Nu­anced cri­tique of ni­hilist Rus­sia

The Queue

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field

IN the lead-up to the March 4 Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which Vladimir Putin won in a land­slide amid al­le­ga­tions of fraud, For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine pub­lished an ar­ti­cle by Thomas de Waal ti­tled How Go­gol Ex­plains the Post-Soviet World. ‘‘ How about skip­ping the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence text­books when it comes to try­ing to un­der­stand the former Soviet Union and in­stead open­ing up the pages of Nikolai Go­gol, An­ton Chekhov and Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky?’’ de Waal wrote.

‘‘ Th­ese clas­sics, each more than a cen­tury old, pro­vide . . . the spe­cific de­tail and the grand panorama that are lack­ing in a shelf full of over­mod­elled po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis.’’

The prob­lem with de Waal’s thought ex­per­i­ment, which did the rounds among Rus­sia watch­ers, was not that the Rus­sian clas­sics don’t help to ex­plain the post-Soviet world. It was that con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian fic­tion helps to ex­plain it even bet­ter.

Not that there has been much of an op­por­tu­nity for English-lan­guage read­ers to ben­e­fit from th­ese ex­pla­na­tions. Very lit­tle new Rus­sian fic­tion — be­sides the Agatha Christie-like de­tec­tive nov­els of Boris Akunin — has been trans­lated.

It’s pleas­ing to note Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, which last year was voted the best Rus­sian book of the decade, was pub­lished in English ear­lier this year. But while ex­tracts from his and other writ­ers’ work can some­times be tracked down on­line, badly but lov­ingly trans­lated by am­a­teurs, Rus­sia’s most il­lu­mi­nat­ing re­cent fic­tion con­tin­ues to go un­read in the an­glo­phone world.

Even Vladimir Sorokin, Rus­sia’s most cel­e­brated writer since Solzhen­it­syn, has been trans­lated only in piece­meal. From an oeu­vre of 14 nov­els, 10 plays, seven screen­plays, dozens of short sto­ries and a li­bretto, the Soviet Union’s enfant ter­ri­ble of samiz­dat con­cep­tu­al­ism and post-Soviet Rus­sia’s el­der states­man of icon­o­clas­tic pornog­ra­phy has had only five of his nov­els — three if you count The Ice Tril­ogy as a sin­gle book — and a hand­ful of his short sto­ries trans­lated.

But to the ex­tent that th­ese five books may be taken as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the au­thor’s out­put, it be­comes im­me­di­ately clear that he has as much to say about his coun­try to­day as any of the au­thors who pre­ceded him.

With The Queue, The Ice Tril­ogy and Day of the Oprich­nik, Sorokin, 57, has made it his mis­sion to in­vent the per­fect metaphor for each new in­car­na­tion of the Rus­sian soul and By Vladimir Sorokin Trans­lated by Sally Laird New York Re­view of Books Clas­sics, 280pp, $26.95 By Vladimir Sorokin Trans­lated by Jamey Gam­brell New York Re­view of Books Clas­sics, 704pp, $24.95 By Vladimir Sorokin Trans­lated by Jamey Gam­brell Far­rar, Strauss & Giroux, 191pp, $32.95 to ren­der it in the most ap­pro­pri­ate, of­ten ex­pertly im­i­tated, lit­er­ary form.

The Queue takes the old adage that im­i­ta­tion is the mother of in­ven­tion and ex­tends it to an al­most ab­surd de­gree: the book con­sists en­tirely of unattributed frag­ments of di­a­logue be­tween the mem­bers of the mother of all queues.

There are characters, some of whom we feel we come to know quite well, and a plot, al­beit a thread­bare one: as thou­sands line up for some un­known prod­uct, one man suf­fers a se­ries of mi­nor hard­ships and even­tu­ally leaves with­out buy­ing any­thing. But Sorokin al­lows him­self none of the de­vices that usu­ally make a novel a novel. There is no over­rid­ing nar­ra­tive voice, om­nipresent or in the first per­son. There are no ac­tion lines, as in a stage play, or even char­ac­ter names be­yond those that come up in con­ver­sa­tion.

Our sense of time and space de­pends en­tirely on what the peo­ple in the queue are talk­ing about or — in the case of 10 and 22 page clus­ters of blank space — aren’t talk­ing about be­cause they’re asleep.

Which is not to say The Queue is lit­tle more than a lit­er­ary par­lour game, ei­ther. The mar­riage of con­tent and form here is as per­fect as it is ab­so­lute. Sorokin’s con­cern is not the queue per se but what the queue makes, or made, pos­si­ble: the col­lec­tive body. The Soviet queue was where the rit­u­alised sub­li­ma­tion of one’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity into the or­dered mass was at its most com­plete. In his af­ter­word to this new edi­tion, ti­tled Farewell to the Queue, Sorokin con­cen­trates pri­mar­ily on the dis­ap­pear­ance of this so­cial phe­nom­e­non from Rus­sian life, even go­ing so far as to lament it. ‘‘ Ev­ery de­par­ture . . . pro­vokes nos­tal­gia,’’ he writes. ‘‘ You start remembering things. But not the num­ber on your hand, not the el­bow in your ribs, not the hys­ter­i­cal cries: ‘ Only three per per­son!’ You re­mem­ber other things. Pleas­ant things.’’

But the text it­self har­bours no such nos­tal­gia: the line here is to be seen as a mun­dane but per­va­sive form of so­cial con­trol. Lan­guage serves as the means of re­sis­tance. If the book’s form per­forms the same func­tion as the queue it­self, ren­der­ing its characters a face­less mass, it nev­er­the­less fails to ren­der them voice­less: the man­ners, id­ioms and per­son­al­i­ties of the speak­ers — the in­di­vid­u­als — in­evitably as­sert them­selves. When the book’s pro­tag­o­nist, Vadim, fi­nally breaks away from the queue and finds him­self in a pretty girl’s apart­ment, it is to be con­sid­ered a mo­ral vic­tory. It is only in light of what has hap­pened since the queue dis­ap­peared from Rus­sian life — ‘‘ dis­persed and re­born as a crowd’’, the au­thor writes darkly in the af­ter­word — that this vic­tory be­comes qual­i­fied and the pre­cise char­ac­ter of the queue more am­bigu­ous.

The Ice Tril­ogy — Bro, Ice and 23,000 — con­sti­tutes a counter-his­tory of mod­ern Rus­sia from 1908 to 2005. Its fo­cus is a group of blond, blue-eyed fa­nat­ics, the Brother­hood of Light, who be­lieve them­selves to be the cre­ators of the uni­verse: 23,000 rays of di­vine light trapped in hu­man form as pun­ish­ment for up­set­ting the har­mony of the cos­mos by cre­at­ing a planet as off-kil­ter as this one.

The first of their or­der, Bro, is awo­ken to this es­sen­tial truth on an ex­pe­di­tion to Siberia to in­ves­ti­gate the Tun­guska event on 1908 — the largest recorded comet or me­teor im­pact

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