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

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grossman’s Mysterious Everything Flows

It’s never easy to write about unfinished books, and the difficulty multiplies when the book is as serious in subject and diverse in form as Vasilii Grossman’s Всё течёт (Everything Flows): Grossman writes about history, freedom, and Soviet prison camps, incorporating a combination of fictional characters and essay-like passages. The main narrative line in Everything Flows concerns Ivan Grigorievich, who is released from prison after 30 years, but Grossman interrupts Ivan’s story many times to describe and illustrate aspects of Soviet totalitarianism.

I admit: I get frustrated when a book moves so much between different types of narration. I admit: I didn’t read all the portions on history very carefully. And I’ll also admit: I’m one of those ridiculously stubborn readers who gets used to a character and then wants to stay with him or her. And Ivan’s story is compelling. Grossman shows us, with heartbreaking details large and small, Ivan’s awkwardness as he returns to “everyday” life outside the camps. He doesn’t fit with the parquet floor and chandeliers at his cousin’s apartment, and he feels that both he and Leningrad have changed. Though life outside the camps is frightening, he prefers freedom.

Grossman also tells of wives imprisoned for refusing to denounce their husbands. And a woman Ivan lives with tells of her experiences during the Ukrainian holodomor. Grossman makes their stories so immediate and poignant that I didn’t want to leave them, either. Robert Chandler, who translated Everything Flows for New York Review Books with Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan, says in an interview with Book Serf that there is something distinctive about Grossman’s “vivid” selection of details. Those details – as varied as protruding lower teeth, Ivan’s job in a locksmith workshop, and the whitewashing of walls in houses where people died during the holodomor – result in writing that is both lyrical and documentary.

The long passages about Lenin, Stalin, and freedom, and a sketch composed of dialogue held my interest far less than the purely fictional chapters, despite Grossman’s choice of subjects: informants, Lenin, Stalin, and what they did to the Soviet Union. Toward the end, Grossman stresses that human history is the history of freedom.

The book cohered for me, rather mysteriously, in its last two pages, when Ivan returned to his father’s home. Somehow, all the disparate pieces and figures in Everything Flows ended up melding into something bigger, probably because Grossman’s conclusions about humanity and freedom were so movingly generous in acknowledging human flaws that they left me with a lump in my throat.

Everything Flows is, like Life and Fate, (previous post), not an easy book to read, and it’s probably obvious that I don’t feel very comfortable writing about it, but I think the fictional passages alone make it worth reading. Readers who prefer nonfiction might say the same about the passages about history.

Level for Nonnative Readers of Russian: 3/5, medium difficulty.

For more:

“Anti-Socialist Realism” on

A review of Everything Flows from The Guardian

Also: The Road, a collection of Grossman’s fiction and nonfiction, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova, will be available from New York Review Books in late September 2010.

Next up: Vladimir Sorokin’s Sugar Kremlin, then two detective novels by Leonid Iuzefovich.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where the Grass Isn’t Greener: Rubanov’s Chlorophyllia

The publisher of Andrei Rubanov’s Хлорофилия (I’ll call it Chlorophyllia) makes a pretty big promise on the novel’s back cover: “Эта книга взорвет ваш мозг” – “This book will blow your mind.” My head is still very much intact, thank you, but Chlorophyllia was an absorbing book, just the thing for hot summer reading.

Chlorophyllia describes 22nd-century Moscow, where tall plants have taken over patches of free soil. The grass is so tall that people need to live dozens of storeys up to have natural light. Lower floors are dank and mildewy, and their residents eat the pulp of the plants. They don’t need to eat anything else, and not everybody works. China does the labor and even pays to use Russian territory. Most Russians have chip implants so the nanogovernment (so-called for its use of technology) can keep track of people, paying subsidies for behaving, and deducting for misdeeds.

Among citizens, nobody owes anybody anything – this is repeated many times – though there is a barter system among one group of people. Some people, like Savelii, the book’s main character, live on sunny floors and work, but they often (ab)use plant pulp, too, in processed forms that enable them to eat meat and drink alcohol so their addiction goes unnoticed. They often give themselves away, though, by drinking lots of bottled water and hogging sunlight by windows. The plant pulp and pills are illegal but generally regarded as safe (apologies to the FDA).

