Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two Sorokins: An Oprichnik’s Day and a Bad Trip

There’s nothing like a double dose of Vladimir Sorokin – two short novels like, say, День опричника (evidently to be translated by FSG as A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik) and Метель (The Blizzard) – to shake up a head that already feels scrambled by summer weather changes. The two books have some commonalities – both are novellas that combine Russia’s past and future, and both feature episodes with hallucinogens that affect language – but they left me with very different impressions…

Oprichnik is a first-person narrative told by an oprichnik named Komiaga. (Aside: though I initially thought the name was derived from a word like communal, I learned from The Blizzard that it is a hollowed-out log used as a feeding trough or a boat.) Though Oprichnik is set in the near future – cars have some advanced features – the return of the oprichnina, religious codes, and certain turns of phrase, draw on the past. I particularly liked one of the wardrobe touches: the oprichniki wear bell earrings that lack clappers, known in Russian as языки, a word more often used to mean “tongues” and “languages.”

Komiaga describes his day, from a morning dream interrupted by his cell phone (it has a creepy ring tone) to a late-night bedtime when he remembers the white horse in his morning dream. He thanks God that oprichniks keep Russia going. Komiaga takes part in all sorts of activities that I won’t describe in detail, lest I reveal too much of the story. Among them: a violent morning assignment, goldfish-related hallucinations (a nice use of a Russian folk tale theme), cocaine, travel around Russia, and a late-night banquet.

What’s most frightening is that Sorokin makes Komiaga, a top-level, hardcore oprichnik, such an engaging storyteller. He often seems almost normal, providing routine details about his day and his era: menus, Chinese influences, and traffic patterns. He also describes shows on opposition radio stations. Sorokin works in names that resemble those of contemporary figures, though he leaves Derrida intact: I particularly liked the idea of a book called Где обедал Деррида? (Where Did Derrida Eat Lunch?).

Sorokin crammed a lot into a small book without making it feel crowded, and I think he achieved a good balance of everydayness, humor, and, yes, political terror. That, I think, is the scariest of combinations: I came away feeling complicit for having enjoyed my time listening to Komiaga as he sped through Moscow and flew around Russia.

The pace slows in The Blizzard – there’s snow, snow, snow – and I thought the main characters were far less memorable. The Blizzard is a road story chronicling the travels of a doctor, Platon Ilich Garin, and a driver, nicknamed Perkhusha, who agrees to transport Garin during a blizzard. Platon Ilich needs to treat people suffering from an epidemic of a zombifying Bolivian disease known as чернуха.

I’ve used the word чернуха here before: it’s rooted in черный, black, and describes naturalistic books and movies that readers find particularly depressing. Is Sorokin trying to say that people suffer from this stuff, that it’s an epidemic that turns us into zombies? I don’t know, but he certainly draws on the Russian canon, from Pushkin’s Belkin Tales (previous post), where one story is even called “The Blizzard,” to Tolstoy and Chekhov. I had a strange Gogoly “whither Russia” feel as I read, too. With characters of all sizes, there’s also a Gulliver’s Travels feel to the endeavor; one scene, according to Russian critic Viktor Toporov, contains a direct borrowing. Lev Danilkin, though, sees Sorokin’s many-sized figures as references to folklore and the “little man” in Russian literature.

Maybe I’m fixated on the wrong thing, but hallucinogenic pyramids felt especially important, as if they were references to a strange literary (or meteorological?) LSD that creates Sorokin’s twists on literature, reality, and time. And of course the good doctor and his driver were on a pretty bad trip. (Yes, that is a term in Russian.) Unfortunately, despite lots of intriguing elements – the primeval past and throwback future, all that snow, literary references, and an extended play on the phrase “50 horse power” – The Blizzard never fully engaged me.

I don’t think I did The Blizzard any favors by reading it directly after Oprichnik, which had such a quick pace that I found it difficult to slow down for the snowy travel in The Blizzard. Reading order aside, I still think Oprichnik is more my kind of book, whether or not it’s read as political tea leaves. Sorokin himself says he doesn’t mind if people read Oprichnik as political satire; he sees it (Russian interview here) as futurology.

That’s perfectly apt, but I also agree with Toporov’s assertion (which I paraphrase from his review) that Sorokin’s focus with both books is less on ideas than on language and style. That, I think is the root of why I enjoyed Oprichnik more. In Komiaga, Sorokin creates a bad guy storyteller who uses and ends up embodying mixed-up words, styles, and histories. By contrast, the third-person narrator of The Blizzard left me wanting to shrug and say “whatever”: it feels more like a contemporary writer playing with tropes from the classics.

[Edit: So I don't forget: An interesting piece about The Blizzard from that mentions Bulgakov...]

Reading level for nonnative readers of Russian: I thought Oprichnik was fairly difficult, 4/5. The Blizzard was easier, 2/5 or 3/5.

Up next: Moscow Noir, an anthology of very dark stories, then a historical detective novel by Leonid Yuzefovich.

Photo from pukeycow via


  1. Thank you for an excellent review of Oprichnik's Day - I agree with you that the novel is very fast-paced, and the language would be very challenging for a non-native speaker. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Tatyana Tolstaya's "Кысь", with the same post-apocalyptic and Old Russia undertones.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Steve! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Your mention of Кысь (which I didn't like much at all) is intriguing but I'm most curious to ask: have you read Сахарный Кремль? (I ask because I'm about to order it.)

  3. Well, I've read Сахарный Кремль as well as Oprichnik's Day. In my opinion, it's not so good as Oprichnik's Day. There are several separate novel in this book (without main plot). But it should be read. You should know the end of Komiaga's story.

    And bonus:

  4. Kolokolcev, thank you for your comment. I agree with you about Сахарный Кремль, which I'm finishing: it's not nearly as good as Oprichnik. I'll be writing about it soon.

    And thank you for the bonus Snob links -- it was a good reminder to visit the site. I always find something interesting there!