Howling Soviet Monsters

Tony Wood

  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
    NYRB, 694 pp, £12.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 59017 386 2
  • Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
    Farrar, Straus, 191 pp, $23.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 374 13475 4

In Vladimir Sorokin’s novel The Queue, one of the protagonists is struggling with a crossword: ‘1 Across – Russian Soviet writer.’ Suggestions come from people next to him in the long line that is the book’s setting and subject – Sholokhov, Mayakovsky? – but are rejected, because neither fits both adjectives at the same time. When Sorokin wrote The Queue in the 1980s, these adjectives – always in tension – could still sit together in a handful of cases (the answer settled on is Gorky); but since then, they have been severed from each other by the watershed of 1991, and now represent distinct historical epochs, as well as two separate literary cultures.

Sorokin has the rare distinction of having been an enfant terrible in both of them. He was born near Moscow in 1955 and became active in the literary and artistic underground of the late Brezhnev era. The Queue, his first book, was published in Paris in 1985. Since then he has been prolific in a variety of genres – stories, novels, plays, screenplays, an opera libretto – but he is best known in Russia for attracting the disapproval of the Putinite youth movement Walking Together, which claimed his novel Blue Lard was pornographic. In 2002 its members staged a protest in central Moscow, helpfully handing out leaflets reproducing the offending passages – among them a sex scene featuring Stalin and Khrushchev – before ceremonially throwing copies of the book into a giant papier-mâché toilet. The legal charges filed against Sorokin were eventually dropped, but the episode confirmed his status as provocateur-in-chief of contemporary Russian letters.

His career began in the mid-1970s, when he entered the circle of the Moscow Conceptualists. At a time when Western conceptual artists were responding to the imagery and language of a commercialised mass culture, their Soviet counterparts appropriated the slogans and monumental art of an official culture that, by the time of the Brezhnevite ‘stagnation’, had been hollowed out into a set of ideological clichés. In the work of Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, stock Soviet phrases and symbols appeared as signs floating free of any real referent: the bombastic letters bestriding the sky in Bulatov’s large canvases (‘Glory to the CPSU!’), or the rows upon rows of white rectangles that comprise Komar and Melamid’s ‘Quotation’, where we don’t even need to see the words to recognise a deadened formula.

Sorokin’s early texts were displayed at Conceptualist exhibitions and circulated among friends in the form of typescripts or tape-recordings. He shared the Conceptualists’ attitude to the official Soviet idiom: in a 1987 interview he declared that ‘I feel acutely that I can’t be inside this language, because to be inside it, to use it as mine, means that I’m inside this state – and that’s something I’ve always feared.’ The appeal of Conceptualism was that ‘in principle the conceptual artist doesn’t have his own language – he only uses the language of others.’ Sorokin takes this idea to dazzling formal extremes in The Queue, which consists entirely of unattributed lines of dialogue, ranging from full sentences to brief exclamations. After the first few exchanges, individual voices become clear, and characters emerge: the main protagonist, Vadim Alekseev; stern Lena, whom Vadim chats up in the queue; the suave writer she runs off with; some bickering older women; a drunk or two; a small boy called Volodya; and the generous Lyuda, with whom Vadim finds sexual and spiritual comfort at the end. What exactly everyone is queueing for is never established – American jeans, Turkish or Swedish jackets, some sort of footwear? – but they stand in line diligently for at least a day, shuffling en masse and in order into a canteen to eat lunch, and then over to some benches for the night (the book includes several dozen blank pages to represent periods when everyone is asleep). The formal conceit sets up some good sight gags, mostly deriving from repetition: a sex scene is rendered almost entirely by alternations of ‘– Haa …’ and ‘– Ahh …’, while a full 30 pages are taken up with a roll-call in which typically Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian or Central Asian names succeed one another, in a microcosm of the multiethnic USSR:

– Vlasina!
– Yes!
– Mamedov!
– Yes!
– Kruzenshtern!
– Yes!
– Travchenko!
– Yes!
– Kazakova!
– Yes!

The whole book is an impressive piece of ventriloquism, a careful rendering of the differences of tone and register that distinguish people from one another. Sorokin has spoken of his queue as a ‘polyphonic monster’, but his sympathy for the frustrated participants in this quintessentially Soviet experience is plain.

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