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


3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is an insane piece that I wrote about Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, which is translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell and available from New York Review Books.

I am aware of how crazily self-indulgent and odd this review is, but after writing about Sorokin so many times in such a short period (see this PEN roundup, and this review, and this podcast), I think my mind broke, and instead of writing a review, I ended up describing my vision of a miniseries version of the Ice Trilogy:

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Click here to read the entire thing.

3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Episode Two: Alexander (born at the start of episode one) is now in college. He pines after a pretty young thing, but she’s all wrapped up in Kulik, a renegade science professor who is determined to find the Tungus meteor. As a way of impressing the girl, Alexander joins up with Kulik’s latest expedition into Siberia. There are trials, tribulations, and as they grow closer to the spot where the meteor landed, Alexander falls into a fugue state resulting in his being separated from the rest of the group. Wandering around, he is drawn to a particular swampy area where he uncovers the Tungus ice meteor. He falls upon the ice, feels his heart “awaken,” finds out his true name is “Bro,” and hears an otherworldly voice explain how once upon a time there were 23,000 “Light-bearing rays” that created all the worlds of the universe. Their one mistake was creating Earth, which was filled with “disharmonious water.” Because of the water’s mirror-like qualities, the 23,000 rays of light get trapped, become humans, cause violence, fuck shit up, etc. There is a solution though! Once the hearts of all 23,000 “rays” are awoken and learn all the “heart words,” they can form a huge circle and the universe will be reborn in healthy, sublime light. It’s like hippy paradise. (See pages 77-80 for the complete new age description.)

Back in current times, Olga and Bjorn are in Guangzhou having dinner with Michael Laird, another ice hammer survivor. He explains a bit more to them about the Brotherhood of the Light and the way they use the ICE Corporation as a front to find the 23,000 who will awake and turn into light, etc., etc. When Olga asks why Michael and his fellow investigators are in Guangzhou, he explains that this is where the Brotherhood is based, where the 23,000 are going to gather and bring about the new world. They toast to the “resistance,” the Michael puts down his glass without taking a sip, and Olga and Bjorn slump to the floor. A waiter ties up Olga’s and Bjorn’s hands and carry them out of the restaurant.

Episode Three: Bro leaves the swamp with a huge chunk of the Tungus ice, in search of some guidance as to how to start this rebirthing process. He finds a girl; in his eyes, her chest glows. He bashes her with some ice (thank you very much!) and “Fer’s” heart is awoken. They embrace in a loving, still asexual way as their hearts speak to one another. In a Zen bliss that’s as creepy as it is content, they wander Siberia, discovering other chosen people, and indoctrinating them into the Brotherhood by slamming them with ice until their heart speaks their true name. During this phase of the Brotherhood, there’s a lot of “heart conversations” and weeping over the sadness of the world. There’s also a lot of hope—these people truly believe that they will bring about universal nirvana. They are sweet, totally asexual, and operate in a sort of benevolent hive-mind fashion. Their numbers grow slowly, but since Fer & Bro (when together) can see exactly who is a chosen person and who isn’t, they are extremely efficient in their operations. But then Fer dies . . .

Olga and Bjorn are now working in the “Dead Bitches Factory” where they skin dead dogs in order to make the straps for the ice hammers. There are 189 people trapped in this underground factory filled with hanging dogs and sterile jail-cell dormitories. Olga tries to rebel, yelling “Fuck you!” at one of the cameras. A bunch of Chinese men flood into the factory and tase the shit out of her. Fade to black.

Episode Four: After the passing of Fer, the Brotherhood searches for another person with her abilities. Eventually, they awaken Khram, who sort of has the gift of being able to identify other “rays of light,” but not really. So the Brotherhood starts kidnapping and bashing all sorts of blond-haired, blue-eyed people in search of new members and the heartmate that would enhance Khram’s abilities. Bro dies and it’s up to her to lead the Brotherhood on the path toward 23,000. Their numbers increase steadily through random attempts, but it’s slow going through Soviet times when they face persecution from a few sides. Nevertheless, when people’s hearts are awoken, the Brotherhood takes care of them physically and financially, and they all have a chance to do some naked (non-sexual) heart-bonding. And based on the looks on their faces, this is some good stuff.