Savelii and his fiancée are magazine journalists; Savelii is promoted to editor. There are plenty of details about a tabloid culture where everyone’s famous for a few minutes thanks to reality TV, and Rubanov mentions some of our contemporaries. There’s even a street named for Russian TV executive Konstantin Ernst. That humor seems a little too easy.

What’s most important is that things fall apart, as things are wont to do in this type of book. And what type of book is it? I guess I’d call it a dystopian novel with satire and tinges of morality play thrown in. Russian critic Lev Danilkin thinks it might be closest to a dystopia- parody of disaster novels and social novels, among other things, and I can see his point: there is plenty of disaster and plenty of social commentary.

On the social side, the idea of receiving stipends for doing nothing, along with not having to eat, reminds of some familiar slogans (variations are here), from the Bible to TANSTAAFL. Rubanov describes various vegetative states that people live in: a young “grasseater” woman from the 21st floor that Savelii picks up for a ride (and, predictably, sees again later, for sex) is plant-like in her empty-headedness. That feels cozy for Savelii, the working pill taker.

Some of the novel’s characters and turns of events felt contrived, schematic, genre-driven, and/or undeveloped to me, particularly toward the end, and Rubanov’s conclusions about what it means to be human felt pretty shopworn, too. (This may be another point for Danilkin on parody…) Oddly, those shortcomings weren’t fatal, and I still enjoyed Chlorophyllia.

I guess that’s partly because I almost always like a peculiar dystopia. It’s also because Chlorophyllia addresses the celebrification of just about everything (Lindsay Lohan’s manicure, anyone?) and people begin to resemble, yes, potted plants with limited intellectual needs. Still, there’s an irony at the root of Chlorophyllia that makes me a little uneasy: the novel leaves me with the feeling that I’ve read something entertaining but pretty light, not a pithy future classic that steers the brain away from that dreaded vegetative state... Of course I may just be too serious, too much of a ботаник: botanik, the Russian word for botanist, can be translated as geek, nerd, or dork.

Reading level for nonnative readers of Russian: Not too difficult, 2 or 2.5/5. Reads easily.

Rubanov’s first novel, Сажайте, и вырастет, is available in English as Do Time Get Time. Andrew Bromfield translated the book, an autobiographical novel about white collar crime and punishment.

Illustration credit for cross-section of woody stem: Jeffrey Winterborne's Hydroponics - Indoor Horticulture, via Wikipedia's Plant Morphology page.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pitch Black: Moscow Noir

Moscow Noir is a dark book indeed. This atmospheric collection of 14 short stories, edited by Russian literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen and commissioned for Akashic Books, brought back so many memories of Moscow during the crime-infested‘90s that I had to set it aside for a few days after reading half the stories. Of course I couldn’t wait to pick it back up and finish it. Both my reactions fit the editors’ intentions: “This anthology is an attempt to turn the tourist Moscow of gingerbread and woodcuts, of glitz and big money, inside out; an attempt to reveal its fetid womb and make sense of the desolation that still reigns.”

And that’s exactly what Moscow Noir does by introducing us to a spectrum of unsavory characters and unpleasant deeds. Crime stories, like fairy tales, satisfy a strange psychological need for their readers by, as the Moscow Noir editors note, putting fear, death, and all that desolation into context… and art. Goumen and Smirnova note the near absence of “a noir literary tradition” in Russia but they also discuss real-life noir’s history and homes in Moscow.

I’m always leery of anthologies where every story pleases -- I enjoy variety and surprises -- so I’m happy to say that I didn’t like all the stories in the book, though I finished all but one. I read the Moscow Noir stories in English translation because a Russian book with the originals won’t be out for some time; Akashic expects an Eksmo edition within about a year.

