Russian shocker

Russian shocker

Literary nook

Russian shocker

One thing you can say about novelist Vladimir Sorokin: He has the hair of an honest-to-God, old-school Russian sage. It radiates in luxuriant white waves around his unlined face, suggesting that he has emerged — half-monk, half-lion — from the sun-dappled glades where Tolstoy once walked.

Beyond that, though, readers in the West will have to let go of whatever expectations they attach to the term “Russian novel.”

Sorokin, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, has spent decades puncturing those expectations, typically by confronting the reader with shocking (but, I am sorry to report, unforgettable) visions of violence, cannibalism and scatology. Called upon to address the sanctified role of the novelist in Russian culture, he once responded: “I do not overrate literature as such. For me, it is just paper with typographic signs.”

It should not be necessary to point out, given that response, why it has sometimes been tricky to introduce his novels to an English-speaking audience. Like many of his peers during the years after the Soviet collapse, Sorokin largely dispensed with moral uplift, marshalling his virtuosic talent with language to create a world devoid of heroes. This path culminated in a savage little fairy tale about Vladimir V Putin’s Russia, Day of the Oprichnik, which suddenly, and for the first time, positioned Sorokin as a direct combatant in Russian politics.

His admirers in the United States are hoping that an English translation of Day of the Oprichnik by Jamey Gambrell will provide an opening for Sorokin, 55, who is already popular in Germany and Japan. This spring, two American publishers released translations of his novels on the same day, and Sorokin appeared at the PEN World Voices Festival ( in New York City, discussing his work with the novelist Keith Gessen. This concerted roll-out — as well as a broader effort to make contemporary Russian authors available to English-language readers — feels like an experiment for all parties involved.

“There used to be a simple story about Russian literature, that we thought the good writers were the ones who opposed the regime,” said Edwin Frank, the editor of NYRB Classics, which published Sorokin’s novel, Ice Trilogy in March. “Once we don’t have that story about Russia as a competitor, or an enemy, it was much less clear to us what we should be interested in.”

In person, Sorokin is diffident and thoughtful; a former stutterer, he releases words into the air around him, as carefully as a cashier counting out change. In the 1980s, when his writing began circulating as samizdat in Moscow’s avant-garde circles, the central mystery was how such violent material could originate in such a polite young man.

“It was as if an icon painted by Andrei Rublyov from time to time threw up on worshipers,” Pavel V Pepperstein, an artist, told the magazine Afisha. Using an uncanny ability to mimic language, Sorokin would lull readers into a reminiscent trance, sometimes by imitating beloved Russian writers. Then he would pull the pin out of the grenade.

‘The Start of the Season,’ a short story first published in 1985, follows two hunters stalking their prey over quiet, folksy conversation, until it takes a jarring turn: the bait they are using is a recording of Vladimir S Vysotsky, the singer worshipped by Russian intellectuals, which brings a man galloping through the woods. They shoot him. And then, over quiet, folksy conversation, they gut him and eat his liver.

This pattern was well established by the time Sorokin published the novel Blue Lard, which featured a scene in which a clone of Khrushchev sodomises a clone of Stalin. It was for this scene that a pro-Putin youth group, Moving Together, filed a complaint against  Sorokin on the grounds that he was disseminating pornography.

One day in 2002, a friend called Sorokin to tell him that a huge toilet bowl had been erected outside the Bolshoi Theater, and that the public was invited to throw his books into it. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” Sorokin said recently in a Moscow apartment as spare and white as a hospital room.

But his amusement gradually turned into something like dread. One day a workman rang his doorbell and said he had an order to fit Sorokin’s windows with prison bars; another time he opened his door to find a sack of his own books, each stamped with the word “pornography,” he said. State prosecutors opened a case against him for disseminating pornography, which could have brought a prison sentence of up to two years. (The charges were dropped.) It became harder and harder for him to write.

 “In the end,” he said, “I got in the car with my wife and drove north” to Estonia, where he lived in the woods for a month.

Though it is impossible to establish cause and effect, Sorokin went on to unleash a frontal assault on the government. After labouring for five years over the esoteric science-fiction epic Ice Trilogy, he spat out Day of the Oprichnik in a month, he said, like an uninterrupted stream of bile. It depicts Moscow in 2028, sealed off from Europe by a Great Wall and ruled by a latter-day Ivan the Terrible, who is protected by Oprichnik, the black-clad secret police tasked with eliminating Ivan’s enemies.

The book follows one Oprichnik through his workday of rape, arson and murder, much as Solzhenitsyn followed the prisoner Ivan Denisovich through a day in the Soviet gulag.
In an interview a few months after the book was published, Sorokin described a growing feeling of social obligation. “As a storyteller, I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical,” he told the magazine Der Spiegel. “This was one of our favourite anecdotes: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was 50. Now the citizen in me has come to life.”

The book also reached New York, where Mark Krotov, an assistant editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, had been watching for a Sorokin book suited for American audiences. Despite its fantastical premise, Krotov said, Day of the Oprichnik didn’t come off as a literary stunt, but as a distillation of what Russia has become in the era of Putin.
Late in 2008, Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced that it would publish the book. (Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Kotkin said it “comes across almost as extended performance art in its evocative rituals and bizarreness.”)

As he got ready for his trip to New York, Sorokin said he realised that Americans might view him as something familiar: the earnest dissident-writer. This seems strange for a man who, 20 years ago, called literature “pure aesthetics, like pictures or pottery” and reading “a curious process which tickles the nerve endings and gives some sort of pleasure.” But now, he said recently, he is ready — tentatively — to admit it: He would like his work to change things.

“Maybe I have a desire to change things, but I right now do not much believe in it,” he said. “I believe there is some irreversibility. What is happening now is not stagnation, it is destruction, it is collapse. It’s a form of the collapse of a state. And you know — how can you affect that?”

“I fulfilled my duty,” he said. “I wrote down what was happening.”