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Vladimir Sorokin and the Dissident Novelist Problem

Sorokin’s novels do not “say” anything about Russia today.

It would be easy to mistake Vladimir Sorokin for a polemical novelist. Born on the outskirts of Moscow in 1955, he came of age as a novelist through the three great transitions of recent Russian history: the end of the USSR, the free-market chaos of the 1990s, and the return to neo-Soviet authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. One of his best-known novels in the United States, Day of the Oprichnik, describes a Russian near future in which the tsardom has been restored and state thugs rain violence on the streets of Moscow. His 1999 novel, Blue Lard, famously features a scene in which the clones of Khrushchev and Stalin have anal sex. Though it hasn’t yet appeared in English, this work is probably more responsible than any other for Sorokin’s international literary celebrity, cementing his status as a modern master of the grotesque.

English-language critics tend to stress this aspect of Sorokin’s writing—the cannibalism, sexual violence, shitting, and shit-eating—while seating him within the drab furniture of Russian political punditry. In their rush to present him as shocking or useful, and therefore worthy of our attention, they auto-tune the cacophony that is his work’s defining feature. Sorokin has been described, variously, as the “shock jock of Russian letters,” “one of Putin’s harshest critics,” and a “notorious provocateur.” A recent profile in The New York Times characterized him as a literary dissident whose “portraits of Russia as a decaying former empire that’s sliding backward under a militaristic, violent and repressive regime have come to seem tragically prescient”—a kind of sexed-up Sol­zhenitsyn. Elsewhere he’s been compared to the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, William S. Burroughs, Will Self, and Michel Houellebecq.

All of which may be, at some level, fair, but he’s much more than the sum of these assessments. Sorokin matters as a writer not because he titillates or scandalizes—it’s post-Enlightenment literature’s cheapest trick to épater les bourgeois, and in a world of ubiquitous porn, QAnon, Jeffrey Epstein, and Bucha, there surely aren’t many bourgeois left to be épatés—or because he “explains” modern Russia to us, which is the critical equivalent of putting his work on the shelf with a use-by date. Irreducible to isolated acts of violence or a sequence of aperçus on the state of Russia today, Sorokin’s fiction is above all a temperament, a gesture, an effect, a style. It is replete with paradoxes. Sorokin is both an incinerator and archaeologist of the forms that precede him: a literary radical who’s a dutiful student of tradition, and a devout Christian whose works mercilessly mock the Orthodox Church.

by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton
New York Review Books Classics, 352 pp., $18.95

It’s this constant oscillation between certainty and precarity, stability and chaos, beauty and devastation, homage and pastiche, plenitude and rupture that makes Sorokin’s fiction unique. His father was a professor of metallurgy, and, in a way, his metallurgical fictions—smelting, soldering, combining, and recycling different historical periods, styles, and registers into fresh alloys—continue the family business. A supreme ventriloquist, he produces fiction that never quite affords us the satisfaction of knowing its creator’s true voice. Sorokin himself may occasionally comment on Russian affairs, but his novels stand apart from politics; rather than participating in the dogmatism of political discourse, they make fun of it.

The English-language publication of Telluria, originally released in Russian in 2013, represents the first salvo in an anticipated burst of Sorokin translations over the next few years. Their Four Hearts, which Sorokin wrote in the early 1990s, has just been published by Dalkey Archive Press, while translations of Dispatches From the District Committee, a collection of Sorokin’s early short stories, the early novels Roman and The Norm, and Blue Lard are all forthcoming. Jamey Gambrell was responsible for many of the early English-language translations of Sorokin’s fiction; following her death in 2020, the challenge of translating Sorokin’s highly idiosyncratic Russian prose into English has now fallen to Max Lawton. Thanks to his tireless commitment, the trickle of releases to which English-language readers of the Russian’s work have become accustomed over the past two decades will soon turn into a torrent.

The idiosyncrasies of Sorokin’s fiction are not only a matter of style; his plots also often resist easy summary. In both form and content, Telluria is perhaps the strangest, most unstraightforward Sorokin novel yet. Following a holy war between Europe and Islam, the world has splintered into a series of miniature nations. Some of these states (Bavaria, Moscow, Languedoc) resemble cities and regions familiar from our own world, while others (bearing names like Barabin and the titular Republic of Telluria) are pure inventions. The streetscapes and customs of this new world recall the European Middle Ages, but its fashions and technologies suggest an era a few generations, perhaps, ahead of our own: People in Telluria wear living furs and take “vertu lovers,” and nearly everyone has their own smartypants, a sentient artificial intelligence that is part-Tamagotchi and part-Siri, knows everything, and can assume whatever form its owner desires.

This retro-futurist world—neither utopian nor anti-utopian but somehow post-utopian, exhausted with the very notion of utopia but compelled to inherit and reenact the cultural forms of an earlier, more idealistic age—revolves around a rare element that exists in the real world. Tellurium takes its name from the Latin tellus, meaning earth, which is mildly paradoxical when you consider that the earth contains very little of it: Present in our planet’s crust at just 0.001 parts per million, it is among the rarest elements. Toxic to humans, tellurium is now critical to the technology on which human civilization increasingly relies. Tellurium compounds are used to create optical fibers and solar cells; a recent article in a peer-reviewed materials science journal found that, as a semiconductor material, tellurium “holds great promise for next-generation electronic ... applications.”

