BRO’S UTTER LACK OF HUMANITY IS SUFFOCATING
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