Vladimir Sorokin has been one of the most provocative figures on the Russian literary scene since the 1980s. His early works, written in a post-modern style, aroused the ire of the sclerotic Soviet cultural elite, and many of them could only circulate underground. His talent for upsetting the authorities survived the collapse of the USSR; the notorious 1999 novel Blue Lard provoked condemnation from the Russian authorities, and threats of arrest on pornography charges, thanks to its lurid depiction of a homosexual relationship between Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. It also cemented the reputation of Sorokin's works as a litmus test for freedom of speech in an increasingly authoritarian Russia. However, official disapproval of the author seems only to have boosted his popularity, especially amongst younger readers, and his Ice Trilogy, in particular, has attracted a devoted following in his homeland. The complete trilogy now appears in English for the first time, in a new translation by Jamey Gambrell.
The trilogy's opening volume, Bro (originally published in 2004), is narrated by Alexander Snegirev, who grows up in a comfortable, landowning family in late-imperial Russia. The only thing to trouble his idyllic middle-class childhood is a recurring dream in which a looming mountain seems to herald something both "enormous and intimate" (p. 58). Snegirev's life is transformed beyond recognition by the Russian Revolution, which scatters his family and leaves him rootless and without an obvious purpose. Whilst a student in post-revolutionary Leningrad, he therefore allows himself to be recruited to a scientific expedition headed to Siberia in search of traces of the famous 1908 Tunguska meteorite. Here, having come into contact with the supernaturally icy remnants of the meteorite, Snegirev receives a revelation: he is not human at all, but Bro, one of a Brotherhood of 23,000 immortal beings who created the universe, before accidentally becoming trapped in human form and condemned to an endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Bro makes it his mission to reawaken his brothers and sisters, a feat which can only be achieved by "hammering" them on the chest with an axe forged from the ice of the meteorite. When all 23,000 have been awoken, and brought together to speak the twenty-three sacred words of power, they will cast off their earthly bodies and the Earth, the sole chaotic blemish in an otherwise perfect and harmonious universe, will be destroyed.
The second book in this volume (although the first in order of publication, having appeared in 2002), Ice, takes the story up in contemporary Russia, focusing on three individuals—the drug-addict Yuri, the prostitute Alya, and the biznizmen Boris—who have been identified by the Brotherhood as likely candidates for "awakening." The concluding volume, 23,000 (first published in 2005), opens with the abduction of a Messiah-child who will hasten the Rapture, and also introduces Olga Drobot, a determined online activist who bears a grudge against the Brotherhood and is determined to thwart their plans.
The mystic philosophy of Sorokin's Brotherhood owes much both to Gnosticism, with its hostility to the corrupt material world, and Russian Cosmism, with its belief in the salvation of a chosen few through a collective leap to the stars. This indifference to the fate of the misbegotten masses results in Bro and his successors demonstrating an attitude of callous superiority towards the "meat machines" who surround them, and showing no remorse as they lie, cheat, and murder their way towards their ultimate goal. Their sole ambition is to awaken the 23,000 brothers and sisters who make up the Brotherhood, all of whom possess blond hair and blue eyes. However, only by hammering likely candidates can new members of the sect be identified for certain, and awoken: the fact that this brutal process is fatal for the 99% of candidates who turn out to be "merely" human causes the Brotherhood no qualms at all. Likely candidates for hammering are lured in by any means possible, whether by employing deception (fake auditions for a David Lynch film, a fraudulent Robert Plant fan-club) or premeditated acts of violence. The apparatus of the twentieth century totalitarian states prove a particular boon for the Brotherhood, who infiltrate their ranks: witnesses can be quietly disposed of by the secret police, the slave-labor of the Gulag can be exploited to mine the ice of the Tunguska meteorite and the death-camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka can be used to sift populations in the search for new brothers and sisters.
As this suggests, Sorokin uses the Brotherhood to hint at the common threat posed by all collectivist utopian movements, of whatever creed or political persuasion. The Brotherhood's emergence in the twentieth century is a response to the new technologies which have enabled and empowered popular politics, and the political crises of that century are the result of the meat machines "coagulating" in unconscious response to the threat posed by the Brotherhood. The fact that all the members of the Brotherhood are distinguished by their Aryan features initially suggests that a ham-fisted analogy to fascism is being attempted, as one character does indeed suggest, but Sorokin avoids making too much of this simplistic parallel. He also utilities the Brotherhood to parody the commodification of modern religion: initially a clique of true believers, forced to construct ice-hammers secretively in their basements, they rise to marshal a vast international business empire, which employs cheap Chinese labor to mass-produce these implements in Scandinavian factories. However, it must be said that the flashes of political and satirical insight in the Ice Trilogy are too fleeting, unfocused and thinly spread over a 700-page work for it to be justified in these terms.
