Vladimir Sorokin. Led, Book Review

Tatiana Nazarenko

Vladimir Sorokin. Led. Moscow. Ad Marginero. 2002. 317 pages. ISBN 5-93321-039-0

LED (Ice), Vladimir Sorokin’s recent novel, continues his well-established practice of deconstructing ideological, mythological, and discursive clich6s of totalitarian power. Although the socialist-realist discourse of mythmaking is the proto-subject for the author’s creative exploration, Led apparently exceeds the boundaries of Sots-Arts. Being a reaction against Soviet social, ideological, and aesthetic values exemplified in socialist realism, it also responds to broader universal issues. Although Sorokin’s text is free from nauseating descriptions and incongruous bloody episodes, it still contains the blunt graphic scenes and coarse language of his earlier work. However, the author of Led does not attempt to shock or disgust his readership. On the contrary, he quickly draws the readers into the captivating orbit of his fiction and does not relieve the narrative tension until the last page. The novel can be classified as a thriller, which is not unusual for a postmodernist text. In accordance with the generic repertoire, it is characterized by an intriguing entanglement and a vibrant plot, which energetically unfolds through a rapid succession of brief episodes. Led is densely populated with sketchy, schematic, and yet interesting and memorable characters. It is easy reading and thought-provoking.

What makes Sorokin’s text more than just a successful thriller is its sophisticated and skilful deconstruction of a utopian project of human transformation, one of the most central, consecrating, and all-exculpatory mythologemes in the canons of socialist realism. Sorokin’s text consciously parodies the construction of such a far-reaching and refined goal as joining the Kingdom of Light by the chosen people, the road to which is paved through executions, abuse of power, fraud, and other similar activities. There is no doubt that the concept of forced happiness is borrowed from recent Soviet history, but it is also reminiscent of other regimes and historical periods whose features can be recognized in the novel. The converted brothers and sisters tirelessly murder people described as being incapable of rebirth and thus remain «meat machines» or «walking corpses» in order to advance the moment of spiritual transition. These converted ones are all blonde and blue-eyed, a suggestive allusion to the true Aryans. Moreover, all of them are vegetarian, which is possibly another historical allusion, this time to Hitler. The spiritual awakening resulting from striking the victim’s chest with a hammer made of ice from outer space is a brutal act, causing bodily damage. This act links the motif of suffering to that of spiritual elevation in the tradition of the Christian and Orthodox concept of martyrdom. The idea of a chosen people and that of the end justifying the means are by no means restricted to the Soviet experience. Both are rooted in human history and reflected in the Old Testament. The idea of asexual brotherly love between individuals as the sole avenue leading to spiritual transformation is not quite original. Leo Tolstoy’s later works, beginning with Kreutzer Sonata (1889), attest to this, as well as such movements as the Skoptsy, the «globe morality," and the «Shakers." Ritual gestures and incantations of the rebirthing ceremony portrayed by Sorokin are obviously invented, but ritualistic practices as such are a significant component of any mythological order within many social and religious systems.

Reconstructing the fundamentals of the mythmaking process, Sorokin parodies the technique. The writer employs various narrative techniques and language stylizations that question the validity of the constructed mythologeme and undermine it from within. The discursive syntactical simplicity and spontaneity contradicts the complicated task to be completed by brothers and sisters through meticulously prepared and carefully planned actions. The refinement of the mission clashes not only with the brutal acts but also with the primitive language used by many converts, including their spiritual leader. The succession of narrative voices and focal points almost unanimously praising the spiritual revelation provided by the technologically advanced system «LED'-at a point when the mythological construct and the fictional reality seem to merge, according to the utopian standards of Socialist Realism-is contrasted with the terse depiction of a child’s treatment of the spiritual transformation tool and the core mythological symbol: the ice. A child’s naive ingenuousness ends the quest for the absurd mythological concept, emphasizing the futility of such an endeavor, underlined in chapter 38 of the Book of Job, from which the epigraph is borrowed: «From whose womb has come the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?» The novel’s diegesis suggests that the text should be placed within the broader context of human experience rather than within the restricted locale of Soviet reality, which was the source of and natural habitat for socialist realism. Generally, conceptually, and aesthetically, Led is a considerable step forward as compared to the author’s previous works, which attests to the maturity of the writer’s talent. This is an important novel, which should be translated into English so that readers unfamiliar with the Russian language can appreciate Sorokin’s skilful intrigue, plot structure, and challenging discourse.

Tatiana Nazarenko
University of Manitoba