The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin (trans. Jamey Gambrell). NYRB Classics. 704 pp. $19.95.
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin (trans. Jamey Gambrell). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 208 pp. $23.00.
SOROKIN: MEAT and CLONES
At first glance, Vladimir Sorokin may seem like nothing but a stylistic provocateur. I first heard of him in connection with Blue Lard, an as yet untranslated novel about clones that produce the titular lard (salo) as a byproduct of writing, which is then used for fuel. Salo is associated with an ethic stereotype of the Ukraine, mocked by Russians, while “blue” (голубой) is slang for “homosexual.” The book caused a stir because of passages like this:
“Khrushchev unbuttoned his own pants and took out his long, uneven penis with its bumpy head, its shiny skin tattooed with a pentacle. The count spat in his palm, lubricated Stalin’s anus with his saliva, and, falling upon him from behind, started to thrust his penis softly into the leader.” (tr. Lisa Zigel)
Sorokin’s agenda is clear: the demolition of sacred icons (Putin has endorsed a general movement to reestablish Stalin as the leader of a Russian golden age), blatant attempts to provoke, unerotic sexuality and an emphasis on the grotesque aspects of the flesh, and an hostile, inhuman view of the future. With Blue Lard the provocation was successful: the book was prosecuted as pornographic (the charges were dropped) and ceremonially tossed into a giant toilet by the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together.
The nations of the former Soviet Union have swung between extremes over the last two decades, from the destabilization of perestroika to the corrupt, unrestrained capitalism of the 90s to the recentralized, oppressive control that Putin and Medvedev exert today. The suffering and tyranny of this period and of so much of Russia’s past is Sorokin’s primary subject, and he has spoken out loudly against Putin’s regime, and though this very Russian focus makes him an odd choice for the push he is currently getting from NYRB and FSG, I welcome the translations. There is far more going on under the obscene, visceral surfaces of his books than the controversy would suggest, and his work has an urgency and gravity lacking in the more self-amused fictions of Tatyana Tolstaya and Victor Pelevin.
Day of the Oprichnik, just published in English by FSG,is another willful provocation. It is set in 2028, in a Russia that has moved forward and backwards. The Tsar has returned to rule Russia with the absolute power of the pre-modern years, and with the Tsar have come the oprichniki, a cultish secret militia society that existed under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Now, as then, they are above the law (the only real law is the Tsar), and they ferret out dissidents and punish them with nearly no checks on their power. Crazed with patriotism and power, they pillage, rape, and murder in the name of protecting glorious Mother Russia and the revived Russian Orthodox Church.
Our “hero” Andrei goes on a rampage from the very beginning, breaking into a “dissident’s” house and raping his wife. (The scene is disturbing, but also absurd and not especially graphic. Sorokin does hold back because he does not seek to alienate his readers completely. As his interviews reveal, he is a pessimistic reformer, but not a nihilist.) From there, Andrei careens around Moscow, terrorizing the populace while taking time out to burn books, listen disgustedly to dissident radio rewriting Dostoevsky with nonstop profanity, ingest psychedelic fish, and sing patriotic songs of the unity and necessity of the oprichniki to Russia. His psychotic patriotic froth comes most strongly to life in his fish-induced hallucinations:
I feel the golden starlet swimming inside me, feel how it moves up along my vein, like it does in spring, striving to reach the spawning grounds at the headwaters of Mother Volga. Up, up, and father upward! The golden starlet has a destination to reach—my brain. Swim, oh swim, little fish of gold, rush unimpeded, spray your golden caviar into my tired brain, and may those roe-berries hatch into Worlds Grand, Sublime, Stupendous. May my brain rise from its slumber.
From there he hallucinates that the oprichniki sing a song:
In that far-off country towers stand,
Towers high and higher stand,
Tall, pointy and sharp they are,
Mercilessly buttressing the sky so blue,
And in the towers brazen people live,
Brazen and dishonest they live, they do,
They live with no fear of God they do,
These godless people,
They wallow in filthy sin, they do.
