BRO’S UT­TER LACK OF HU­MAN­ITY IS SUF­FO­CAT­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field Owen Richard­son

event, which re­mains a peren­nial source of in­spi­ra­tion for au­thors of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. Dis­cov­er­ing a mas­sive me­teor of in­ter­stel­lar ice, which teaches his heart to speak a di­vine lan­guage, Bro sets about awak­en­ing oth­ers by ty­ing pieces of the frozen mass to sticks and beat­ing them vi­o­lently against peo­ple’s chests.

This mis­sion leads Bro and the Brother­hood to take part in some of the key events of the cen­tury: they in­fil­trate the NKVD dur­ing Stalin’s purges, have mem­bers work­ing with Leni Riefen­stahl at Nurem­berg and even res­cue a train­load of Jews from Auschwitz, although only the blond, blue-eyed ones.

By the be­gin­ning of the third book, the Brother­hood op­er­ates one of the largest cor­po­ra­tions in Rus­sia: Gazprom, with an apoc­a­lyp­tic bot­tom line.

The Ice Tril­ogy is a highly idio­syn­cratic work of mimicry. Writ­ten and pub­lished af­ter Ice, but ap­pear­ing be­fore it for chrono­log­i­cal rea­sons in the tril­ogy, Bro be­gins as a 19th-cen­tury bil­dungsro­man in the style of Chekhov or Tur­genev and in­creas­ingly be­comes a new age bi­ble in which ev­ery mi­nor rev­e­la­tion is stressed with ital­ics or cap­i­tal let­ters.

Ice is sim­i­larly bi­fur­cated. Its first half is set amid the crim­i­nal anar­chy of the Yeltsin years and bor­rows El­more Leonard’s clipped style to ex­plore it. Its sec­ond half im­merses us in World War II and the Vasily Gross­man-like first­per­son nar­ra­tive of the Brother­hood’s most im­por­tant mem­ber, Khram, who re­counts her child­hood in Rus­sia’s oc­cu­pied west, her awak­en­ing at the hands of the Brother­hood, and the events of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

This brings us up to date for the be­gin­ning of the fi­nal book, 23,000, which com­bines Tom Clancy-es­que post-9/11 thriller, Spiel­ber­gian block­buster and Pas­cal Laugier’s FrenchCana­dian hor­ror film Mar­tyrs, which sim­i­larly couches a cri­tique of ni­hilism in at times per­versely ni­hilis­tic im­agery.

If The Ice Tril­ogy’s cri­tique is at times un­set­tling, it is so be­cause we spend so much of it in­side the ni­hilists’ heads. Bro is the most dif­fi­cult of the books to get through for this rea­son: in ad­di­tion to Bro’s pro­gres­sive her­metic vo­cab­u­lary, his ut­ter lack of hu­man­ity is suf­fo­cat­ing. This, of course, is the point: the tril­ogy’s end­ing is a wry com­ment on the in­her­ently self-de­struc­tive na­ture of zealotry.

There is a case to be made that the tril­ogy is also a cri­tique of the ma­nip­u­la­tion of government re­sources to ben­e­fit ex­tra-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als. While never men­tioned by name, Ana­toly Chubais, who over­saw the pri­vati­sa­tion of Rus­sian state in­dus­tries in the 90s, ap­pears in the tril­ogy as one of the Brother­hood’s most pow­er­ful mem­bers, and the ICE Cor­po­ra­tion, like the oli­garchs of the Yeltsin years, ben­e­fits ac­cord­ingly.

But Sorokin is equally scorn­ful of Putin’s re­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of those in­dus­tries and the sys­tem of pa­tron­age and per­sonal en­rich­ment that many be­lieve it has led to. Day of the dis­tinct uni­verse, and each chap­ter throws up some new ex­trav­a­gance. The ferry that takes the chil­dren to the main­land, for in­stance, is also car­ry­ing a corpse, which goes miss­ing and which an­other char­ac­ter mis­takes for the ship’s doc­tor. When Peter and his sis­ter get to the main­land things really get out of con­trol.

The plot isn’t es­pe­cially well ar­tic­u­lated and there’s a hec­tic, car­toon­ish qual­ity to the ac­tion that is never vivid or en­er­getic enough to work on its own terms. Any­thing may hap­pen and does, in any old or­der, and Hoeg tends to flub his big scenes: a few pages into the cli­mac­tic se­quence, at an ec­u­meni­cal gath­er­ing in Copen­hagen, he tells us, in pass­ing, that the crowd in­cludes the Pope, the Dalai Lama and the Queen of Den­mark. Wouldn’t you have thought this might have been part of the scene-set­ting?

Nor is the tone much help. Although the Oprich­nik is yet an­other mash-up: Ge­orge Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four and Pier Paolo Pa­solini’s film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom hung know­ingly on the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of Solzhen­it­syn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich. This book is Sorokin’s full-fledged as­sault on Putin and the former se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who helped bring him to power more than a decade ago.

