Vladimir Sorokin. A Post-Modern Russian Writer

Aren Rogal

Vladimir Sorokin, sometimes referred to as the «Russian de Sade», is one of Russia’s most controversial post-modern writers. Sorokin emerged to the West as a hot, exiting writer during Perestroika, but Russia, exposed to him mainly in the post-Soviet era, has generally responded to him with reservation and often with horror. The cultural politics of glasnost allowed for a diversity in legally published literature which had not been seen since the avantgarde was crushed by the revolution in the early 1930s. Dissident works of a bygone era such as Solzhenitsin’s Gulag Archipelago and Akhmatova’s Requiem were published legally in Russia for the first time. The writings of 6rnigr6s such as Nabokov were finally allowed to be published. Besidethis belated publishing of works which had been written for either the desk drawer or the West, new works were being penned. Tabloid memoirs of suffering dissidents and stylizations of a waning Village Prose were churned out like crazy, but both seem backward looking and dull when compared with Russia’s «new literature» of post modernism. This new literature, as claimed Victor Erofeyev in his memoriam to Soviet literature, was unlike all other recent Soviet literature as it was devoid of Russian literature’s traditional hypermoralism and made no pretensions towards possessing an absolute truth which would triumph against the censor. Instead, authors focused on aesthetics, verbal play, and non-ideologically motivated depictions of various cross-sections of Soviet society. Post-modern Russian writers often dumped literature’s former ideal, held both by Socialist Realists and older dissident writers such as Solzhenitsin, of cramming as much ideological truth into the work as possible and instead trafficked in ambiguity and irony. Out of this landscape came Vladimir Sorokin, a writer who has refused to be called as such despite his brilliant, contributions to Russian post-modernism’s exciting absurd grotesque.

One of his few works which has been translated into English is Ochered' (The Queue), published in the U.S. in 1985 and only in Russia after Communism fell. It is the story of a group of Russians standing in an absurdly long Moscow queue, waiting for an item which is unknown, yet believed to be of the highest quality and necessity. The book features no narrator or even traditional characters. It is instead a recording of the sounds one hears in this queue, from flirtatious conversation to grunts and moans and yawns. This non-narrative, aptly described as a «Symphony of the City» by translator Sally Laird, includes blank pages representing the silence as the queuers sleep and has no qualms about filling page after page with nothing more than the names of queuers being called by police officers at «checkpoints». The recorder follows Vadirn, a young writer, as he sleeps, eats, and moves with the line. However, before reaching the front of the line, he is sidetracked by a sexual encounter with a woman who let him into her apartment to dry off from the rain. When he is about to leave her to return to his place in line, the woman informs him that she works for the department store and that no items are going to be sold that day. However, this is not written as an excuse to whine over the U.S.S.R.'s lack of consumer goods or to criticize a society that has it’s citizens waiting in an endless line for nothing. Life in the queue, including the final disappointment, is an annoyance but Vadim moves on, as does the reader. In fact, the trials and mistrials of Vadim are less captivating (at least to a Western reader) than is the rich panorama of late Soviet values shown through the voices of a seemingly ordinary cross-section of the masses. Sorokin seems to have outdone the revolutionary writers of «high» Socialist Realism (if such a thing existed!) in their own goal of representing the heroes of the masses. In Sorokin’s world, there is no great divide between the banal vernacular of the masses and the high art of literature. Instead of ideology, one hears popular folklore. Soviet cliches slide off the tongue only as tired or flippant remarks laced with irony. Sorokin follows Maiakovskii in the use of street slang, but unlike Maiakovskii, he has no pretensions of playing prophet or poet to the public. There is no need for an angry, self-righteous narrator to lay out all the problems of the Soviet system and lambaste the authorities for causing them when they can be showed much more succinctly through the jokes and semantics of ordinary folks.

Ochered' is less blatantly grotesque than some of Sorokin’s other writings. Serdisa Chetyrekh (Four Stout Hearts) (to the best of my knowledge and searching, only an excerpt of the novel is published in English.) seems outwardly much more disturbing. It is the story of, Sorokin writes in the beginning, a «quartet of heroes each different in age, profession and views united by some unknown goal which has become the central meaning of their lives. In order to achieve this goal, they commit a series of acts which are strange, terrible, and mysterious. . ." The quartet kills the parents of the teenager in the group, saving the father’s foreskin to pass around and suck on and kidnaps a man so that they can chop off one of his limbs for each day that he is unable to memorize the random articles they assign him. There is no motive given for these crimes except that the perpetrators seem to derive pleasure from them. It is deliberately grotesque to the point of repulsion, but the most frustrating part of reading it is not the nausea induced, but the fact that no information is given to why such crimes are committed or why the quartet even exists.

Sorokin’s works can seem blasphemous to his Russian audience. He has printed photos of himself having anal sex with various farm animals as illustrations to poems glorifying the Russian homeland. This is indicative of Perestroika’s fascination with parallel culture, the juxtaposing of various images representative of disparate ideologies. However, while a late and/or Soviet audience could appreciate Roshall’s painting, modeled after an icon, with a saint holding a sign saying «we must mine extra coal» as social criticism decrying (or possibly just laughing at!) the state’s absurd appropriation of religious iconography, Sorokin’s pieces are seen as plain vulgarity which, if having any message, have one that mocks Russian pride. It isn’t hard to see why Sorokin could be unpopular. Many young Russians are more interested in accessing easily digestible Western pop culture than in their own revived and revamped avant-garde. It’s an ironic lesson to the former Soviet censor to see that repressing a controversial writer like Sorokin is futile his works' breaks with traditional narrative and their side effects of nausea have themselves proven to be an insurance policy against the work’s success. It is also somewhat ironic that in works like Ochered', Sorokin has applied himself to recording the quotidian, only to have the types of people to which his work was devoted reject his work.

Excerpt taken from Four Stout Hearts, Vladimir Sorokin. Translator Jamey Gambrell.

In English, look for:
The Queue, trans. Sally Laird, Reader’s International, London, 1985
A Business Proposition and Four Stout Hearts (excerpt from the novel) published in Glas 2: Soviet Grotesque, Russlit, Moscow, 1991