A really old man invites Olga to sit with him during lunch. She’s still a bit discombobulated from the post-outburst beatdown, but she senses that this man knows more than he’s letting on. The guy—Ernst Wolf—ends up explaining that his father is one of the main leaders of the Brotherhood. Ernst ended up down here after he was bashed at age 17 and it was determined that he was an “empty shell,” and not one of the rays of light. He tells Olga about a time he saw his father and 22 others in a small circle, unmoving, speaking with their hearts, etc. Ernst trying to disrupt the hippy heart speak by hitting his father with a red-hot poker, but his dad didn’t even flinch, even as his skin burned. Ernst believes in the Great Transformation of the 23,000. But he also thinks this could be very bad shit. As he’s carted off to be killed (sub-plot: Ernst has cancer, no one who is sick can remain in the factory, etc.), he slips Olga a note and a key to a possible way out.

Episode ends with an infomercial for the ICE Machine—a high-tech flak jacket complete with an “ice chamber” over the middle that, once you put this on and plug it in, bashes you in the chest until your heart wakes up and you hallucinate a circle of happy people. According to the infomercial, this device will fix all the world’s problems—violence, depression, anxiety, pain—thanks to the special qualities of the Tungus ice. This is obviously an extremely quick way for the Brotherhood to find their 23,000, and a perfect front for all their questionable activities . . .

Episode Five: Opens with a young, possibly mentally challenged boy waking up and searching for his mom. She’s mysteriously disappeared, so he tries to get his own breakfast. As he falls from the stove while reaching for the cupboard, a man catches him. They talk for a minute, and the man reassures the boy that his mom is visiting her sister, that she sent the man to bring the boy there. Everything seems sweet and on the up-and-up. The boy asks what’s in the man’s suitcase: “Nothing,” he says with a laugh, as he gasses the boy and stuffs him into the suitcase.

We find out through conversations among the leader of the ICE Corporation that there are only a handful of people left to find, the main one being a young boy who is pretty much the Brotherhood Jesus. This boy is en route to their headquarters where his heart will be awoken and Khram can pump some heart-knowledge into him. Once he arrives and the last few people are bashed awake, the ICE suits turn some keys in a special circular device, and around the world people are notified via cellphones and whatnot that it’s time for the Great Transformation. They all start heading to China . . .

Olga enlists Bjorn in her escape plan. They use the key to open the special passageway and make a run for the surface. Alarms go off, and after lots of running around in air vents and trying to find a way out via a secret elevator, Michael Laird captures them and tells them that he needs their help.

Episode Six: Starts right where #5 left off. Michael brings Olga and Bjorn into a room and explains the Brotherhood, the joy of becoming light, the rebirth of the world, the end to all problems, how they’re correcting the one great mistake, that this is all good shit, etc. Over the course of this conversation, Olga and Bjorn’s demeanor changes. They seem to be more at peace . . . almost happy. Michael tells them that he needs them to hold the two weaker members of the brotherhood (two children) in the circle so that all 23,000 hearts can speak the 23 heart words 23 times and the world comes to a blissful end. Won over by the simplicity of Michael’s viewpoint and the enveloping calmness that he exudes, they agree.

On a marble covered island, 23,000 naked people start joining hands. All is silent as they assume the lotus position. Everything is peaceful, calm. There is a low level buzzing. Olga and Bjorn are on opposite sides of the circle, each with a young kid on their lap, giving off the best vibes they can. The screen goes white.

Olga is the first to awaken. Everything is extremely bright. She can’t really make out much of anything at first. As her eyes adjust, she notices that everyone around her is unconscious and flat on the earth. She checks the man next to her—dead. As is the woman next to him. In fact, they’re all dead. Everyone except for Bjorn. They repeat “By God” a series of times (“By God?” “By God.” “By God!”), join hands, and walk off.

*

OK, that interpretation may be a bit self-indulgent, but the point is that there’s something fundamentally interesting about Sorokin’s trilogy. When I saw the play version of Ice in New York last month, I was struck by just how adaptable this material is—a testament to the fact that Sorokin has tapped into something.

