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June 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Shock Jock of Russian Letters

On Vladimir Sorokin
Collage by Matthieu Bourel. Source photograph © Thomas Laisné/Contour/Getty Images

Collage by Matthieu Bourel. Source photograph © Thomas Laisné/Contour/Getty Images


The Shock Jock of Russian Letters

On Vladimir Sorokin

Discussed in this essay:

Their Four Hearts, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton. Dalkey Archive Press. 204 pages. $17.95.

Telluria, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton. New York Review Books. 352 pages. $18.95.

Early in Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s first feature film, 4, a man pretending to be Vladimir Putin’s personal bottled-water supplier, a piano tuner (played by the lead singer for the famous Russian rock band Leningrad), and a prostitute who might be the product of a secret Soviet cloning experiment walk into a bar. From there, the 2004 film descends into debauchery and post-socialist grotesque: the insatiable greed of Moscow’s nouveaux riches has led to an illicit meat-selling operation that involves decades-old frozen beef; elsewhere, a group of clones live in abject squalor, the detritus of a failed utopia.

I screened 4 as part of a series on new Russian cinema when I was in graduate school; halfway through, during a scene in which a hoard of babushkas goad someone to perform cunnilingus on a doll, an audience member ran out of the room in tears. This is not an uncommon response to the work of the film’s screenwriter, Vladimir Sorokin, widely considered the preeminent Russian novelist of the post-Soviet era. Sorokin’s fiction—rife with over-the-top violence, sexual exploitation, and depictions of anti-Semitism—is disorienting, shocking, and for many impossible to stomach. Employees at the Russian publishing house that put out his early novel Their Four Hearts—a text that involves, among other things, a boy sucking on the severed glans of his father’s penis—are said to have staged a walkout. Larissa Volokhonsky, known, with her husband Richard Pevear, for her translations of nineteenth-century Russian classics, said of his 1999 novel Blue Lard: “It was the only book I ever asked to be removed from my house. I said, ‘Take it back, rid me of its presence.’ ”

Though Sorokin has been active in underground literary circles since the mid-Seventies, the scandal around this last book catapulted him to the international stage. In 2002, Blue Lard, which features a sex scene between clones of Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin, became the belated target of a moralistic pro-Putin youth group called Moving Together. The group lobbied for pornography charges to be brought against Sorokin, and publicly destroyed copies of the novel, stuffing pages into a makeshift toilet outside the Bolshoi Theatre. These antics were seen by some as symptomatic of a new energy sweeping the country, a nostalgia for the sanitized national culture of the Stalin era. Now legible as an author in tension with a political regime, Sorokin became, in the eyes of the global marketplace, a real Russian writer, part of the country’s long tradition of literary dissidents.

It’s hard to imagine someone more at odds with the revanchist traditionalism of the Putin era than Sorokin. He is a relentless iconoclast: from world leaders to war heroes, no one is too hallowed to be depicted in flagrante, or covered in feces, or both. In the early days of his career, other artists were struck by his fearless toppling of Soviet iconography. In fact, his impulse toward disobedience created something of a rut for him in the chaotic mid-Nineties under Boris Yeltsin: when everything is permitted, there is nothing to transgress. Thanks to Moving Together, he found celebrity, but also renewed purpose, becoming one of Russian letters’ most outspoken critics of Putin in both fiction and non-fiction. His broadsides, perhaps unsurprisingly, are heavy on bodily fluids. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he wrote an op-ed for the Guardian warning readers: “His goal isn’t Ukraine, but western civilization, the hatred for which he lapped up in the black milk he drank from the KGB’s teat.”

