Strange books to explain a strange nation – The Irish Times

Their four hearts

Author: Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton

ISBN-13: 978-1628973969

Editor: Dalkey Archives Press

Guide price: £12.99


Author: Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Max Lawton

ISBN-13: 978-1681376332

Editor: NYRB Classics

Guide price: £15.99

Russian experiments with modernist literature ended around 1931 when Stalin wrote “idiot!” on the sidelines of a story by Andrei Platonov. The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s novel about a society working to lay the groundwork for a structure so grand that its realization will always belong to the future, was completed in 1930, just before socialist realism became house-style dogma. of the Union of Soviet Writers. ; it remained unreleased until 1987.

Vladimir Sorokin’s 1991 novel Their Four Hearts (now translated by Max Lawton) is an arrogant, lawless, scatological, fantastical and pornographic shootout in the halls of Russia’s late communist administration. Taking revenge on the straitjacket conventions of Soviet censorship, it has more comic book gore than a Tarantino movie. In an uncharacteristically lucid aside, a character exclaims of his countrymen: “They earned an honest living, exceeded their normal quotas, lived in a constant state of hunger, defended their homeland, and then they were told: you are a joke, your life was one 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 motherfuckers, your children and grandchildren warmly congratulate you!

It is a bitter satire rooted in a moment of political collapse. Maybe too rooted; 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 short story.

Collapse of meaning

The same accusation cannot be made against Telluria, also translated by Lawton, which renounces the novelistic form in favor of 50 “chapters” (or stories, scenes…), readable in any order. Here, the theme of the collapse of meaning receives a grander, more universal treatment.

Telluria describes a Europe of the future that has disintegrated into small states with widely disparate attitudes toward religion, morals, technology, and nationalism. The unifying obsession of these policies is the drug tellurium. 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, into the brain. To minimize the risk of death, a specialized caste of “carpenters” deliver the blow. Tellurium does not produce an even high; it gives each person, or each society, what it seeks.

In this ideologically fragmented world, the premium is on meaning; tellurium tells you what to do with yourself. A traumatized boy-soldier has 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 uses tellurium to overcome “the black veil” and compose a visionary poem describing the utopia to come. The Templars of a castle in Languedoc receive their tellurium as a rite and, in a surge of coordinated religious ecstasy, are catapulted on flying robots in a crusade against the Salafis of Europe.

In a world of competing, demanding, provisional values ​​– our own, recognizable world – tellurium makes desire desirable again. And again, this is a Russian perspective. The decadent (let’s say capitalist) West experienced its own slow slide into post-Christian disillusionment, and after World War I had a literature to express the malaise. Russia, after 1917, embodied a utopian world historical project, froze its literature and postponed the admission of its failure until 1991; Putin has spent the last decade doing his bloody, irrational best to retract his confession.

Russia is strange and needs strange books to express its plight. In the summer of 2022, Russia has nuclear warheads and a space program, but we hear that there is a shortage of potatoes. In Telluria, Moscow State has cars that run on potatoes. As a visitor waits for his potato-taxi to take him to the airport, he writes some thoughts on Russian history: “If she, that glorious ruthless giant in a coat of snow, had properly collapsed in February 1917 and had disintegrated into a collection of man-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 acquired their post-imperial national identities and began to live freely. But everything turned out differently. The Bolshevik Party did not drop the giantess… The corpse was renamed “USSR” […] Moscow is essentially the skull of the Russian Empire and its strange strangeness lies in those ghosts of the past, which we call “imperial dreams”.

Sorokin’s recently stated, without using a fictitious pseudonym, that its president is motivated by “resentment engendered by the fall of the USSR”, that the power structure in Russia is a “medieval pyramid” which “n hasn’t changed at all in five centuries” and that “the idea of ​​restoring the Russian Empire has completely taken hold of Putin”.

No wonder Sorokin left his homeland. He spends most of his time in Berlin these days.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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