Strange books to explain a strange nation – The Irish Times

his four hearts

Author: Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton

ISBN-13: 978-1628973969

Editor: Dalkey File Press

Target price: £12.99

telluria

Author: Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton

ISBN-13: 978-1681376332

Editor: NYRB Classics

Target price: £15.99

Russian experiments with modernist literature ended around 1931 when Stalin wrote “idiot!” in the margins of a story by Andrei Platonov. The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s novel about a society that enslaves itself to prepare the ground for a structure so large that its realization will always belong to the future, was completed in 1930, just before socialist realism became the dogma of modernism. Union of Soviet Writers. ; it remained unreleased until 1987.

Vladimir Sorokin’s 1991 novel, Their Four Hearts (now translated by Max Lawton), is a slang, anarchic, scatological, fantasy, and pornographic shooting spree through the corridors of the Russian bureaucracy of the end of communism. Revenging the straitjacket conventions of Soviet censorship, it has more cartoons than a Tarantino movie. In an unusually lucid aside, a character exclaims of his compatriots: “They earned an honest living, they exceeded their normal quotas, they lived in a state of constant hunger, they defended their Homeland, and then they tell them: You are a joke, your life was just a big mistake, you weren’t building a glorious future, but a shitty little concentration camp run by Stalin called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics! And for that, you sons of bitches, your children and grandchildren congratulate you warmly!”

This is a bitter satire rooted in a moment of political collapse. Perhaps too entrenched; good luck to contemporary non-Russians who can follow what’s going on. And it’s longer than necessary. Another interesting novel that could have been an unforgettable novel.

collapse of meaning

The same accusation cannot be leveled at Telluria, also translated by Lawton, which dispenses with the novel form in favor of 50 “chapters” (or stories, scenes…), readable in any order. Here the theme of the collapse of meaning receives a broader and more universal treatment.

Telluria describes a Europe of the future that has disintegrated into small states with widely disparate attitudes towards religion, morals, technology, and nationalism. The unifying obsession of these political entities is the tellurium of drugs. Some societies try to ban it as a dangerous addiction, in others it is a sacrament. It is administered by driving a tellurium nail through the skull and into the brain. To minimize the risk of death, a specialist caste of “carpenters” strikes. Tellurium does not produce a uniform high; it gives each person, or each society, what they seek.

In this ideologically fragmented world, the premium is on the meaning; tellurium tells you what to do with yourself. A traumatized child soldier sees a vision of a blue kitten in a bombed-out house and goes looking for it. A community of futurist poets in a neo-communist state use tellurium to overcome “the dark veil” and compose a visionary poem describing the utopia to come. The Knights Templar in a castle in Languedoc receive their tellurium as a rite and in a wave of coordinated religious ecstasy are catapulted into flying robots on a crusade against the Salafists of Europe.

In a world of competing, clamoring provisional values, our own world, recognizably, tellurium makes desire desirable again. And again, it’s a Russian perspective. The decadent (let’s say capitalist) West had its own slow slide into post-Christian disillusionment, and after the First World War it had a literature to express the malaise. Russia, after 1917, came to embody a utopian world-historical project, froze its literature, and postponed admitting its failure until 1991; Putin has spent the last decade doing his best, bloodily and irrationally, to retract the admission.

Russia is strange and needs strange books to express its predicament. In the summer of 2022, Russia has nuclear warheads and a space program, but we hear there is a shortage of potatoes. In Telluria, the Moscow state has cars that run on potatoes. As a visitor waits for his papa-taxi to take him to the airport, he writes down some thoughts on Russian history: “If she, this glorious ruthless giantess clad in a snow cloak, had properly collapsed in February 1917 and disintegrated into a collection of human-sized states, everything would have happened more or less in the spirit of modern history, and the nations that had been oppressed by the power of the tsar would have finally obtained their post-imperial national identities and begun to live freely. But everything happened differently. The Bolshevik Party did not allow the giantess to fall… The corpse was renamed ‘USSR’ […] Moscow is essentially the skull of the Russian empire and its strange strangeness lies in these ghosts of the past, which we call ‘imperial dreams’”.

Sorokin’s has recently declared, without the aid of a fictitious alias, that its president is motivated by “resentment engendered by the fall of the USSR”, that the power structure in Russia is a “medieval pyramid” that “has not changed or remotely”. in five centuries” and that “the idea of ​​restoring the Russian empire has completely taken hold of Putin”.

It is not surprising that Sorokin has left his homeland. He spends most of his time in Berlin these days.

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