Vladimir Sorokin is undoubtedly one of the most electrifying figures in contemporary Russian literature. He has been triggering intense emotions and dividing Russian public opinion for nearly four decades. The Sorokin phenomenon, however, is not easy to define or classify. In fact, it is something that seems to be still evolving and full of surprises, which can be quite difficult to digest for the average reader.
A review of Telluriya (Теллурия). By: Vladimir Sorokin. Publisher: AST, CORPUS, Moscow 2013.
In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Sorokin’s books were first to be published, the writer’s name was accompanied by such descriptions as “provocateur” or a “pornographer”. Likewise, Sorokin’s prose was described as “postmodernism” or “deconstructionism”. The truth is, however, that while not many understood the meaning of these concepts, one thing was clear: they were generally perceived as synonyms of evil. This narrative dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s. It has only been the last decade which has brought a significant shift in this thinking. The game changing novel was titled Lyod (Ice). It was the first part of Sorokin’s “Ice Trilogy” which was then followed by Den oprichnika (Day of the Oprichnik), Saharniy Kreml (Kremlin Made of Sugar) and Metel (The Blizzard). Characteristically, while Sorokin’s originality and clean-cut language did not disappear from these books, the deviance of his characters was more moderate than before, and because of this it became more acceptable to a wider audience. But the most important shift that can be seen in Sorokin’s recently published novels is a strong focus on the future tense and the author’s visions of future political and social anti-utopias.
Den oprichnika, published in 2006, is a particularly important illustration. In this book, Sorokin portrayed the Russia of 2027. His portrayal of a future Russia was full of exaggerations of tendencies that characterise today’s Russian society. Throughout the pages, Sorokin takes the readers to the world of the restored Russian monarchy officially based on the tradition of the Orthodox Church. In order to keep Russia pure, the whole country is surrounded by a great wall which separates Russia from the rest of the world.
Sorokin’s imaginary world, with its feudal society, monocracy, cult of personality, a new class of noblemen and the omnipotent oprichnina (a policy of secret police and mass repressions – editor’s note) was seen by many not as a purely literary vision but rather as a real prophecy – and not a necessarily distant future of Russia. For centuries, Russians have developed a special attitude towards prophets (especially writer prophets); thus Sorokin, the “pornographer” was quickly replaced by Sorokin the “genius” and “living classic”.
Saharniy Kreml and Metel were seen by most readers as a continuation of Den oprichnika and their success explains why Sorokin’s alleged prophetic gift became accepted by Russians. It has been three years since Sorokin published his last book, when the mysterious Telluriya came to light. This work is another futuristic anti-utopia story. However, on the pages of this book, Sorokin does not exclusively focus on Russia, but also on the future of Europe. After reading this novel, we can only hope that Sorokin is not a real prophet, but simply a writer with a wild imagination.
Published in 2013, Telluriya is made up of 50 chapters which have basically one thing in common – they all describe Russia and Europe after two religious wars which led to a total collapse of the international and social order. The new “Middle Ages” is what awaits us as Sorokin believes. The future built on the debris of the world that we know takes anachronic forms. Sorokin’s world is inhabited by dozens of different nations, giants, dwarves and hybrid creatures who live in a number of small and large principalities, republics and khanates. The post-Russian territory is divided into a wide range of picturesque quasi-states with different political systems ranging from tsarist-communist Moscovia and the Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic (SSSR) to the enlightened monarchy of Ryazan. There is also Telluriya, which is located in the Altai Mountains. It owes its name to the large resources of a rare chemical element – tellurium. It is distributed worldwide as a new kind of drug. Tellurium, however, differs from other drugs as it is taken through nails spiked into the head. Tellurium, although banned by the United Nations in 2026, is widely used due to its extraordinary narcotic qualities.
Tellurium is a great metaphor of the new absolute – it refers to the Holy Grail. It is a substitute or, if you like, an accomplishment of the Kingdom of God on the earth. Sorokin himself stated in one of the interviews that tellurium was invented as a super-narcotic. It allows people to eventually get anything they want, including travelling through time. And what about Western Europe, you may ask. In Sorokin’s book, this part of the world is a land conquered by radical Muslims. Paris and Munich face Wahhabi revolution, Switzerland was bombed by the Taliban. Christianity survives only in southern France where the Knights Templar constituted the Republic of Languedoc. In general, it is religion that is responsible for critical changes and riots spread all around Europe.
We cannot say, however, that Telluriya provides the readers with a complementary vision of the future. By no means does Sorokin create a closed picture. Just the opposite. His novel is assembled from random facts, stories, hints and comparisons. Its composition reminds us more of one big patchwork that involved sewing together 50 completely different pieces; or to put it differently, it includes 50 different microcosms which do not create a coherent picture.
Yet there is a method to Sorokin’s madness. The literary form of the book is exquisite, which harkens to some of the world’s best literature. Telluriya’s 50 different chapters show us stories of 50 different characters who use different languages and live in different places. It is then a great intellectual challenge and adventure to follow all of Sorokin’s creations as well as the variety of languages he uses. They include the old East Slavic dialects, the language of Pushkin and the Soviet propaganda, business jargon and prisoners’ slang. However, even this linguistic mosaic is not enough for Sorokin who also attempts to construct his own languages. The book is also full of hidden references to classical works of literature and philosophy, mythology and religion. Sorokin’s novel is therefore an inexhaustible source of meanings and ideas. Reading one chapter three times may bring four – or even more – interpretations, which makes the translation of the book into foreign languages almost an impossible task.
Another characteristic feature of Telluriya is that each of the 50 stories ends exactly at the moment when the reader is getting more and more engaged in the plot and cannot wait for its continuation. It may seem like a waste of potential but, on the other hand, it gives us a unique opportunity to meet multiple narrations and come to appreciate the virility of the author. Sorokin’s extraordinary writing skills are empirically proved by the number of novels he has published. Hopefully, he is not as good at prophesising as he is at writing. However, to fully understand Sorokin’s phenomenon, Telluriya is a must read. No review can fully show what kind of a masterpiece this book really is.
This review is from the current issue of New Eastern Europe - Ukraine: One Year After the EuroMaidan.
Translated by Bartosz Marcinkowski
Daniel Wańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków.