Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bitter Truth or Sweet Lie? Sorokin’s Sugar Kremlin

Which do you prefer: bitter truths or sweet lies? The characters in the stories of Vladimir Sorokin’s Сахарный Кремль (The Sugar Kremlin) have lives with a little bit of sugary sweetness and lots of real-life bitterness. Sugar Kremlin takes place in an authoritarian Russia, circa 2028, and Sorokin links the stories in his book by placing a sugar model of the Kremlin in each sketch.

Like Sorokin’s День опричника (apparently to be translated by FSG as A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik) (previous post), Sugar Kremlin combines futurology with a return to the oprichnina, religious rules and rites, and archaic language. Oprichnik is narrated by an oprichnik who also appears in one story of the newer book, but Sugar Kremlin spreads the action over 15 stories with diverse characters who experience awful things: caning, prostitution, and other indignities. According to Sorokin’s literary agent, Galina Dursthoff, Sorokin calls the characters a “Greek choir.”

Of course so many stories in a 340-page book with large print and lots of white space means there’s not much room to develop the singers’ characters, but that’s not Sorokin’s purpose anyway. The book is concept stuff, and much of it retraces familiar ground from previous Sorokin books: back-to-the-future language, secretions, sex, mind-altering drugs, folk tale motifs, linguistic breakdown, and a story named after a Sorokin novel (Очередь/The Line). There’s even a novel method for prostate massage.

I see the point of most of the stories – young prostitutes serving an oprichnik or a dwarf passing gas in the presence of a certain image seem obvious – but Sorokin’s accounts of bodily functions have lost the ability to shock, surprise, or otherwise make me react beyond a shrug. I’ve only read several of his books – Ice, Oprichnik, The Blizzard, Sugar Kremlin, and a few stories – but Sugar Kremlin felt like another day at the office, a rehashing of old tropes. One reader on wondered (as did I) if Sorokin threw together Sugar Kremlin to fulfill a book contract. Time Out Moscow said the book felt like the outtakes that appear on a director’s cut DVD.

The sweet lie side of the story is, of course, the sugar Kremlins, which first appear as a gift to children at Christmas, given at Red Square in the presence of the sovereign himself. The Kremlins appear in the subsequent stories, often in unusual ways (okay, like during sex), giving the book an adult “Where’s Waldo?” flair. People suck on their sugar Kremlin towers, infusing a few moments of pleasantry into lives filled with rural drudgery, forced labor, and interrogations.

Sugar Kremlin read quickly so I did finish it. I don’t have what I’d call favorite stories but two of the first pieces – about Marfa, a girl who gets sent out on a shopping expedition during the winter holidays, and then an interrogator who tells a story about a (furnace) poker – were among the most interesting, though that may be partly because my patience wore down as I read the book. One other: I thought the story about the dwarf, who performs for high-level officials, had more depth than most. Even taken together, though, Sugar Kremlin felt cursory and reductive, considering the themes Sorokin borrows from other books.

What’s most frustrating is that I liked the sugar Kremlins as a device, but it felt like Sorokin was forcing his Greek chorus to recite his old material again, as a reshuffled reprise. I wish he’d let some of his characters bust out with something newer that would have added more depth to his concepts.

Translation watch: Sugar Kremlin has been translated into German and rights have been acquired for several other languages, though not English.

Level for nonnative readers of Russian: 4/5, quite difficult because of archaisms.

Up next: Two detective novels by Leonid Yuzefovich, and Nikolai Maslov’s graphic novel Siberia. I’ll be starting a Big Book finalist mini-binge (three books) soon. [Edit: Oops, that's two Big Book finalists and one Booker longlister...]

Photo credit: Jade Gordon via


  1. It's too bad about Sorokin; he's a brilliant writer, but seems to have turned into a one-trick pony.

    (Thanks for enabling the Name/URL possibility!)

  2. great review! I love you how you balance likes and dislikes without giving too much away. The 'where's Waldo' remark made me spill my coffee! LOL

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments!

    Languagehat, yes, it's too bad his writing has already started to feel so repetitive: as I mentioned, I haven't read nearly all of it. Most discouraging is that I liked Oprichnik a lot, so this one really felt like a potboiler. I'm planning to read the second book of the Ice trilogy soon... we'll see how that goes. And no problem on the "enabling"!

    Amy, I hope the coffee didn't make too much of a mess! I'm glad you like the balance: sometimes it's a challenge to try to keep things interesting without providing too much details.