Like the real-world equivalent, Telluria’s tellurium is a chemical substance “born in the bowels of distant mountains” and excavated for its special properties; like our tellurium, its applications induce a kind of collective addiction. Nailed through the forehead and into the brain, a spike of tellurium transports its recipient into a state of transcendental bliss. Tellurium trips allow humans to travel through time, resurrect the dead, overcome the “quotidian morass of the swamp of an ordinary life,” and ascend to “the heights of a New Reality.” The procedure is not without risk: The mortality rate from tellurium injections is 12 percent, and can rise as high as 68 percent for children when the work is performed by an inexpert hand. But the benefits outweigh the risks. The insatiable shared appetite for this miracle metalloid keeps the inhabitants of Telluria locked in a frenzied stasis, glimpsing—but never truly knowing—salvation.

Telluria is a story with no happy endings, but moments of fleeting relief. The fragmentary structure of the novel emphasizes the narrative irresolution: Telluria is not told through the voice of a single narrator but dispersed across 50 vignettes that introduce us to different dimensions of this strange—and strangely recognizable—new world. Some of these vignettes function like relatively conventional short stories, while others are single-page explosions of decontextualized verbiage. The overall effect is submersive and subversive: The reader is denied the life raft of narrative coherence, and though points of contact between the different fragments do exist, any semblance of linearity is rubbed out the moment it appears.

In prose that slips from humorlessly insistent bureaucratese to epistolary tenderness, from techno-religious uplift to soft-focus chat room sleaze, the novel moves from the “halls of power” to the “bunks and shitholes” of this new world. We witness a meeting of the new Knights Templar as they prepare a fresh flying crusade against the “main Salafi nest” of Istanbul. We see the president of Telluria, the Frenchman Jean-François Trocard, soaring with the assistance of a jet-propelled backpack across the peaks and valleys of his adopted homeland before repairing to his mountainside palace for a cocaine-fueled threesome. We watch a live TV report from the “Pink Monday” carnival in Cologne—the first since the liberation of Northern Rhine-Westphalia from Wahhabi-Taliban occupation—that doubles as a kind of mediatized pastiche of the Trümmerliteratur of postwar Germany. We hear the battle hymn of Islamic warriors preparing a fresh assault on Europe, the soliloquy of a centaur who’s grown addicted to a magical drug called “küsschen,” and the confession of a cleaner in a cheap hotel who eavesdrops on guests having sex (“There’s nothing sweeter than lovers moaning behind a wall”). We survey the Queen of Charlottenburg’s harem of phalluses, follow dog-headed humans feasting on battlefield carrion as they cross Europe toward Telluria, and watch a princess stage her own rape.

Above all, we see a distorted Russia. The violations of Telluria are not only individual but national. Thanks to the efforts of its “three fatal rulers”—Lenin, Gorbachev, and Putin—the “dragon that was Russia” has, we learn, “decisively expired”: This “frightening, antihumanist state” ruled from Moscow “bloated up like an evil frog over the course of centuries, stretching its skin from Brest to the Pacific Ocean, before bursting from three pricks of a fatal needle.” Now the evil frog’s exploded skin has settled over the new “post–post-Soviet space” born of Russia’s remains: Freed of Russia, this mosaic of successor states nevertheless remains chained to Russian history.

Early in Telluria, a European visitor describes the new state of Moscovia, where potato pulp is the automotive fuel of the masses, the air has a “cloying and musty taste that spreads all through the city,” and “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism” rules the day. Rather than moving beyond the pathologies of Russian political tradition, the new states of post–post-­Sovietude recycle and recombine them into a hellish mash-up of Russian Orthodoxy, Soviet communism, feudalism, and free-market fundamentalism. If rampant inequality, institutional entropy, and unfolding ecological catastrophe suggest that global capitalism has now entered the stagnant interregnum that Antonio Gramsci once predicted—in which “the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”—Sorokin portrays a world one step ahead: The old is dying and the dead are ceaselessly exhumed.

Cultural revivalism thrives in the Russian rump states of Telluria, and its acolytes find themselves “indefatigably struggling with communism, Russian Orthodox fundamentalism, fascism, atheism, globalism, agnosticism, neofeudalism, devilish confoundments, virtual witchcraft, verbal terrorism, computerized drug addiction, liberal spinelessness, aristocratic national patriotism, geopolitics, Manicheanism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism, eugenics, botanics, applied mathematics ... neoglobalism, nationalism, anti-Americanism, clericalism, and voluntarism, forever and ever. Amen.”

In Telluria, there is no escape from the chaos of history, and the novel’s twisting, relentless sentences—rendered by Lawton into a wonderfully liquid English—enact this entrapment. Telluria’s characters push toward “the light at the end of the tunnel,” but the joke is that there is no light, or if there is, it is glimpsed only faintly. The promise of progress meets the paralysis of its pursuit: Telluria reads as a chronicle of projects forestalled, exits that become entrances, horizons glimpsed but never attained, and advances that lead back to their point of departure.

