Vladimir Sorokin

David Gillespie, Elena Smirnova

Novelist, Story Writer, Playwright, Illustrator, Screenplay Writer.
Active 1977- in Russia, Continental Europe

Vladimir Sorokin came to public attention in 2002, when the conservative youth action group «Moving Together» («Idushchie vmeste») tried to imprison him for writing pornography in his novel Blue Fat (Goluboe salo). The court case came to nothing, but Sorokin’s name suddenly became widely known as a Russian writer being persecuted for his works. However, the charge of pornography would have come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with his writings, as they are littered with all manner of sexual degradation and depravity, described in appropriately coarse language, as well as with horrendous and usually irrational acts of violence. Sorokin is a writer who is not only demolishing literary and cultural taboos in his works, but also challenging the notion of literature itself, and the role of the reader in the literary process. In all his major works he seems to be asking the reader: dare you read on?

Sorokin has his own notion of the place and function of literature. He calls his works «texts», and claims that any «text» is dead and delusive the moment ink reaches paper. He looks at literature as an exclusively aesthetic category, rejecting the spiritual and moral imperatives with which it has been infused during the last two centuries. He denies the moral importance of the printed word as handed down by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the status of writers as «engineers of human souls» as proclaimed by Stalin. Rather, to Sorokin, literature and life are nonintersecting lines, two independent phenomena. Literature is never married to reality, and so the author cannot be held responsible for his fantasies. Literature for Sorokin is paper holding a combination of printable characters, falling outside of moral and ethical categories and never reflecting the real way an author thinks, acts and feels as a human being.

For Sorokin, the act of writing is an author’s attempt to come to terms with his own psyche, or to shield it from reality. Therefore there is a strong aftertaste of psychoanalysis left when reading his works. For instance, in the short story «An Incident on the Road» (Dorozhnoe proisshestvie), the writer describes and analyses his own childhood impressions based on observing the work of a cesspool emptier. This is one of the few works where Sorokin offers not only a description of his characters' emotional and erotic experiences, but also some psychological interpretation. The story is typical of Sorokins technique, in which a new artistic form is born from the dribs and drabs of different texts: a patchwork of separate, unconnected texts of a sexual or physiological nature, of socialist realism and erotic hallucinations. The story, as with many of Sorokin’s texts, ends in phonetically sophisticated gibberish.

Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin was born on the 7th of August 1955 in the Moscow district. In 1977 he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas as an engineer, but never took up that profession. Rather, he was much more interested in graphic art, painting, book design and conceptual art. He has illustrated more than 50 books, and been writing since 1977. He has written eight novels: The Queue (Ochered'); The Norm (Norma); A Novel (Roman); Marina’s Thirtieth Love (Tridtsataia liubov' Mariny); Four Stout Hearts (Serdtsa chetyrekh); The Feast (Pir); Ice (Led); and Blue Fat. He is also the author of ten plays, dozens of short stories, and the screenplays of several recent films. These are films such as Alexander Zel’dovich’s Moscow (Moskva, 2000); Ivan Dykhovychny’s The 1970 Kopeck (Kopeika 1970 g., 2002); A Thing (Veshch', 2002), again by Dykhovychny; 4, directed by Il’ia Khrzhanovsky in 2002; and Cashfire (the title is in English), directed by Zel’dovich in the same year. In 2002 he concluded an agreement with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to write a libretto for an opera with music by Leonid Desiatnikov. He has travelled widely in Europe and Asia, and continues to live in Moscow with his wife and twin daughters.

Sorokin’s first novel The Queue was published in 1985 in Paris. Highly original in both form and content, it is comprised entirely of snatches of conversation, mostly single words and phrases, from a group of unnamed people standing in a queue. Most of these excerpts of dialogue cover less than one line of text, so that the reader is in the position of one passing along the line and hearing only broken and incomplete phrases. We learn only towards the end of the novel that the characters are standing in line for a delivery of American denims, but by this time the form has become the content. The queue for consumer goods was the archetypal chronotope of everyday life in the Soviet Union, especially in the «stagnation» years when the novel is set. People of all ages and mindsets join the queue, including the older generation who yearn for the «order» of Stalin’s day, and youngsters who enjoy Western rock music. There are no characters in this text, no authorial narrative voice, and even the minimalist dialogue in the end breaks down into the groans, gasps and cries of a couple who leave the queue to have sex in a neighbouring apartment. The text is pared to the bone, and the author appears only through the words of his characters.

The Norm (1994) is similarly innovative. It consists of eight parts, all unconnected and widely diverse in both form and content. Part One takes in a whole cross-section of types and characters: a father and son, lesbian lovers, heterosexual lovers, Party bureaucrats, members of the cultural intelligentsia, street thugs, a murderer on the loose in Moscow. Part Two consists entirely of vertically arranged lists of nouns, all preceded by the adjective «normal» (normal’nyi). Succeeding parts take the form of letters, poems both lyrical and obscene, and aphorisms, but all culminating in the breakdown of grammar and syntax as the final few pages throw up nonsensical words and constructions. Sorokin not only deconstructs the falsity and corruption of Soviet reality; he travesties that reality as absurd, grotesque and irredeemable.

