The Future and the past as a reflection of the present

Vladimir Sorokin. Source:

Vladimir Sorokin. Source:

Near the start of Vladimir Sorokin’s high-tech fairy tale, “Day of the Oprichnik,” the oprichniki (security services) of the title gang-rape a nobleman’s wife, abduct his children and burn his house; his stable-hand is beaten to death and slashed with a knife. This sets the tone for a novel where drug-fueled porn and sex in the banya are presented as light relief.

It is never clear exactly what the nobleman in question did to offend “his majesty” (in this future, Russia’s monarchy has been reinstated), but the oprichniki understand without question that he deserves his fate at their hands.

This satirical account of a security officer’s job in the Russia of 2028 is written to shock. The format is reminiscent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” which exposed the horrors of Stalin’s camps; both protagonists are cogs in an authoritarian regime, but where Solzhenitsyn’s everyday hero of the gulag is a victim of the system, Sorokin’s first-person narrator, Andrei Komiaga, is one of the perpetrators of a brutal society with uncanny resemblances to modern Russia. Komiaga revels in his lurching orgy of mundane carnage and corruption.

The oprichniki were originally Ivan the Terrible’s army of bodyguards, a feared and violent group. Sorokin simultaneously returns to medieval tyranny and, like so many contemporary Russian novelists, sets his story a few years in the future to comment the more ferociously on the trends he observes in the present day. A recent production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride” at London’s Royal Opera used a similar comparison to great effect, seamlessly transposing 16th-century criminality and politics into modern Moscow.

Sorokin uses a spicy mixture of archaic Russian terms and futuristic slang. His characters measure distances in versts and arshins, drink kvass and eat kasha, while driving high-end cars (mercedovs) decorated with the traditional oprichink symbols — a severed dog’s head (to bite the tsar’s enemies) and a broom (to sweep them away). They communicate on mobilovs, receive holographic news bubbles and glass spheres of hallucinogenic fish. This linguistic diversity has challenged, but not defeated, translator Jamey Gambrell, who has spent a long time translating Sorokin’s “Ice Trilogy,” also published in English this year. She compares his unorthodox use of language to modernist techniques in art.

“Day of the Oprichnik” has been compared repeatedly to Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451.” For Komiaga, unlike Bradbury’s Guy Montag, there is no redemptive conversion. Yet Sorokin’s startling novel also serves as a harsh mirror for mankind to look at itself.

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