Nonetheless, Sorokin has demurred at the label of political writer. He has described writing as “a game” and literature as “just paper with typographic signs.” This is perhaps a bit coy. In truth, his work has a politics, but one that manifests primarily at the level of form: his aim, in both his early and late work, is to estrange the archetypes, plots, and styles he believes have been used to prop up false idols or legitimize hollow ideologies. This is a practice with venerable antecedents in Russia. One of the most subversive aspects of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) was that it technically adhered to the tenets of socialist realism: Solzhenitsyn depicted a worker engaged in physical labor. His heroic productivity just happened to take place in a labor camp. In a similar vein, Sorokin’s early stories might begin in a register conforming to the conventions of state-approved style, pastiche-like, before exploding in a chaotic finish, body parts strewn among the debris. In Ice Trilogy, Sorokin took sci-fi—a genre the Soviets used to depict Communism as a technologically advanced utopia—and told the story of a violent mystical cult that blends in seamlessly with the secret police. His novel Roman (2004) begins in a nineteenth-century realist style reminiscent of Ivan Turgenev before its hero embarks on a murderous rampage, debasing the form to rebuke the post-Soviet intelligentsia’s nostalgia for the time of the tsars as a kind of lost era of Russian gentility.

This year, two new translations of Sorokin’s novels will be published as the first in a series of eight being brought out by Dalkey Archive Press and New York Review Books. In April, Dalkey released Their Four Hearts, an absurdist tale of four people who all adhere to socialist realist archetypes (among them a Stakhanovite and a World War II veteran) and carry out various demented missions, ranging from decapitation to an avant-garde performance involving a wooden cube. In August, New York Review Books will publish the more recent Telluria (2013). Also appearing in English for the first time, Telluria is a work of fifty loosely connected vignettes set in a dystopian future ravaged by holy war between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. Russia and the West, laid low by these neo-crusades, have disintegrated into small city-states (California and Moscovia are now sovereign nations), and an air of medieval disorder prevails. Stylistically, the chapters are wildly diverse: One consists of a sermon that unfolds in a single sentence, and blends Old Church Slavonic, Soviet jargon, and capitalist marketing lingo. Another satirizes cheerful, man-on-the-street TV broadcasting, as a host goes live from a European capital celebrating its bloody defeat of the Taliban.

The two books belong to distinctly different phases of Sorokin’s career. The first is from a Sorokin still writing in the mode of underground artist, one who got his start pecking away at the absurdities of a political system from its edges, writing in samizdat or for émigré journals abroad. The Sorokin of Telluria is a world-renowned, commercially successful author, seen as a vital bulwark against Putin and everything he stands for. Yet in both, we see Sorokin’s remarkable consistency, his unyielding obsession with language and rhetoric, his skirmishes with the aesthetic forms that have bolstered repressive regimes, first under Communism and now capitalism. Much like Vladimir Nabokov, he is a student of literary language, or rather how it can be perverted in the wrong hands. If, as Humbert wrote, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” then Sorokin expands the pantheon of villains who—armed with the correct tropes—can write themselves into heroes. As he degrades the conventions of genre, Sorokin lays bare an ugly truth about literature: there is no form that can contain humanity’s impulse for violence and disorder without breaking apart at the seams.

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Sorokin was born in a small town called Bykovo, just outside Moscow, in 1955. His family soon relocated to the nearby industrial enclave of Gazoprovod (“gas pipeline”). The young Sorokin, whose father was a metallurgy professor, felt ostracized by his more authentically proletarian classmates. “Punching me in the face was considered good entertainment,” he says, recalling a time he went into a bathroom and was beaten up so badly he felt like he’d been blinded. Through blood and tears, he spied a sign on the windowsill asking people not to throw their cigarettes in the toilet: “After you smoke, leave it in the trash; don’t let it make a splash.” There was an unmistakable absurdity in the juxtaposition of this rhetoric—espousing the values of cleanliness and order—with his bloodied state. For the future novelist, who would go on to trace what he considered the libidinal urges behind such rhetoric, this violent expression of class antagonism clearly left a lasting mark.