(I don’t think I did this justice, but there’s a great tension among the innocent beliefs of the Brotherhood, the sort of latent human desire to witness the end of the world and for this experience to be rapturous, and the hyperviolent and invasive way in which the Brotherhood finds its members.)

That said, this trilogy is loaded with flaws and shortcomings. I mentioned this in my review of Day of the Oprichnik, but Sorokin’s use of italics is baffling and all over the place. For the most part, the prose itself is utilitarian to the point of awkwardness (“Later I dreamed about that lard. Dreamed I grabbed hold of it, but it was like the oat pudding they boil up for wakes—it slipped between my fingers!”), with the exception of three more “experimental” set-pieces, which, due to their brevity and uselessness in advancing the story, seem unnecessary and out-of-place. There’s a ton of repetition in these books, especially when someone’s heart is awoken—there must be two dozen near identical descriptions of how people are hit with an ice hammer until their heart speaks its name, then there’s the pressing of bare chests, the weeping, etc. Finally, the fixedly chronological telling of events can get rather boring, especially since the reader can see the end goal from a very early point and has to wade through all those repetitions to find out what happens . . .

This tension—between the compelling core of the trilogy and the less than amazing way in which it’s related—is what makes the Ice Trilogy so frustrating as an artistic object. It’s powerful stuff, but, at the risk of ending this epically long review with a crappy metaphor, the greatness of this book is like ice buried in the permafrost—chisel that all away and you’d have a very pretty object.

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 . . .

19 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’ve been a huge fan of NYRB for years. I think I even have copies of the first twelve/thirteen books in those very unfortunately designed covers. Every season I drool when their catalog arrives. I’ve been planning a post for weeks entitled “Albert Cossery is Effing Awesome,” which is due in part to NYRB’s publication of The Jokers. (And to give props where props are due, the post is also indebted to New Directions for publishing A Splendid Conspiracy. And to GoodReads for hooking me up knowledge-wise.) I love visiting Edwin Frank and Sara Kramer, and Edwin’s monthly missive about one of their new titles is by far the most erudite and learned of all publisher newsletters. NYRB is definitely one of the best presses publishing today.

The only this that sucks is that, thanks to their Random House distribution agreement, their catalog lists titles that aren’t coming out for another year. (These titles aren’t even on the NYRB website yet.) This is anguish-making . . . yet, the new list is pretty phenomenal, so as an interlude in my ongoing series of forthcoming fall translations, here’s a list of titles not coming out until spring/summer 2011.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Louise Varese. (June 14, 2011)

Originally published in English in the ’50s, this has been out-of-print forever, and sounds like a great addition to the ongoing Simenon renaissance that NYRB has been undertaking the past few years. By the time this comes out, I think NYRB will have reissued 11 Simenon novels, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement. (Back some time ago, Mark Binelli and I co-hosted a Words Without Borders reading group on The Engagement. a That was a lot of fun, especially since we disagreed about the book—I thought it was pretty cool, Mark found the writing pretty annoying. Anyway.) This novel is about Charles Alavoine—an upstanding, bourgeois citizen haunted by a sense of loneliness—and his meeting with Martine, a “young woman helplessly adrift in the world” who both awakens Alavoine and “sets the stage for his tragic disintegration.”

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. (April 12, 2011)

Another excellent reprint. I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. The novel is a monologue from an aged man who tells a group of sunbathing women about his lovers, scandals, adventures. “As the book tumbles restlessly forward, and the comic tone takes on darker shadings, we realize we are listening to a man talking as much out of desperation as from exuberance.” All of Hrabal’s books are worth checking out, especially I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, and Closely Watched Trains. But this is really one of the best, and I’m glad that eight months from now it will finally be available again.

The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated from the Polish by David Welsh. (February 8, 2011)

I feel like this is a book that’s been recommended to me over and over again . . . And finally, come next February, I’ll finally have a chance to read it. From the catalog copy: “The Doll is a classic of Polish literature, a novel that takes in the whole nineteenth century and looks ahead to modern questions of empire, revolution, anti-Semitism, and socialism. [. . .] The rich cast includes the old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848; the young scientist Ochocki, dreaming of flying machines; the deranged adn manipulative Baroness Krzeszowska; the angelic widow Stawska; the wise dowager duchess; and many more.”