This is a recurring theme in Sorokin’s fiction. His first novel, The Queue, takes the form of a transcript of the dialogue between unnamed Soviet citizens, waiting in an interminable line. Like Vladimir and Estragon or the disembodied narrator of Beckett’s The Unnamable, they weigh the frustrations of staying against the futility of leaving in an endlessly circular exchange:

–So what are we going to do—stand here all night?
–No, why bother? You can leave if you want.
–What, for the whole night?
–Till roll call.
–When’s roll call?
–At three a.m. and at six…
–What, are they out of their minds? Got to hang around singing cuckoo all night?
–Maybe we could go and come back at three?
–Oh yeah, go where?! I live miles away.
–That’s just it, how’re we going to make it back in time? All very well to go home and sleep, but there’s no transport at three in the morning…
–What idiot thought this one up!
–I think I’m going to leave…
–We’ve wasted all this time for nothing.
–Shall we stay?
–Might as well.

Several of Telluria’s chapters show enslaved characters hatching plans for escape—but escape to where? And for what? No corner of this universe is untouched by assault, and no home is safe from the sticky tide of cultural nostalgia. One of the book’s funniest vignettes tells the story of a gay Western European couple who honeymoon in the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic, a country-size theme park devoted to Stalin-themed kitsch: “On the first of June, they arrived on a charter flight from Vienna into the only airport in the USSR: an airport that bore Stalin’s name like everything else in this tiny country.” Patrick and Engelbert pass dachas perched on hills (“This is where our creative intelligentsia lives,” explains their guide), make out in the temple where Stalin’s relics are displayed, and enjoy dinner in a Georgian restaurant where Stalin’s favorite pop songs are performed by an ensemble in national dress. Eventually, they accept the free tellurium trip that the USSR offers to all tourists, said to be a way to “end up in the great, fearsome, and heroic era of developed Stalinism and personally meet Comrade Stalin.” They both die after their injections go awry.

Patrick and Engelbert roam the USSR professing wonderment but feeling nothing, alive to experiences but numb to experience, dead inside—and eventually just plain dead. In a universe haunted by the past, their story invites us to consider, every being is already a little spectral, every presence an absence. The dominant experiential mode of a dead culture is tourism.

Telluria takes its name not only from the chemical element tellurium but also from the idea of “tellurocracy” propagated by Russian ultranationalist political theorist Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin, a Putin confidante who’s thought to have been an architect of the invasion of Ukraine, has theorized the development of a Russian-led Eurasian tellurocracy (or land-based power) that will inevitably come into civilizational conflict with the “thalassocracy” (or seaborne power) of the United States.

Telluria plays on this geopolitical scheme, mimicking the frothy language of Russian ethno-nationalism; the story of Patrick and Engelbert even contains a mention of “Dasein,” one of the key concepts of Duginian illiberalism. But none of this “says” anything about Russia today; Telluria’s whole scheme is designed to frustrate and mock the binary certainties of politics. There’s no synthesis in Telluria’s world, no resolution in the battle between tellurocracy and thalassocracy, Eurasianism and Atlanticism, Dasein and Hubris, imperialism and communism, liberalism and authoritarianism. Proper encounters between these forces hardly even take place. Instead of cultural synthesis, we find an unordered mass of things, people, ideas, and aspirations. There’s nothing hopeful or humanistic about this blob; if anything, its only certainty is the inevitability of violence. The individuals of Telluria are completely lost, dissolved in the filth and “black milk” of the impersonal world around them.

Even tellurium itself is a kind of mirage. The fleeting moments of transcendence it offers the people of Telluria lead to banal dependence and sometimes even death. But the drug’s promise of what Tellurians call “consummation”—which we can read as salvation, perfection, liberation, the attainment of the divine—leaves them unable to quit. The penultimate chapter of Telluria takes the form of an extended ode to this ingestible gold:

Tellurium! New horizons of hope!
Tellurium! Shining like the vestments of the angels!
Tellurium! Shining like the prophet’s lightning!
Tellurium! Plunging into the brains of millions as if ’twere a divine scalpel!
Tellurium! Redefining the limits of humanity!
Tellurium! Filling people with confidence in the past, present, and future! Confidence! Happiness! Joy! To the brim! To the point of overflow! Till the blood boils! Till the Great Calming of the Soul!
Tellurium, whose name is the Overcoming of Time and Space!
Tellurium, which has made us consummate!

At multiple points in Telluria, the prose snowballs, as here, into a relentless maximalism that parodies the suprarational language of the early–twentieth-century futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. Khlebnikov felt that explosive spontaneity could light the path toward discovery of a universal language. Like everything else, the optimistic rationalism of Russia’s futurists resurfaces in Telluria, but it’s mangled into a joke. The familiar becomes strange; reason gives way to resonance. The task of Sorokin’s reader is not to make sense of his violently uncertain worlds, but to surrender to them.