While still in university for engineering, Sorokin became part of a loosely constituted underground artistic movement known as Moscow Conceptualism. Fittingly, for someone now famous as a writer of the grotesque, Sorokin was introduced to the group by his dentist. “I have a friend who does these weird paintings,” she said, before offering to introduce him to Erik Bulatov. Bulatov and the painter Ilya Kabakov were part of a group of “unofficial” artists who worked outside the confines of state-sanctioned art. Their work drew from the favored tropes of socialist realist art, scenes that valorized the collective or praised the physical fitness of their citizenry (made robust by hard labor and nourished by the fruits of the collective farm). Bulatov’s and Kabakov’s inversions of such themes evoked a somber and meditative mood that emphasized the persistence of loneliness against the backdrop of compulsory communalism. Other Conceptualists adopted a more humorous posture, treating the protected subjects of socialist realism with comical disregard. Inspired by Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s ironic embrace of American mass culture, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid inserted brands such as Coca-Cola into High Stalinist tableaus. They called it Sots Art, a Soviet equivalent to Warhol’s snappy moniker.

Though the movement was largely dominated by visual artists, there was a smattering of poets, most famously Dmitri Prigov. Prigov, who trained as a sculptor, liked to turn his poems into objects, penning verses on tin cans or writing them in books he stapled shut. Sorokin decided to apply the principles of Sots Art to prose; he used the settings, character types, and plots of socialist realist novels such as Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1936) and Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925), and then distorted them beyond recognition—or even comprehension. An early short story, “A Business Proposal,” begins with a meeting of a student-run newspaper, in which the staff debates whether to run an article about a geological expedition. Showing the ins and outs of a collective endeavor was a common feature of socialist realist stories; the hoped-for effect was that such tales would offer readers a kind of blueprint for cooperative governance and problem-solving. In Sorokin’s version, the editor tries to bribe a staff member with various favors—first sex, then, when that fails, the face of a dead man in a plastic container.

The mysterious substance is a frequent motif in Sorokin’s work. In that way, Telluria, which takes its name from a drug the characters have hammered into their brains with a nail, will sound familiar to readers acquainted with Sorokin’s first book of prose, The Norm (written between 1979 and 1984). The first section of The Norm unfolds through hazy vignettes set against various scenes characteristic of Soviet life. At some point in each story, a character takes their daily ration of “the norm,” a substance implied to be human excrement, still warm. The officiality with which the characters imbibe the norm evokes the disconnect between party rhetoric and the reality of life under Leonid Brezhnev: namely, its shittiness. When one of Sorokin’s friends first read The Norm, she told him the government was obliged to execute the author of such a text. “That,” Sorokin said, “was the highest praise.”

The Norm established Sorokin as a provocateur, a shock jock of late Soviet letters. While his work was banned at home, Sorokin was able to publish abroad. His first novel, The Queue, came out in France in 1985 with Sintaksis, the press of dissident writer Andrei Sinyavksy. The novel took the mundane story of Soviet citizens waiting in long lines to purchase goods, and placed it within an ecstatic, avant-garde prose experiment made up of unattributed dialogue and lines shouted by seemingly random members of the crowd (though characters do eventually emerge—there’s even a love triangle). Whole pages are left blank, as the queue extends for so long that people fall asleep. The Queue is something of an oddity among his works; for one, as the book’s English translator, Sally Laird, noted, “no one is raped, murdered, or eaten.” Why the sudden optimism? Partly, it’s that the queue, though emblematic of dysfunction, was also a site of free speech: one could complain, discuss the supply chain, and openly long for more.

