still have filthy mouths and thoughts. Following a long day defending the Russian State and cleaving a wayward aristocrat to pieces, these enforcers participate in a cyberpunk-inflected gay orgy. Even at his most politically engaged, Sorokin doesn’t—can’t—entirely abandon his desire to needle the values of the moral majority.

Sorokin’s fiction both draws upon and stands up to the farcical situations he observes in real Russian life, which are often far stranger than anything most novelists could concoct. And Russia—a country that has produced western literature’s most mournful satires—probably won’t stop presenting Sorokin with political nightmares and brutality anytime soon. As the author ruefully predicted at the concluding event of the PEN Literary Festival in May: “Russia will provide enough of the grotesque to write about to last at least the remainder of my lifetime.”

Vladislav Davidzon is a Russian-American writer, poet, translator, and trouble-maker living in Paris.