The First Saturday Workday, Book Review
Vladimir Sorokin (b. 1955) has made quite a name for himself among Russian critics and readers alike for his bold excursions beyond the pale of accepted literary taste. As Russia’s foremost literary hooligan, he breaks all the taboos and enjoys parading before the reader a puerile fascination for excrement, flatulence, and genitalia.
Many of the twenty-nine short stories in Pervyi subbotnik (The First Saturday Workday) use the shocking and the lewd for a purpose: namely, to deride Soviet customs and socialist-realist literary techniques. In the title story, for example, Sorokin makes light of proletarian subbotniki — organized public “volunteer” work on Saturdays, which Communist Party activists often forced upon the populace. The hero of the tale, a young lad full of civic enthusiasm, takes part in his first subbotnik, joining several veteran workers tasked with raking leaves in a public square. After having worked awhile, the men gather to celebrate the boy’s transition to proletarian manhood by initiating a farting contest. One by one the men release their salvos, only in the end to be put in their place by the tough work brigadier, whose contribution makes such a thunderous cracking sound that the men break into applause and take off their hats in recognition of his prowess.
The volume’s introductory story, “Sergey Andreevich,” is legendary in post-Soviet Russian letters for its devastating parody of the mentor-protégé relationship so prominent in the didactic world of socialist realism. The story depicts a high-school field trip to the woods, where a revered teacher, Sergei Andreyevich, seeks to pass on to the young people his love of nature and the Russian forest. Around a campfire he quizzes them about the stars and constellations, and the students struggle to please him. One student’s adoration of his mentor is so great that he can scarcely hide it. When Sergei Andreyevich goes into the night woods for a private moment, the boy follows his mentor and spies on him while he is defecating. When the teacher leaves the spot to return to the campfire, the boy finds the fecal deposit and devours it feverishly.
Sorokin describes the shocking scene of coprophagy in painstaking detail against a sylvan backdrop bathed in gentle moonlight, thereby reducing ad absurdum socialist realism’s symbolic motif of “passing on the baton” of discipline and ideological conviction from one generation to another. Sorokin returns over and over to that particular socialist-realist plot feature in other stories included in the volume as well. In “The Geologists” the tangible sign of social transition is the vomit of a weathered comrade, spewed forth into the open hands of the young men on an expedition. In “A Word of Farewell” the symbolic initiation is the act of sodomy performed on the young hero by a veteran communist and family friend. Despite the repulsiveness of the manner in which Sorokin deconstructs and transforms such Soviet mythologemes, one cannot deny his talent for crafting in his work rapid and powerful shifts from the mundane to an upsetting world of horror and repugnance. The uninitiated reader is almost always caught off guard.
In other stories Sorokin moves beyond the deconstruction of socialist realism to the purely grotesque and sadistic. “Alex’s Love”, for example, portrays an act of necrophilia committed by a village activist in a country graveyard. The hero is reminiscent of any number of Vladimir Shukshin’s crazy chudaki (oddball country heroes), but there seems to be no real explanation for his insane act, other than the fact that he comes to hear about the idea of necrophilia in a bawdy chastuska (Russian jingle).
In “Poplar Fuzz” an old professor is celebrating his sixtieth birthday with his wife, when a group of students drop in to pay their respects. The couple is touched and flattered by the young people’s kind words of gratitude. After the students depart, husband and wife fondly recall their own youth and their first summer together, when the streets were covered with poplar fuzz. When a warm June wind suddenly opens the window of their apartment, they discover that poplar fuzz is again flying about the city. But in repeating the words “poplar fuzz” several times to himself, the professor suddenly and without warning turns and begins to beat his wife brutally. The shift from tenderness to unrestrained violence is motivated only by the inexplicable power of the repeated words.
This unmotivated transition from a seemingly serene situation to violence and primordial chaos is the hallmark of most of the stories in the volume. In one tale, “The Competition”, a lumberjack suddenly and without cause decapitates his comrade of many years with a chainsaw. In “Night Guests” a man and wife are chatting about problems at work when they are interrupted by the arrival of friends from the Caucasus. The man welcomes them into his house, and before the reader knows what is going on — the arrival scene is followed by several blank pages in the narration — the husband and the guests drug the wife, who for some reason or another willingly cooperates in the procedure, and then suddenly chop off her outstretched hand, wrap it in cellophane, and pack it away in a briefcase. In “A Business Proposal” an amputated face is gift wrapped and presented by the editor of a scholarly journal to his bisexual boyfriend. And in “The Opening of the Season” urban cannibals shoot a man in the woods and roast his liver over a fire to celebrate the opening of the “hunting season.”
Many of the stories included in “The First Saturday Workday” were published earlier in separate editions and have since become legendary in Russian letters for their postmodernist shock effect. In the mid-1990s Sorokin’s oeuvre was labeled chernukha (dark prose), but since then it has become somewhat salonfähig (acceptable in polite circles) and has been classified as postmodern. It is regrettable that the publisher provides no dates in the volume to indicate when each of the stories was written. Several go back, no doubt, to the final years of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost’, while others were written in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Vladimir Sorokin is strong medicine for readers in a country reared on socialist realism. Yet there is a real danger that the medicine, while correcting the malaise, might at the same time numb or kill off the readers.
Joseph P. Mozur Jr.
University of South Alabama