The Master and Mr. Sorokin: Disappointment in Russia’s So-Called Greatest Writer

61cg2bKAZlLHappy Independence Day, America! What’s more American than reviewing a Russian novel, eh?

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a great deal from author, playwright, and screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin, especially when his contemporary, Gary Shteyngart, boasts him to be “one of Russia’s greatest writers.” Taylor Antrim of Newsweek continues the trend, claiming him to be “one of Russia’s literary stars.”

Then how is it that his 2006 novel Day of the Oprichnik is so mediocre? And that’s being generous. There’s too much weight in naming Sorokin one of Russia’s greatest writers, and I think it’s far from the truth. Watch the praise, Mr. Shteyngart, Mr. Antrim. Them’s fighting words.

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I originally had such high hopes for this novel. Unlike a fair amount of reviewers who take issue with this satire because it is “not very funny” or who feel blindsided by their inability to comprehend even the most basic aspects of Russian culture (to which I say why are you even reading a Russian book in the first place?), I did think the book was funny, and I did pick up on many of the Russian nuances. This isn’t my first rodeo with a text from Rus, but this is one of the first times I was genuinely let down by a text I was excited to read from this part of the world.

Essentially, Sorokin has created Moscow of the future; 2028 to be exact, but nowhere in the text is this actually conveyed. Our friend the Book Cover has to explain this. Day of the Oprichnik is just that, the day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, one of the czar’s most trusted oprichniks- a throwback to a deadly secret police and courtier from the time of Ivan the Terrible.

The oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible

Russia appears to have self-imploded in some way, sealing itself off from the West through the construction of the Western Wall that helps to purify the Motherland and transforming itself into some type of quasi Draconian/Viking culture that will make you question if this is in fact a literary text from “one of Russia’s greatest writers” or an episode of Game of Thrones.

The oprichniks are nothing short of grotesque beasts. Like their Viking compatriots over a thousand years prior, they go around Moscow, raping and pillaging, but then sort of make up for it by attending extravagant parties and taking a boatload of drugs. The oprichniks are also responsible for brutal executions to help keep Russia clean from traitors and criminals who break the laws of the czar, which, for some reason, includes swearing.

Sorokin might have an ingenious idea regarding the future of his country, and the novel is funny, regardless of what the haters think. Sorokin is quite skilled at dark humor, and sometimes I think this is hard for people to pick up on who go into a text thinking it’s going to be something blurted out by Jimmy Fallon.

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Take the opening for example: Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is awoken by his movilov (cell phone) and it catered to hand-to-foot by his multitude of servants, all who great him with the same saying, “The best of health to you, Andrei Danilovich!” He says his prayers to St. Boniface, St. George the Dragonslayer, Saint Nikola, and the Optina Elders while his servants dress him in medieval style clothing, including a dagger in a scabbard, a black velvet hat, and a girdle. From there, he choose the particular breed of dead dog head that will be mounted on his mercedov (Mercedes) in order to intimidate all who pass by him. If that’s not what you think of when you think of 2028 Russia, then I don’t know where your head has been.

Unfortunately, Sorokin also leaves us with a vague text… and not in a hipster fabulous way. The novel is confusing and ill paced. It also becomes difficult to believe all of these events happen in one day, even with the incredible resources that are associated with being one of the czar’s oprichniks.

Sorokin also has several annoying attempts at songwriting or poetry in the novel. Several passages are simply lyrics or poems that are being sung/read to Andrei Danilovich Komiaga. They are distracting and tedious at best, and the eye is so tempted to skip over these parts (which I did, after the first passage). I know that Sorokin is outrageously talented in nearly any medium that includes the written word, but this seems excessive and detracting.

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Apparently, as the cover of the novel informed me, Sorokin is also an accomplished libretto, but since it’s 2015, there’s no way in hell I would have known what that was, so I had to look it up. (It’s opera writing; fun facts all around.)

I think the most troubling for me after reading Day of the Oprichnik was trying to determine the real purpose of this piece and how it could relate to the rest of of the world. Why was this piece published outside of Russia? Can Americans, or anyone outside of Russia for that matter, take anything from this text and apply it within their own cultural and political systems? Doubtful, because this novel is so Russian. It almost doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else in the world.

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Maybe one of my problems with this book is that the ultimate warning for Putinist Russia mimics too closely the message behind Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book I’ve always disliked. But it becomes sort of difficult to apply this same cautionary tale to all other parts of the world, other than the age old thought of, “Be careful who your leader is or soon, everyone might be fucked.”

Why doesn’t Sorokin just come out and say that then? And could he take more shots at Putin and the way he feels Russia is going? I guess that would be sucking the fun out of reading a novel. But he makes the future so bleak, so depressing, and yet so humorous that I almost don’t want to consider anymore of 2028 Russia.

I think we’re all fucked enough without having to worry about our mobilovs, our mercedovs, and the dead dog head we have to place on the hood  of our cars each morning.

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