They wallow and enjoy themselves,
Mocking all that’s sacred, all that’s holy, too,
Mocking, jeering, and sneering is all they do,
They hide in Satan’s work,
And spit on Sacred Rus, they do,
On the onion domes of Russia’s Orthodox,
They all defame the golden name of God,
They flout the truth, oh yes, they do.
Alas, I have the sense that the songs and Andrei’s many figures of speech are laden with references that do not translate, so for all of Gambrell’s excellent work, there is much in Sorokin that must be for the ears of contemporary Russians alone.
Sorokin has thought out his world better than the slapdash action might initially suggest; he chooses not to bother with plot or character, preferring to ride on torrents of language and images that get his points across with blunt force. This form suits his goals: Sorokin is very much a moralist, and he is hell-bent on showing that there is no good in Andrei, that his thuggish patriotic fervor is entirely misguided and unredeemable. The novel has a rough arc that climaxes in an egregious, obscene pageant specifically designed to raise the hackles of any Russian nationalist. I won’t reveal it, but it’s pretty good.
In spite of Sorokin’s best efforts, Day of the Oprichnik appears to have failed to generate the outrage that Blue Lard did. Perhaps Putin’s Russia is secure enough that such books pose no threat. Or perhaps it is because Sorokin’s overwhelming intent to provoke keeps the book from having much focus. It seems a minor work.
His stronger works may seem less overtly topical, but they in fact bring his underlying themes out in greater relief; if anything, Day of the Oprichnik takes on greater significance placed next to them. Indications of the bigger picture are evident in the brilliant film 4, scripted by Sorokin and directed by Ilya Khrjanovsky. (They have nearly completed a second film, Dau, to be released this year.) Beginning with a jarring shot of mechanical hammers loudly rousing a pack of dogs, 4 builds on the divide between the organic and the inorganic. It takes cloning as a major theme, hypothesizing a new breed of heartless, perfect Russians to supersede the current, broken models. But the much of the movie is taken up by an extended sequence of old country women holding a wake for one of their friends, who made grotesque human dolls out of stale bread. The crones drink, carouse, disrobe, and tear into huge slabs of meat, even as the clones are said to be coming forward. If it’s not exactly clear what the contrast is supposed to indicate, the movie still has a phantasmagoric impact that made it one of the strongest directorial debuts of the last decade.
That contrast of the clear and pristine with the rotting and fleshy is fully explained in The Ice Trilogy, comprising Bro, Ice, and 23,000, just published in its entirety in English for the first time by NYRB Classics. Sorokin constructs an elaborate mythology for a group of 23,000 beings of light who were trapped on Earth at its creation by the degenerate chaos of water. Imprisoned unknowingly in human forms, which they come to call “meat machines,” they can be awakened to their true nature by being smashed in the chest with a block of ice from the Tunguska meteorite, which devastated a large chunk of Siberian forest in 1908 and has long been of interest to enthusiasts of UFOs and the paranormal.
Bro begins with the birth of light-being Snegirev on the day of the impact. As a human, he is the son of an aristocratic family, and he grows up in sheltered bliss, Nabokov-style, until the Revolution unleashes havoc and he quickly loses his family and all sense of safety. He wanders about for some time, lucky in avoiding the horrors of the times, until he accompanies an expedition to investigate the meteorite and awakens, realizing his true name to be Bro. From that moment on, he has no doubt as to his purpose: he must find and awaken the remaining 22,999 beings so that they may free themselves from this horrible world of pain and suffering. This entails the destruction of Earth and its inhabitants (Earth is an anomaly, the only inhabited world with organic beings), but this is of no consequence. Bro is certain (he is always certain) it will be for the best, not just for the 23,000 but for the endlessly suffering meat machines as well.
From there, Bro’s voice evolves. Italicized words with special significance grow in number, possessing a definitiveness that Snegirev never had. Sorokin’s achievement (and Gambrell’s in her translation) is in capturing the slow evolution from Snegirev to Bro, as his relationships to other people slowly evaporate and escape from both human longings and reason:
We never again trusted our reason alone. Any idea, any endeavor, any job, each of us check first and foremost with our heart. The strength of the heart would show the way. Reason facilitated movement along this path. The strength of the heart nudged reason, stood behind its back. And reason moved, overcoming the world, taking everything needed from it and tossing anything superfluous, anything that hindered us. False fears, uncertainty about the future, worry about the life of our brothers—everything flew away.