By the late Eighties, Sorokin began to enjoy a modest amount of acclaim among the Russian-speaking literati, both at home and abroad. During the glasnost years, his writings circulated more freely, and he emerged as a gem of the era, uncovered thanks to Mr. Gorbachev. Their Four Hearts, written in 1991 and published in 1994, dates to this period, and is decidedly a product of its time, concerned with the absurdities of Soviet rhetoric, its emptying of meaning through slogans and stock narratives. Written amid the demise of a system that Sorokin despised, The Four Hearts reads like a novel by a hack party writer being deprogrammed in real time.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Sorokin largely abandoned novels and started tinkering with screenplays. In 1994, he told the journalist David Remnick that he found himself struggling to adjust to the expectations being levied on Russian writers. Audiences were looking for another iteration of the Russian writer as solemn moral guide through turbulent times. In the nineteenth century, that image was crystallized in the bearded figure of Leo Tolstoy, who spoke out against the greed and corruption of the Russian gentry and the war in Japan. In the Soviet era, literary dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky solidified the notion that to be a Russian writer was to take a stand against something, anything.

Sorokin had avoided politics as a matter of principle. “As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical,” he told Der Spiegel in 2007. One of the group’s favorite anecdotes was that as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat still and drew apples. In an ecosystem where political themes were imposed by the state, to rebel was to look away, to look inward—to draw apples. Once, in Zurich, Sorokin told Remnick, after he had chosen to read selections from some of his typically absurdist stories, an audience member grew upset, telling Sorokin that he had expected “hope” from a Russian writer. “I had no idea what this meant,” Sorokin said. “For me, literature is a game.”

That all began to change in the years following the publication of his novel Blue Lard and the subsequent charges of disseminating pornography. As news of the debacle spread internationally, Sorokin’s status as one of the most significant voices in post-Soviet Russia began to take shape. Efforts to make his work available in English started to ramp up. In 2007, Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy appeared in English in a brilliant translation by Jamey Gambrell. Its first installment, Bro, begins in 1908 with the impact of the Tunguska meteorite in Siberia. A luminescent icelike liquid is mined from its remains, then used by a group called Brothers and Sisters of the Light in a quest to locate the yet-unawakened members of their blue-eyed tribe of twenty-three thousand. Using an ice hammer, they break into the chest; if the heart begins to speak, they’ve found one of their long-lost brethren. If not, the ordinary human, or “meat machine,” gets tossed aside. The sect acquires power in the new Bolshevik government; being an agent of the secret police is, it turns out, a great way to get access to people’s chest cavities.

The trilogy confounded critics with its hodgepodge of mysticism and Aryan symbolism. The scholar Marina Aptekman has argued that the novel is partly a parody of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that proliferated in Russia in the Nineties, which often charged that the failures of the Soviet state, or even its very incarnation, were part of a Jewish plot. At one point, a character suggests that the ice itself was an “invention of kike Freemasons,” adding, “They want to get us all hooked on it, and when we turn into retards they’ll bring in fucking UN troops and aim their guns at the Kremlin. And we’ll all be speaking English.” Ice also undoes the Soviet mythos of man triumphing over nature, particularly in the Arctic, that tends to appear in science fiction. In Sorokin’s trilogy, it is the Brothers and Sisters of the Light, ethereal beings made of ice, who impose their will over man.

If the political subtext of the trilogy was opaque, then Sorokin’s point of view in his follow-up novel, Day of the Oprichnik (2006), could not have been clearer. The novel, which takes place in 2028, shows Russia cut off from the West and ruled by a tsar who oversees a ruthless band of oprichniki. The term is a reference to the oprichnina, the secret police of Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible. Their symbol, recreated on the cover of the first Russian edition, combined the head of a dog with a broom—the first to sniff out traitors, the latter to sweep them away. In Sorokin’s tsardom, these ruthless henchmen now drive around Moscow in red “Mercedovs” made in China, and the narrator, an oprichnik named Komiaga, has as his ringtone the sound of someone being whipped to death. After the oprichniki gang-rape the wife of a nobleman, Komiaga says: “This work is—passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state.” For all its relentless violence, it is strangely Sorokin’s most readable novel, thanks in no small part to its translator, Gambrell, who conveys the bawdy, picaresque quality that made the original an irreverent classic.

