13 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chris Schaefer. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

This first-round match pits a futuristic fantasy of reborn Russian czardom against a present-day fantasy of repressed Algerian Islamism in Paris. Male author against female. Slav against Arab. Political satire against social satire. This is the World Cup of Literature.

The Russian representative is Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (2006), a novel that recounts one day in the life of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, newly reestablished in the 21st century for a new czar ruling a new Russia. In this futuristic world, the Chinese exert great political, economic, and linguistic power. Russian borders are kept safe thanks to gigantic border walls. And the oprichnina are the safeguards of domestic peace and unity. They are men of patriotism and torture, faith and violence, corruption and luxury, censorship and rape, even sadism and sadomasochism—brutal men with a sacred purpose, unique bonding rituals, and a very high buying price.

Against this contender, the Algerians put forth Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (2007). Protagonist Mohamed ben Mokhtar decides he has had enough of his life as a pious Muslim Algerian virgin momma’s boy living in the Parisian banlieues. So he changes his name to the more Frenchified Basile Tocquard, straightens his hair, whitens his skin, and moves into the center of Paris in preparation for a life of unbridled sexual and consumerist pleasure. The good life as a faux Frenchman doesn’t turn out quite like he expects though. He only manages to attract Arab women, mostly older and not exactly charmed by his thinly veiled misogyny.

There is something a little crazy about an Algerian doing everything in his power to suppress his identity to become more French than the French themselves. Mohamed’s masturbation to religious fantasies is also a tad bit strange. However, when it comes down to sheer insanity, Day of the Oprichnik takes the cake with its religious patriotism, mundane torture, nonchalant book-burning, and drug injection by vein-crawling fish. Mostly, though, Sorokin’s novel beats out Marouane’s on this front because of a single drug-fueled gay orgy scene near the end in which the testicles of each oprichnik glow a special color based on his rank in the oprichnina hierarchy. For sheer over-the-top-ness, Sorokin’s novel slides one home. (Russia 1 – 0 Algeria)

Be that as it may, Algeria mounts a strong challenge when it comes to questions of identity. With the Russians, it’s quite simple. As Sorokin’s narrator has it: “The Russian people aren’t easy to work with. But God hasn’t given us any other people.” For the Algerians, it’s not just about managing (that is, torturing or raping or killing) their hard-headed and hard-drinking compatriots. The novel is infused with dichotomies—French vs. Arab, Muslim vs. Western, good son vs. bad son, wife vs. whore—that produce conflicted desires and confused identities. The permutations are endless, and Marouane keeps it interesting. Algeria equalizes. (Russia 1 – 1 Algeria)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Marouane’s novel, however, is the postmodern twist she throws into the narration. Slowly but surely, a feminine voice cleverly intrudes into the hopelessly narcissistic masculine narrative. By the end, it’s not clear who is fictional and who is real, who is writing and who is being written, who is the original and who is the copy. Russia may have crazy, but, with its clever narrative ploy, Algeria keeps the reader guessing until the very end. (Russia 1 – 2 Algeria)

Russia keeps it interesting with outlandish scenes, yet the hyperbole can only carry Sorokin’s novel so far. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris tones down the hyperbole and outlasts Day of the Oprichnik with a more understated social critique. Slow and steady does the trick, and Algeria pulls out the win.

Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris moves on to the next round to face the winner of Germany vs. Ghana!

——

Christopher Schaefer’s writing has appeared in World Literature Today, Three Percent, and The Quarterly Conversation. His celebratory antics after Landon Donovan’s match-winning goal for the United States over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup earned him the ire of a cafe full of Arabs. His literary judgment was in no way influenced by this event.

——

Did The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, which just came out from FSG in Jamey Gambrell’s translation.

Since this is a day of Sorokin (the event write-up, the discussion in the podcast), I’m going to skip all the normal author and reviewer stuff and go straight to the review:

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.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

4 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.

When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)

So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.

But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .

Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.

Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .

Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.

All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.

The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .

As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .

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