By the end of the novel, humans are nothing but pathetic “meat machines,” mere impediments to realizing his goal. Sorokin makes it clear: Bro’s salvation is certainly not ours. We are stuck here among the meat, while the 23,000 have a sexless world of the heart (as Bro insists) that draws them to a greater love, unity, and purpose than we meat machines could ever know. The italics pile up on words like heart, feel, know, and adore, suggesting a vocabulary of words with absolute meanings that we cannot know; when the 23,000 are reunited, speaking the entire vocabulary in unison will end the world and return them to their original, static bliss.
The gap between humanity and an unfathomably superior alien race was a favorite topic of Soviet writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote, among other things, Roadside Picnic, which served as the very loose basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As with Solaris, Tarkovsky took the basic idea of the book and turned it into a spiritual affirmation of humanity; indeed Roadside Picnic is even grimmer than Lem’s Solaris, portraying an incomprehensible alien intervention on our planet that humans then abuse to no other end but abject misery. As Bro says:
Between them there was and could be no fellowship. They were our mistake. We created them billions of years ago, when we were light-bearing rays. Meat machines consisted of the same atoms as other worlds we had created. But the combination of these atoms was ERRONEOUS. For this reason the meat machines were mortal. They could not be in harmony either with the surrounding world, nor with themselves. They were born in suffering and in suffering they left this life.
I believe it is a telling pattern that the Strugatskys, others, and now Sorokin have emphasized that divide between “meat machines” and higher beings, as a sort of acceptance of the failure of the golden ages promised by rulers and ideologies past and present. Sorokin’s ghoulish variation on this tale is to show the elect growing out of humans, losing all care for us in the process. They have only contempt and pity for us, not malice; as with the aliens in Roadside Picnic, we are ants at their picnic. Stalin’s Terror passes by as a surreal annoyance that they have to deal with in order to continue finding their brethren.
The search goes on in Ice. It begins in the chaotic, degenerate Russia of the ’90s, with the Brotherhood still seeking their remaining members. The Brotherhood at this point does not have an easy way to identify their members; they know that they must be blond-haired and blue-eyed, but short of that, the only way to be sure is to smash a candidate in the chest with the special Tunguska ice and see if they awaken. If they don’t, the test tends to kill the subject, in an ironic reversal of the witch trial. Fortunately, no one really notices the deaths next to everything else going on in Russia. Written in a detached staccato reportage with terse but evocative images, the novel tracks a few people in the filth of contemporary Russia—drug addicts, prostitutes—as they awaken and evacuate themselves from their rotten lives. The novel makes an abrupt break midstream to switch into the first-person voice of Bro’s successor, icy and certain, who tells her own story of surviving through the last half of the 20th century in Russia, pursuing the goal of reunification, building on Bro’s narrative in the first volume.
The final volume, 23,000 is a disappointment. Having established the mythology, Sorokin seems bored as he maneuvers a few humans through the motions of discovering the plot and trying to stop it; there is little thematic advancement on what has gone before. As with Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, two other trilogies more about atmosphere than plot, the obligations of a final volume do not play to the writer’s strength. Perhaps Sorokin intended it as some sort of allegory for all of the journalists and dissidents who have met with bad ends in Putin’s Russia while trying to investigate the ruling elite’s sketchier connections, but Sorokin neglects his strengths in driving the plot forward, sacrificing color and imagery for rote thriller action. It is only at the end that he recovers, with an ending that seems abrupt and almost inconsequential, but in fact draws the story to a bitterly apt close.
D.S. Mirsky, in his estimable history of Russian literature, wrote of the contrast between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky:
Tolstoy was a puritan, and Dostoevsky a symbolist. That is to say that for Dostoyevsky all relative values were related to absolute values and received their significance, positive or negative, from the way they reflected the higher values. For Tolstoy the absolute and the relative are two disconnected worlds, and the relative is in itself evil. Hence Tolstoy’s contempt for the meaningless diversity of human history, and Dostoevsky’s eminently historical mode of thinking. Even in their most purely spiritual form, his problems are not concerned with an eternal, static, and immutable law, but with the drama that is being played out in human history by the supreme forces of the universe.