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. (February 8, 2011)

This is an interesting publishing story and situation. Back some years ago, there was a great article about Vladimir Sorokin in either the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. (Thinking it’s the former, but my memory . . . blah.) Anyway, his work sounded really interesting and super-offensive. For example, his novel Blue Lard includes a gay sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. In fact, his work was so offensive that the Pro-Putin Youth dumped copies in a fake toilet bowl. (I can’t believe that I can’t find a picture of this on the Internet. Events like this are why YouTube exists!) Anyway, NYRB scooped up rights to a few of his books, including Ice, which came out in hardcover back in 2007ish. Ice got mixed reviews (memory serves, again, disclaimer), wasn’t quite as crazy/funny at The Queue (also available from NYRB, and which I would whole-heartedly recommend), etc. Now NYRB is bringing out The Ice Trilogy, of which, Ice is the middle volume. “Bro, the first section of Sorokin’s chef d’oeuvre, relates the mysterious emergence of the brotherhood in the aftermath of a massive meteroite striking Siberia (a historical occurrence known as the Tungus event.)” (I’m personally fascinated by the Tungus event.) “23,000 bring the trilogy to a wildly suspenseful close. All 23,000 members of the brotherhood have at last been brought together and they are preparing to stage the global destruction that will return them to their origins in pure light.” I read Ice when it came out, and although I didn’t love it, I found myself compelled, reading it in just a couple sittings, sucked in for inexplicable reasons. Very curious to see how it reads surrounded by the other two parts . . . .

UPDATE: Special thanks to Lisa Hayden Espenschade for this link to a story (in Russian) about the whole Sorokin controversy. And for these photos:





(Nate and E.J. go away for a day, and I start posting toilet pictures. Suppose it could be worse . . . )

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, which came out from New York Review Books last fall. NYRB has also published Sorokin’s Ice, and have plans to do a few of his other titles as well. That, plus FSG’s publication of A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik might lead to a Sorokin moment . . . One that doesn’t involve his books being flushed down a mock toilet. . . .

Margarita Shalina from St. Mark’s Bookshop wrote this review, which opens:

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. [For the rest, click here.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

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. . .

Read More...

5 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

According to the Moscow News, the Russian PEN Center recently sent a letter to the Moscow’s prosecutor’s office, “asking for a thorough investigation of a road accident involving well-known Russian author Vladimir Sorokin earlier this month.”

This does sound really suspicious:

According to press reports, Sorokin was riding his scooter on an empty highway outside Moscow in plain daylight and was knocked off the road by a truck, which didn’t stop after the accident. Sorokin suffered some injuries, including a broken collar bone, and was taken to hospital where he underwent a surgery.

Sorokin’s been a controversial figure in Russian letters for years now. His novel Blue Lard—which includes a hot dictator-on-dictator sex scene starring clones Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev—got him charged with pornography and basically pissed of much of Russia.

Moving Together, which says it has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, held a demonstration against literature they allege degrades traditional Russian society and tore up 6,700 books, including some of Sorokin’s, in front of TV cameras. [. . .]

The protesters threw books by Sorokin and Karl Marx into an oversized cardboard toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, which is considered the benchmark for high Russian culture and has also commissioned a libretto from Sorokin. (From CNN’s coverage back in 2002.)

The idea of an “oversized cardboard toilet” for eliminating books does crack me up, although the fact that this actually happened is deeply disturbing.

Reader’s International published an English version of The Queue years ago, and more recently, NYRB published Ice.

His new novel sounds interesting as well:

Incidentally, Sorokin’s most recent novel, last year’s Den oprichnika (A Day of an Oprichnik), which had a much sharper political edge than his previous books, satirizing the federal security service (FSB) by making a comparison with the Oprichnina, a notorious organization that terrorized the country’s population under Czar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, did not cause any controversy or have a substantial public resonance. However, it could have upset many people, not exactly those in FSB.

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