The year is 2028 and An­drei Danilovich Ko­mi­aga is a feared mem­ber of the oprich­niki, the ‘‘ high priests of power’’ of Holy Mother Rus­sia. The coun­try is an Ortho­dox tsar­dom once more. A wall sep­a­rates it from Europe, a multi-lev­elled su­per-high­way con­nects it to China and the East.

The oprich­niki, named for the 16th-cen­tury state-ter­ror­ists loyal to Ivan the Ter­ri­ble, spend their days ex­pro­pri­at­ing the es­tates of sup­pos­edly dis­si­dent oli­garchs, at­tend­ing and cen­sor­ing pageants of tsarist-wor­ship, burn­ing the clas­sics of Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and shoot­ing mind-al­ter­ing phos­pho­res­cent fish into their veins. ‘‘ And thank God!’’

In Rus­sia, Blue Lard (1999) re­mains Sorokin’s most con­tro­ver­sial book. Its in­fa­mous scene in which clones of Stalin and Khrushchev have anal sex while whis­per­ing sweet noth­ings to one an­other led to charges of pornog­ra­phy against the au­thor, though they were even­tu­ally dropped. But that con­tro­versy stemmed pri­mar­ily from Sorokin’s treat­ment of the past: icon­o­clas­tic and deeply con­cerned with the of­ten wor­ry­ing ven­er­a­tion of the coun­try’s to­tal­i­tar­ian record, but not ex­actly the same as spit­ting di­rectly into the pres­i­dent’s eye.

Like Nine­teen Eighty-Four, Day of the Oprich­nik is set in the fu­ture but was writ­ten as a piled-up plot com­plex­i­ties have an arch ef­fect, the book isn’t es­pe­cially funny and Hoeg re­cy­cles his own rou­tines.

Even the most ab­surd plot mo­ments have to some ba­sis in logic if they are not just to seem the prod­uct of the au­thor’s whim. For the jokes to make any sense Peter and Tilte would have to be very dumb, which they oth­er­wise aren’t. Far from it. Peter is a philoso­pher who doesn’t quite sound his age but, then, he doesn’t sound any other age ei­ther: I have found a door out of the prison. It opens out onto free­dom. I am writ­ing to show you that door . . . I’d for­got­ten, while ev­ery­thing had still been bright, to seek to dis­cover what will al­ways en­dure, what can really be re­lied on when it starts to get dark.

Hoeg never bridges the dis­tance be­tween warn­ing against the coun­try’s then-present tra­jec­tory: the book was pub­lished in 2006, two years into Putin’s sec­ond term, and it did seem to a lot of peo­ple that there was no law but the tsar’s. The dis­pos­ses­sion of the oli­garchs re­calls the im­pris­on­ment of Mikhail Khodor­kovsky. The Great West­ern Wall sug­gests the escalation of ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and the West.

Even the ‘‘ State Snarl’’, the siren the oprich­niki’s cars are fit­ted with, which warns any­one ahead of them that it’s time to pull over, has its present-day ref­er­ent: the muchloathed flash­ing lights, or mi­galki, of the civil ser­vice, which uses them with near-crim­i­nal ar­bi­trari­ness to avoid road rules, with some­times fa­tal re­sults.

As Ko­mi­aga rapes, steals and mur­ders his way through the chap­ters, his cre­ator sharp­ens the satir­i­cal nib of his cri­tique to a fine, in­evitably ab­ject point: the book’s cli­max —- in more than one sense of the word — is a no­holds-barred as­sault on ev­ery­thing from the cor­rupt he­do­nism of the Rus­sian rul­ing class to the vaguely ho­mo­erotic un­der­tones of Putin’s bare-chested, tiger-shoot­ing im­age.

But Sorokin’s cri­tique of Pu­tin­ism is as nu­anced as it is broadly satir­i­cal. Like the Brother­hood of the Light, the oprich­niki are fa­nat­ics who be­lieve ab­so­lutely in their cause. This not a ca­bal of self-en­rich­ing cyn­ics but a ca­bal of self-en­rich­ing true be­liev­ers driven by a deeply wounded pa­tri­o­tism. That is their tragedy: what they think is sav­ing their coun­try — from en­e­mies in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, as ever — is in fact de­stroy­ing it. the heav­i­ness of Peter’s ru­mi­na­tions and the za­ni­ness of the ac­tion: the dif­fer­ent modes can­cel each other out and af­ter a while the af­fect­less­ness makes it hard to gain any trac­tion on the story.

All the flum­mery is wrapped around ideas about the prob­lem of be­lief in the mod­ern world. The elephant of the ti­tle is faith, and one of the characters makes a dis­tinc­tion be­tween ex­o­teric and es­o­teric re­li­gion. The first is rea­son­able and worldly, while the ad­her­ents of the sec­ond seek to cut them­selves off from the world and their en­closed men­tal­ity leads to ter­ror­ism. There is no rea­son to think Hoeg is not sin­cere in th­ese ideas. What’s pe­cu­liar is why he thought this silly story might be a good way to drama­tise them.

The de­spised Rus­sian queue, iron­i­cally, was a source of com­mu­nity val­ues; op­po­site page, Vladimir Sorokin

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