Nuanced critique of nihilist Russia
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