This might not matter, were the trilogy underpinned by a compelling plot or enlivened by vivid characterization. However, the problem is that the Brotherhood, an omniscient, supernatural gestalt, are entirely devoid of any interest as distinct individuals. The logic of the narrative also makes characterization problematic: many of the characters we meet are initially introduced in lively and colorful vignettes, which hint at Sorokin's ability to evoke mood and place effectively in relatively few words, but they are then killed or consumed by the collective in short order. Few of the characters in this trilogy are allowed an opportunity to grow, to change over time, and to develop over the course of a narrative. This weakness is compounded by the fact that no substantial challenge to the collective genius of the Brotherhood ever emerges over the course of three novels; even when individual brothers or sisters fall into the clutches of the Soviet secret police, or are inconvenienced by the events of the Second World War, the remaining remembers find their minds put to rest by revelatory collective mediation, a form of spiritual deus ex machina.
As first person narrators, members of the Brotherhood suffer from the fact that, like all evangelical proselytes, they can't convey their revelation to the uninitiated in ways that don't appear simultaneously both laughable and banal. This is a fairly typical example of the prose that results:
Our hearts began to speak with each other. It was the language of hearts. It brought them together. It was true bliss. No earthly love that I had ever experienced before could possibly be compared to this feeling. Our hearts spoke in unknown words, words only they understood. The strength of the Light sang in each word. The joy of Eternity sounded in them. They rang out, flowed, poured, and flooded our hearts. And our hearts spoke themselves. Independently of our will and our experience. All we had to do was plunge into oblivion, embracing each other. And listen, listen, listen, to the conversation of our hearts. Time stopped. We disappeared in this conversation. And hung in space, forgetting who and where we were. (p. 85)
Used once, this kind of cringe worthy, woolly silliness might serve a purpose, but when it is repeated ad naseum over the course of a fairly lengthy book, often as the dominant narrative voice, it gets extremely wearing. It is also accompanied by the faux-naive observations of the Brotherhood, now alienated from human society, on facets of that society that they can no longer comprehend: works of fiction, the cinema, love and courtship, military parades, the senselessness of war, etc., etc. This rather hackneyed science-fictional device unfortunately fails to result in any particularly witty or thought-provoking insights, and soon becomes tiresome.
When the Ice Trilogy isn't utilizing the Brotherhood themselves as narrators, it is rather more successful, playfully shifting genres and styles as befits the story. So, the first volume clearly pays homage to the nineteenth-century Russian literary giants, most obviously Tolstoi, while an extended reminiscence in the second volume evokes the somber mood of Soviet wartime memoirs. By contrast, much of Ice and 23,000 are written in succinct prose and quick-fire, Tarantinoesque dialogue, which ensures that events crack along at a lively pace. The final volume in the trilogy also benefits from an identifiable and sympathetic protagonist in the feisty and embattled Olga Drobot. However, in these contemporary scenes, Sorokin shows himself a little too eager to play up his reputation for shocking the reader, as a result of which we are treated to scenes such as an anal bottle rape, and a character who enjoys ejaculating into the ears of teenage Japanese schoolgirls. Sorokin, in common with other underground Russian authors of his generation, such as Viktor Erofeev, also shows a scatological obsession with describing bodily functions and fluids. Much as one hates to line up with the Kremlin's officially approved philistines, it has to be said that none of this contributes anything meaningful to the work as a whole.
Ultimately, reading the Ice Trilogy as it is presented here is rather like being introduced to the Star Wars franchise by a friend who forces you to start with The Phantom Menace and then watch each film in order, leaving you exhausted and despondent by the time you reach the original movie. The prequel here, Bro, by expanding on the explicatory sections of Ice, renders large sections of the original novel redundant, while draining others of any potential suspense or mystery. Ice, taken in isolation, probably has just enough in the way of ideas and energy, over a fairly short page count, for its faults to be forgivable, but packaged between Bro and 23,000 these faults appear magnified. My advice then, should you be tempted to attempt the Ice Trilogy: start from the middle and work outwards.
Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
You must log in to post a comment.