This is a popular received view and certainly can be contested, but what’s important is the two different strains of thought identified here. Sorokin’s vision can best be summed up by combining the two. Humans are indeed playing out a relative drama, but it is relative to an absolute, just one that is completely off-limits to us. Even Tolstoy’s Christian asceticism is not sufficient.
In contrast to Christianity’s vision of individual redemption, the Communists proscribed religion and instead pushed a vision of collectivist uplift by which the entire population would raise itself to a great state. This changed the terms of a bit, since the notion of transcendence was now a collective one rather than a struggle for each individual within him- or herself. Whether the model is secular or not is a secondary issue. Both are concerned with eschatology, the promise of a deliverance from absurd suffering.
Satires and critiques of the collectivist mindset existed even before the Bolsheviks came to power, in works like Zamyatin’s We (1921), and continued through to proscribed works like Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1930) and the satires of Dovlatov. Sorokin’s tactic is to make the collectivist uplift real. The science fiction content of his works, as well as the ever-present idea of an oblivious, privileged elect, be it the clones or the Brotherhood of Light, gives transcendence a concrete place in his work. The elect, however, are never “us.” He is ironically delivering on the promise made by Leon Trotsky in one of his visions for the Soviet Union:
What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man — that is the future task of Communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.
Sorokin creates the final product, only to show that it is not us by definition. These others—the clones, the Brotherhood, even the deluded vision the oprichniki have of themselves—lack what we would call humanity. Yet they paradoxically also seem to lack malice, at least in the personal sense. The oprichniki are so drunk on patriotism that Andrei can’t work up anything resembling a personal relationship with anyone. The vision of Mother Russia dominates him as much as the vision of returning to light dominates the Brotherhood. He just lacks the purpose that they have.
So Sorokin connects Communist tyranny back to prior, more individualist forms of tyranny. The idea of individual Christian salvation is a corrupting, tyrannical dream as much as any collective, nationalist salvation. By this he explains the continuity between the Communist era and Putin’s current reign, revealing the ideological and spiritual specifics to be window dressing.
Russian literature, and indeed much of the literature of the Christian tradition, historically draws a strong line between the spiritual and the physical. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in different ways, both evangelized a vision of a physical asceticism serving an inspirational Christianity. Contrariwise, the dissolute characters of Goncharov, Shchedrin, and Sologub have a grimy physical presence that lowers them even further. Yuri Olesha perverted this divide in his brilliant, surreal work Envy.
Despite his obsession with the filthy viscera of humanity, Sorokin seems more inclined to reify the distinction by reclassifing the human as exclusively physical. The spiritual exists, but we are not a part of it. The filth is what constitutes the human, and the filth encompasses the mental as well as the physical. The Brotherhood is as contemptuous of humans’ emotional neuroses as of their futile sexual reproduction; both are parodies of genuine spiritual connection.
But the complete exclusion of humans from that other realm makes all our qualities, even the good ones, just so much meat. That is to say, Sorokin wishes to affirm humanitarian values over the bloodless apotheosis of the Brotherhood, but lump those virtues inseparably with the wretchedness of humanity, so that there is no pride in the affirmation. This is his own asceticism. The origins of our virtues come in our lack of purpose, in our being meat machines that are free of any possible salvation or telos. Any spiritualism, any pretense toward an eschatology, is a disease. The affirmation of human virtue comes only in the absence of having any transcendent reason for it. Otherwise the virtue only serves an ulterior motive.
The ending of Oprichnik, which I still don’t want to reveal, gives a farcical quality to the term “meat-machine,” one great pathetic lurch at the profound that looks absurdly pompous and indulgent to anyone outside of it. The utter delusion of the oprichniki—their conception of themselves as some sort of Brotherhood—is best captured in a single subdued moment in the dead-center of the book, where Andrei nervously asks a fortune teller a momentous question, only to have his engorged fantasies deflated:
“What will happen to Russia?”
She doesn’t answer but looks at me carefully.
I wait with trepidation.
“It’ll be all right.”
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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