A key feature of Sorokin’s texts is the disintegration of syntax into nonsensical letter and word combinations: it is as if the text has had a nervous breakdown. Sorokin’s text becomes a mirror of the social and political reality it is meant to represent. His writing does not preach or teach, in the classical Russian tradition, but instead urges the reader to be an active participant in the construction of meaning or «significance». Indeed, does literature have any meaning? A Novel (1994) is almost 400 pages long, most of it set in an idyllic rural setting right out of the pages of a novel by Turgenev or Bunin. However, after he has been bitten by a wolf during a hunt, the central character, Roman, proceeds to butcher all his neighbours and family, then his newly-acquired wife Tat’iana, before himself dying. As Roman dies, the novel dies, as does Pushkin’s heroine from Evgenii Onegin: Sorokin sets out to subvert and destroy the much-vaunted heritage of Russian literature, rejecting the notion of «high» art and the moral lessons it is meant to instil.

Sorokin deliberately shocks his reader, and he also plays around with literary conventions, whether they be of the classical variety, as in A Novel, or the pulp fiction that became so popular in Russia in the early 1990s. Four Stout Hearts (1992) can be read as a ferocious parody of a detective thriller, with all manner of sadistic violence and a huge body count, as four adventurers achieve their own goal of having their hearts torn from their bodies and processed into playing dice. Their quest may seem futile, but the author subverts the act and experience of reading itself. Marina’s Thirtieth Love (1995) begins as a celebration of the female sex novel (the writings of Anais Nin come to mind), where sexual experimentation leads to personal liberation and fulfilment. Such high-minded feminism has no place in Sorokin’s work, however. We learn that Marina was raped by her father when she was ten years old, then again aged twelve in a Pioneer camp, and in the course of the novel she has a string of heterosexual and lesbian lovers. She can only achieve orgasm, though, with another woman, until into her life steps the committed Communist Sergei Nikolaevich. Sergei brings her to orgasm as the Soviet national anthem plays on the radio in the background, after which she vows to become a model Soviet citizen. Sure enough, she joins a factory collective, and the novel’s concluding pages read like any socialist-realist «industrial» novel, where individual needs are subsumed into the greater good, and all conflicts are resolved through reference to the broader «collective». Marina is a woman searching for salvation from her own individuality, and as she becomes a model Soviet worker, she dies as a person.

Marina’s Thirtieth Love marks the end of the «sots-art» period in Sorokin’s career, where he combined elements of socialist realism and pop-art in order to deconstruct socialist realism and its ideological underpinning. The clearest influences on Sorokin, however, are those of the Conceptualists, who perceive the social in terms of the physiological. He experiments with form and content in order to combine the uncombinable in his texts: official ideological clichés, obscene language, ferocious violence, and linguistic breakdown. With his fondness for the absurd and grotesque, his writings have much in common with the OBERIU writers of the 1920s — in particular the short stories and plays of Daniil Kharms. But they can also be seen as a late twentieth-century equivalent to the Art Nouveau movement of the early twentieth century, with its challenge to reason and clarity in art and architecture.

Sorokin’s written work attacks the symbols of totalitarianism, turning both reality and the text into a grotesque and nightmarish phantasmagoria. In his film work he continues to emphasise the absurd, and to mock taboos. The 1970 Kopeck purports to show 30 years of recent history in the fate of a motor car and its different owners, but the over-riding impression gained is of sleaze, sex and drudgery. Moscow is set in the post-Soviet world of shady business, and its all-embracing materialism, with drugs, sex and hired killers all freely available. Here, too, he lays bare the corrupt essence of this world, almost gloating in its celebration of excess and boundless consumption.

Blue Fat (2002) is made up of various intertwined stories, and draws on science fiction and the fantastic. It is structured in the form of love-letters between two homosexual lovers. In the middle of the twenty-first century, a group of scientists in a bunker somewhere in Siberia are cloning various Russian writers: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Platonov, Akhmatova and Chekhov. These cloned creatures produce «blue fat» through the act of writing, and this «fat» is needed as fuel for the Moon station. The fat is stolen by villains who are obviously meant to represent the «oligarchs» who have prospered in post-Soviet Russia (largely, it is suggested, through rapacious and unchecked greed). We then move back in time to 1954, where Stalin and Khrushchev are homosexual lovers (Khrushchev is the active partner). Stalin goes to Germany where he, Khrushchev, Hitler and Himmler intend to inject the blue fat into themselves in order to become immortal.

The narrative is characterized by passages reminiscent of the cloned writers themselves, so that quasi-Platonov and quasi-Chekhov sections make the reader question the so-called hallowed status of the original literary text. Sorokin thereby tears away the veil of secrecy from the mechanism of writing. It is as if he is challenging his reader to see how easily it can be done. Blue Fat features some innovative linguistic experimentation, with words based on English, Chinese obscene slang, and invented technical terms. The novel therefore works as a parody of the Russian literary classics, as well as a distinctive and highly original satire on the literary process itself. Still, the mystical blue fat continues to be produced only by writers; it remains the essence of life, the philosopher’s stone.

Vladimir Sorokin not only tests his reader’s fastidiousness, but also questions the boundaries between literature, art and life. His writing overturns the accepted mission of Russian literature, and instead sets out to deconstruct and reject accepted pieties, especially authority figures, and to mock the very idea of literature and its place and function in the modern world. In Blue Fat, in particular, literature is not merely deconstructed — it is metaphorically ripped apart.

David Gillespie and Elena Smirnova, University of Bath
First published 23 October 2003