Day of the Oprichnik
Set in a futuristic Moscow (2028 according to the jacket copy), Day of the Oprichnik is exactly that: a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. The oprichniki were essentially a cultish “death squad” that was set up by Tsar Ivan the Terrible back in the mid 1500s to protect his ass and slay his enemies, and in Sorokin’s latest novel, they do exactly that—and in graphic detail—all in service of His Majesty, the new ruler of Russia.
As a reader jumping in blind to this book, it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t exactly the Russia we’re familiar with . . . In the second paragraph, Komiaga is awoken by screams, moans, and “the death rattle” emanating from his “mobilov” and recorded by “the Secret Department, when they were torturing the Far Eastern general.” Then there’s reference to a “news bubble,” the Far Eastern Pipeline which “will remain closed until petition from the Japanese,” and his Mercedov with its “transparent roof.”
It’s in the last paragraph of this opening chapter that we see what direction Komiaga’s day is heading:
In the rearview mirror I see my homestead receding. A good house, with a heart and soul. I’ve been living in it for only seven months, yet it feels as though I was born and grew up there. The property used to belong to a comrade moneychanger at the Treasury: Gorokhov, Stepan Ignatievich. When he fell into disgrace during the Great Treasury Purge and exposed himself, we took him in hand During that hot summer a good number of Treasury heads rolled. Bobrov and five of his henchmen were paraded through Moscow in an iron cage, then flogged with the rod and beheaded on Lobnoe Mesto in Red Square. Half of the Treasury was exiled from Moscow beyond the Urals. There was a lot of work . . .
Over the rest of the book—the rest of Komiaga’s day—he helps destroy the home of a fallen nobleman (and rapes his wife in some surreal prose), goes to church (New Rus is ardently religious), investigates a pasquinade defaming His Majesty’s son-in-law, helps pass judgement on an obscene new performance, takes a bribe, does some super-hallucinagenic mindmelding drug of Philip K. Dick proportions, tries to help repress a subversive storyteller, consults a psychic for His Majesty’s wife, and participates in a oprichinki orgy, among other sordid, frequently disturbing tasks.
Since the novel’s main engine, so to speak, is the attempt to describe (and satirize) an invented world, these set-pieces work exceedingly well. It’s through Komiaga’s experiences that we learn about the “Western Wall” that cuts New Rus off from the stinking filth of Europe, about the political issues related to taxing all the Chinese inhabitants of Siberia, about the importance of religion, the ban on hard drugs (weed and coke are totally cool), and the restrictions on swearing and obscenity. This novel operates within one of the common trappings of science-fiction novels, in which the author ends up building a plot simply in order to show you the various aspects of the world he invented.
In this case, there’s no really overarching plot to speak off aside from simply seeing what happens in a typical day in the life of a member of this special group. What they’re allowed to do, how their oppression works, etc. In contrast to the sci-fi book that relies on the creativeness of its inventions (social, scientific, and whatnot), the reason Sorokin’s book is mostly successful is due to its satirical charms and frightening truth that, no matter what changes, there’s always a secret group of oprichniki with special privileges.
It’s probably my own shortcoming, but I get the sense that some of Sorokin’s targets slipped by me . . . Or, to put that more positively, that Russian readers (or readers more well versed in the contemporary Russian scene), will get even more out of this. One bit that I particularly liked (which brought to mind an essay of Dubravka Ugresic’s from Thank You for Not Reading and plays to my obsessions) was this bit about literature in New Rus:
Bookstands are also standardized, approved by His Majesty and approved by the Literary Chamber. Our people respect books. On the left side there’s Orthodox Church literature; on the right the Russian classics; and in the middle, the latest works by contemporary writers. First I look over the prose of our country’s contemporary writers: Ivan Korobov’s White Birch; Nikolia Voropaevsky’s Our Fathers; Isaak Epshtein’s The Taming of the Tundra; Rashid Zametdinov’s Russia—My Motherland; Pavel Olegov’s The Nizhny Novgorod Tithe; Savvaty Sharkunov’s Daily Life of the Western Wall; Irodiada Deniuzhkina’s My Heart’s Friend; Oksana Podrobskaya’s The Mores of New Chinese Children. I know all these authors well. They’re famous, distinguished. Caressed by the love of the people and His Majesty.
One of the main problems I had with this book is that it’s not as humorous or biting or disturbing as I expected. Sorokin has been the figurehead for contemporary Russian literature for years now. He’s been featured in major publications on several occasions (like the New York Review of Books where he was referred to as “the only real prose writer, and resident genius” of late-Soviet fiction), with the general view being that his works are the most subversive, controversial, brilliant things being written in Russia today.
For example, almost every single piece about him that I’ve read (or written), makes mention of the fact that the Putin Youth symbolically flushed his books down a paper-mache toilet. Or that the untranslated novel “Blue Lard” has a graphic sex scene starring Khrushchev and Stalin. All of which ended up constructing a sort of image of a punk trouble-maker, a shocking sort of explosive writer. That may be true in some contexts, but Day of the Oprichnik, for all its political concerns, isn’t the fireball of controversy that I was expecting . . .
Getting that reputation out of the way allows for his work to be appreciated for other reasons though, which will benefit his reputation (in this country at least) in the future. Day of the Oprichnik isn’t a bad book, in fact, it’s enjoyable to read—something that sounds odd to say when it’s a book featuring a sizable helping of destruction and violence. But Komiaga’s voice is compelling, and he serves the reader well in leading us through this new, perplexing world.
An interesting aspect of Komiaga’s voice, that happens also to be a translation question, is the use of italicized words throughout the text. Sometimes these italics imply a special new code of sorts, like when he refers to “an order to squash the innards” during “a raid,” or the order to perform a “red rooster.” Other times, the italics are particular phrasings emphasized to provoke a certain feeling (usually creepy), like in this bit related to the nobleman’s wife:
This work is—passionate, and absolutely necessary. It gives us more strength to overcome the enemies of the Russian state. Even this succulent work requires a certain seriousness. You have to start and finish by seniority.
There are so, so many of these italicized words and phrases in the book, many of which just seem odd or distracting or emphasizing the wrong word. (“I’ve seen many book and manuscript bonfires—in our courtyard, and in the Secret Department.”) I have every confidence in the world in Jamey Gambrell’s translation (she also did Sorokin’s The Queue and The Ice Trilogy, so she definitely knows his work and style), but I am curious as to how these worked in the original Russian. Sometimes punctuation and other forms of emphasis don’t always translate exactly . . .
Overall, Day of the Oprichnik is an intriguing book (a 7.1 out of 10), and hopefully in combination with the recent publication of The Ice Trilogy, will help English readers have a much better understanding of Sorokin’s art, and not just his reputation.