Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vladimir Sorokin's "Ice" Capades

Probably the most famous statement in Russian literature about ice is “Лёд тронулся.” It translates roughly to “the ice is moving” and indicates progress, advancement. Who said it? A conman, Ostap Bender of Il’f and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs.
The more I think of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Лёд (Ice), the more I think of Ostap Bender: Sorokin’s Ice is more con than novel.

Ice chronicles the activity of certain blue-eyed, blond-haired people who search for others that look like themselves. When they find them, they bang on their chests with icy hammers. Some hammerees respond by speaking their “true” names through their hearts; they are rehabilitated. The rest, the “empties,” are left to die.
There are many layers to the book that I won’t detail, lest you, too, get sucked into this slippery mess and want to discover its core. Be ready: Ice may max out your capabilities for the willing suspension of disbelief.
Sorokin divides his book into several stylistically dissimilar sections that he links with the ice motif. The first part of Ice takes place in contemporary Russia, and the heart hammerers resemble a Russian criminal group. This part of the book is brutal, at least in the Russian original, with so much gratuitous and graphic violence, swearing, sex, and other ickiness that many readers may want to abandon the novel.
Why did I keep reading? For one, I wanted to finish the book to get a feel for why Sorokin has caused so much controversy. One lesson learned: Sorokin’s love for writing about bathroom-related topics made it obvious why Putin’s youth group Walking Together (Идущие вместе) used a toilet to collect Sorokin books during a protest.
Still, I have to, grudgingly, give Sorokin some credit: he has a decent sense of timing and knows how to manipulate the reader to finish a book. Just as the violence and abuse in Ice became too much, Sorokin shifted his narrative. By this point, it was too late for me to put the book down because my interest was piqued. Would the book get better? Were the hammerers an Aryan cult? What did the heart have to do with everything? Or anything? Would I send my copy of Ice to Russia for a flush?
I finished and kept it. The book calmed down some but didn’t exactly improve, meaning that, unfortunately, the answers to the other questions are murky. In terms of meaning, Ice is as empty as the heartless victims of the hammer, and I won’t consult the other installments of Sorokin’s trilogy for further clarification. Once is enough, thanks.
One positive: as Ice progresses, Sorokin rather cleverly shows the group altering its operations to fit societal changes, operating under KGB cover during the Stalin years and later distributing ice hammers for home use.
The biggest reason I don’t want to finish the trilogy is that there’s nobody to care about in Ice. Whether the hammerers are good or bad forces in the world becomes a moot point because they feel as icy as their hammers, despite allegedly speaking with their hearts.
Although Sorokin has said that this is his first book where content is more important than form and that he believes the book is about the search for a lost spiritual paradise rather than about totalitarianism, I can’t buy his supposed sincerity. Ice is about a utopian abstraction, not real people.
That leads to another problem. Ice also feels, to me, like a confused and ambiguous statement about the Soviet past, where another perverted utopian abstraction took precedence over real people. Like the Soviet regime, the hammerers abuse their power to lead a chosen few toward the promise of a bright future, meanwhile pounding at the chests of the less fortunate masses, whom they condemn to death and ignomy. It’s an odd form of compassion.
Somehow, it seems fitting that my copy of Ice is flawed: the book’s innards are glued upside down inside the cover. Perhaps even the publisher isn’t sure which end is up. Paging Ostap Bender…
Summary: Not particularly recommended except as an insight into what some Russians are reading these days. Ice, a combination of melodramatic kitsch, science fiction, and pop philosophy, is a book that gets under your skin and reads quickly if you get hooked in. Not for the faint of heart (sorry) or those impatient with postmodernist manipulation of genre or readers. The translation looked quite decent in spot checks, though the first section seemed overly colloquial. Jamey Gambrell’s English-language translation of Ice was published by the New York Review of Books in the icy depths of January 2007.

PDF of Ice, Chapter One

Ice (New York Review Books Classics) on Amazon


  1. While I don't really agree with your review (in the interest of full disclosure, I work for the publisher), I appreciate your thoughtful discussion of it. It looks like you've also started on The Slynx, but aren't wild about it either. You should check out some other books of russian lit we have coming out: Platonov's Soul and Other Stories, and Serge's (ok, it was originally written in French) Unforgiving Years. The second, esp. is very diff. from either of the two books you mention. Sorry for the plug, but I couldn't resist.

  2. Thank you, sarajill, for your note and for mentioning upcoming NYRB books from Russian writers. Please feel free to let me know about news of other books.

    For readers' reference: the introduction and afterword of the Platonov book are available in PDF format at:

    One of the stories in the collection appeared in "The New Yorker":