— One thousand two hundred and thirty five.
— One thousand two hundred and thirty six.
— One thousand two hundred and thirty seven.
— One thousand two hundred and thirty eight.
— Crossed off. Once thousand two hundred and thirty nine.
Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. It is a postmodern snapshot of a surreal bygone era destined for collapse, cursed to the privations of the economic crash of the 1990s where a system of ration cards will be implemented, only to be reborn from the ash like a bright red phoenix of pseudo-capitalism caged by a land of murdered journalists, a market flooded by counterfeit Chinese goods.
However, that is the present. The past of The Queue is oddly innocent as Russia is seemingly cursed to forever lose and regain its innocence much like Prometheus and his liver. Why is it innocent? Because it has never been clear to anyone what the citizens of the Soviet Union actually thought of the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line, the citizens understood what they had lost but they all still agreed that by forfeiting their basic rights, they would be taken care of. With conformity came the security of jobs, healthcare, homes, education, maybe even a Volga. Now, in the aftermath of collapse, sentimentality is wide spread, surfacing among the generations that vividly remember the oddities of the Soviet Union, akin to some mass hysteria or Stockholm Syndrome acting itself out as we love our torturer but only after he has left the room.
So here we are, standing on a living breathing queue that moves as one, “The queue’s getting all snarled up . . . move along!” “Look, comrades, how about shifting the whole queue over there?” “They’ve decided to straighten out the queue.” Intimate relationships are formed with the people around us. We fall in and out of love. We pass checkpoints. We await a shopping experience named Godot. Our hero is Vadim Alekseev. The number that he has been assigned to designate his place on the queue is 1,235. We queue for days hoping to eventually, one day, reach the store. The queue is organic, community oriented. People come and go, leaving to eat, drink kvass or vodka and rush back to the queue in time for roll call at 3am and another at 6am, lest their names be crossed off the roaster. Citizens ahead and behind them hold their spots on line. Like blind men describing an elephant, we are never completely sure of what we are queuing for. “The American ones are much sturdier . . .” “The Turkish ones are much better made too.” “They’re nice imported ones, I saw them.”
The Queue is a bright and shining example of the aforementioned nationalistic Stockholm Syndrome. It pushes the envelope in terms of articulating sex, profanity, drunkenness and all of the other mundane nuances that every society carries within it but every closed society denies. A novel structured completely in dialogue, perhaps the most amazing irony of the entire queue experience is that all the comrades are in a relatively good mood. Therein lies the perversity of the novel. Sorokin exposes this cheerful lie by articulating through dialogue the complacency, conformity and acquiescence of the citizens as they proliferate the doomed Soviet economic structure by participating in the absurd ritual of marathon queuing in order to acquire unidentified goods. Here, the journey becomes the destination as the act of queuing becomes a form of voluntary communal masochism played out in the dialogues of citizens on queue. Yet Sorokin himself cannot escape sentimentality. He writes in his afterword, “With the loss of the queue people lost an important therapeutic ritual of self-acknowledgement which had been honed and polished over the course of decades and had become a daily necessity, like drugs for an addict.” This is a sentimental yet somewhat simplistic statement that may be applied to the United States’ addiction to car culture and oil. Just replace the word queue with car in the above.
If these elements of Soviet culture at play in The Queue are to be compared to similar moments in Russian literature it becomes evident how beautifully subtle Sorokin’s The Queue truly is. As Vadim Alekseev has been assigned number 1,235 to mark his place on queue so the Zeks or political prisoners of the GULAG in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had numbers painted on their jackets; Shukhov is S 854. As ordinary Soviet citizens queued for pragmatic goods and food, so Anna Akhmatova describes spending 17 months waiting in queues at the infamous Kresty (Crosses) Prison in Leningrad attempting to deliver supplies to her imprisoned son in Requiem. As Sorokin paints a picture of innocent enthusiasm over nameless, unidentified imported goods, so Lara Vapnyr, in her short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, compares queuing in Soviet Russia to molestation in the story “Puffed Rice and Meatballs” where an adolescent girl’s burgeoning sexuality runs smack into a riot in a Soviet store when a large male employee lifts her up by her rib cage and uses her as a battering ram to restore order, gripping her small breasts as she kicks furiously.
The queue described in the novel is an outdated throwback to a bygone era much like the Belomor cigarette mentioned casually in its pages.
— Got any cigarettes.
— Let’s have one.
— Here you are.
The once proud Belomor is a ghostly remnant of Soviet culture. A short, stout cigarette with low grade tobacco stuffed into a third of it wrapped by thin paper at the tip, the other two thirds are a hollow cardboard tube filter. Where once it was socially acceptable and common to smoke Belomor cigarettes, the only contemporary use for the Belomor is as a component of Russian cannabis culture. It is now used as a pipe by ganja smokers who remove the tobacco and fill the paper end with cannabis. Belomor has transitioned from Soviet standard to an obsolete novelty item. A transition emblematic of the difference between today’s Russia and the seemingly warm family snapshot that is Sorokin’s The Queue.