Sorokin has made no effort to mask the novel’s contemporary relevance. In an interview, he said, “The Khodorkovsky case is typical of the oprichnina—the system of oppression I describe.” Here he was referring to the trial and imprisonment of the Russian oligarch and erstwhile rival to Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was finally released in 2013 after ten years in jail for charges of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement that many believe were politically motivated. Religious hypocrisy and the complicity of the church are also key themes in the novel. Sorokin is merciless in his depiction of the Russian Orthodox Church as a willing participant in the regime’s policies. “That’s why His Majesty built this magnificent Wall,” one of the oprichniki explains, “in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers.” Similarly, this year, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, voiced his support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine under the pretext of religious outrage, accusing the West of trying to corrupt Russian loyalists in the Donbas with gay pride parades.

After decades of downplaying the political valence of his work, Sorokin said he was compelled to speak out by what he saw happening to his country. “Frankly,” he told Bomb, “I just can’t stand to breathe this stale totalitarian air anymore.” Sorokin remains a staunch critic of the Putin regime, but in his most recently translated novel, the challenging and ethereal Telluria, he takes aim at targets that are not unique to Russia, including religious fundamentalism. The novel contains hyperbolic images of Islam, presumably meant to mock the language of Islamophobes. At one point, an Islamic crusader chants:

O ye beautiful and weak women of Europe, ashamed to give birth, but not ashamed to do the rough work of men. May you tumble over backwards and let forth lingering cries when the hot seed of valiant Mujahideen flows into your wombs like lava.

This image of a world ravaged by crusades is also Sorokin’s way of satirizing the philosophy of neo-Eurasianism as propounded by the far-right thinker Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin, who has become a uniting force for fascist groups well beyond Russia (Steve Bannon has cited him as an influence), has called for the creation of a Eurasian empire rooted in Orthodox Christianity and “traditional values,” and has often expressed a fascination with the Middle Ages. Some have argued that the Western media overstates Dugin’s influence on Putin (he is frequently referred to as “Putin’s brain” by American journalists). However, in Telluria, ably translated by Max Lawton, Sorokin offers thinly veiled references to Putin, in which he accuses him of presiding over the Russian state’s disintegration amid holy war. “This toiler of the fall,” says a visitor to Moscovia in a letter home, “talked constantly about the revival of empire, while doing everything he could to make the corpse land successfully.” Elsewhere, in another chapter, two teenage girls go to a park with their grandmother to visit monuments devoted to “three great knights” who slayed a three-headed dragon: their country. The first head of the dragon was the Russian empire (demolished by Lenin), the second the USSR (brought down by Gorbachev), and the third the Russian Federation. In its ashes, as the Russian state has “fallen to pieces,” a new ruler sends out a call for suggestions on a new “national idea” to hold the body politic together, eventually settling on Russianness and more specifically language: “our great, noble, and correct Russian language.” (A year after Telluria was published, Putin annexed Crimea on the pretext that he needed to defend the Russian-speaking people who lived there.)

Telluria incorporates dramatically different literary styles. Alongside these more politically charged chapters, there is a fantasy tale involving drug-pushing dwarves and a rewriting of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—“I saw the worst minds of my generation torn out of black madness by tellurium.” Sorokin’s interest in form becomes less about genre and more about registers of speech; he inserts elements of Old Church Slavonic to imbue the setting with its medieval atmosphere, but also to show a language that should hold the highest authority—a religious one—being mangled by political opportunists, warmongers, and the simply deranged.

Telluria, in its formal eclecticism and beautiful strangeness, reads like a microcosm of Sorokin’s chaotic and genre-spanning career. His disorienting prose forces the mind to react—to focus, to sharpen—and urges us to be on guard against revered forms and the literary conventions of authority. His work reminds us that when people in power talk shit, it is the rest of us who have to eat it.

 is a contributing essayist at The New York Times Book Review.

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June 2022

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