Two notes before I mention five favorite stories. Moscow Noir includes a map showing each story’s location. Specifying neighborhoods is a nice, eerie touch in Akashic’s Noir series. Personal experience with so many settings in the book added to its strength for me: I temporarily tabled the book after reading the Zamoskvorechye story because it took place in my old neighborhood and mentioned familiar places. (Familiarity means I’m especially looking forward to Akashic’s upcoming Philadelphia Noir and Copenhagen Noir.) Moscow Noir is also divided into four sections named after Russian classics: Crime and Punishment, Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons, and War and Peace. Here are five favorite stories:

Moscow Noir opens with “The Mercy Bus” by Anna Starobinets, whose Убежище 3/9 (Sanctuary 3/9) (previous post) I enjoyed so much last fall; Mary C. Gannon translated the story. “The Mercy Bus” (geography: Kursk Railway Station) involves murder and deception, a former prostitute named Foxy Lee, a ride on a night bus for homeless people, and a creepy final twist. Kursk Station always struck me as particularly seedy, so this starting point felt perfect.

I also loved Alexander Anuchkin’s “Field of a Thousand Corpses,” translated by Marian Schwartz. The story, set at Elk Island, features a cop whose co-workers call him Banderas “after the Spanish actor who conquered the world with his incredible muscularity and crazy machismo.” Banderas chain-smokes, drinks heavily, and takes his superstrong instant coffee with seven sugar cubes. I was happy to follow Banderas to the field in the title…

Gleb Shulpyakov’s “The Doppelgänger,” translated by Sylvia Maizell, is the Zamoskvorechye story. It tells of a solitary actor who one day sees a man that looks just like him. Two things worked in this story’s favor for me: my old neighborhood and the theme of doubles that continues to be so popular in Russian fiction. I even pulled Dostoevsky’s Двойник (The Double) off the shelf for a reread…

“The Coat that Smelled Like Earth,” by Dmitry Kosyrev (Master Chen), translated by Mary C. Gammon and set in Birch Grove Park, plays on history: it features an coat so reminded me of Gogol’s story (previous post), plus it refers to a Stalin-era figure that I won’t mention. “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” felt almost like a double ghost story, and I loved the ending.

Sergei Samsonov’s “The Point of No Return,” translated by Amy Pieterse, is a first-person narrative about two writing students from the same town who room together near Ostankino. Samsonov’s story is more about psychological violence than physical violence, so felt a bit lighter than some of the other stories despite all the narrator’s bad intentions. I thought it worked much better than Samsonov’s overwrought novel The Oxygen Limit (previous post).

Taken together, Moscow Noir’s stories give the reader a tour of Moscow’s physical and criminal geography, blending into a horribly bleak picture of the city. It’s a book I’ll recommend to anyone who enjoys crime fiction or asks me questions about Moscow’s (fictional?) darker side.

Thank you to Akashic Books for providing me with a review copy of Moscow Noir.

Photo of daytime Kursk Railway Station: S1, via Wikipedia

Edit: I enjoyed reading this review of Moscow Noir on Bookslut.

Moscow Noir on Amazon

Akashic's Noir Series Books on Amazon
(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you!)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 2010 Russian Booker Long List

It’s July 1, which means we have a Russian Booker Prize long list. The Booker people received 95 nominations and chose 24 for the list; last year they received 82 nominations. The six-book short list will be announced on October 6, and the winner will be named on December 2.

A number of this year’s long listers are already on the 2010 Big Book short list:

Other notable books include:

  • Mariam Petrosian’s Дом, в котором... (The House in Which…), a 2009 Big Book finalist that won third prize in the readers’ vote
  • Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude), a National Bestseller finalist and NOSE finalist. (earlier post with description) Previous writing from Astvatsaturov is on Журнальный зал here.

I’m especially interested in these two books, both of which made the 2010 Big Book long list but not the cut for the short list:

  • Bakhyt Kenzheev’s Обрезание пасынков (Pruning the Shoots) because two friends have recommended it and it’s waiting for me on my shelf
  • Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog) because I enjoyed her last book so much (previous post)

The only Booker long list book that I’ve already read is Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible, which I thought was very good. (previous post)

The full Booker long list is online here. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read any of the books on the list.