Vladimir Sorokin. Norma, Book Review

Juri Talvet

Vladimir Sorokin. Norma. Moscow. Ad Marginem. 2002. 394 pages. ISBN 5-93321-032-3

NORMA (Norm) is the fifth novel by Vladimir Sorokin (b. 1955) to be published by Ad Marginem. Sorokin has become the most scandalous Russian novelist of the postcommunist era. In 2002 he had to face a legal trial, as his 1999 novel, Goluboie salo (Blue fat), was accused of being pornographic. Norma follows basically in the satirical pattern of Sorokin’s novels, though in comparison with Goluboie salo, the lyrical and nostalgic elements have now been considerably enhanced. Sorokin’s narrative strategy is emphatically postmodern, but at the same time Norma can be deeply linked to the realistic tradition of the Russian novel. The goal of Gogol’s Dead Souls was the same: to reflect critically and ironically Russia’s historical reality, to transmit it «just as it was." Norma is (post)modern in its form, and (post)realistic in its content.

In contrast to Dead Souls, the title of Sorokin’s novel is not applied symbolically but rather allegorically: its meaning is not revealed to the reader gradually but stands out immediately, as an allegorical sign. «Norm» appears as a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. Children most of all, whose tastes are not yet spoiled, especially do not like it. Like the «dead souls» in Gogol’s novel, «norm» provides Sorokin’s narrative with a witty counterpoint through which a great variety of scenes from everyday Soviet life are exposed. There are scenes of low and brutal violence, erotic passages, including some with lesbian lovers, episodes with children, chess players, intimate family circles, et cetera. «Norm» often appears in the most unexpected situations; the effect it thus provokes is quite funny. Most parts of the novel are written in a lavishly colloquial style.

«Norm» becomes a grotesque embodiment of the uniformity of Soviet life, devoid of any individuality that could escape «norm." It is not tasty or attractive, but everybody is made to believe that accepting it is the only way to exist. In a Rabelaisian manner, chapter 2 (over forty pages) names one by one everything that can be «normal»: normal childbirth, normal boys, normal cries, normal sighs, normal milk, and so forth. By the way, the adjective normal’nyi in its adverbial application (normal’no) became a widespread commonplace in everyday Soviet Russian parlance. It could not be translated as «normally»; rather, it meant «acceptably well." When asked how life was, one could normally expect the answer normal’no-that is, «acceptably well.»

Beginning with chapter 3, Sorokin tries to provide a kind of a counterbalance for the dullness of life under Soviet rule. He nostalgically evokes the Russian past, the spiritual endeavors of Russian writers as well as the Orthodox religious devotion and closeness to nature in the pre-communist era. At times, Sorokin’s style becomes maudlin, as in the episodes in which he compares Russian soil with a beloved woman. Chapter 4 comprises twelve poems, some of which are lyrical-nostalgic and others brutally sexist. Chapter 5 contains a series of letters sent by a common man from the countryside to a well-established scientist in Moscow. At first, the tone of the letters is polite, but later it becomes offensive, ending in a Joycean stream of meaningless, deformed words and mumbling as well as characters without any sense whatsoever. Similar meaningless speech, as a symbolic reproduction of the absurd official language of the former communist empire, is largely exposed in chapter 8.

In conclusion, Sorokin’s Norma is a skillfully constructed and bitingly witty narrative. The question remains whether its narrative strategies are not too transparently preplanned to allow the work to become something more than just another normal’nyi («acceptably well made," that is) postmodem, postrealistic novel.

Juri Talvet
University of Tartu, Estonia