Friday, 13 June 2014

Review of 'Day of the Oprichnik' by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the OprichnikDay of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sorokin is not a fan of Putin and I am quite certain that there is much in this novel with which Putin would be less than happy with. After a bearded woman (transvestite Conchita Wurst) won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, Putin was quoted as saying that Wurst could live the life she wanted, but that there should be more traditional values in life. Putin is certainly not tolerant or accepting of homosexuals, having caused the wrath of those more liberal than himself with his stance on the subject. How then would he react to the bechaviour of the Oprichniks as they celebrate a successful day of controlling Russia with a homosexual orgy?

The oprichniks in Sorokin's dystopian novel, are a revival of the old protectors and controllers employed by Tsar Ivan from 1565-1572. Their oath of obedience was
"I swear to be true to the Lord, Grand Prince, and his realm, to the young Grand Princes, and to the Grand Princess, and not to maintain silence about any evil that I may know or have heard or may hear which is being contemplated against the Tsar, his realms, the young princes or the Tsaritsa. I swear also not to eat or drink with the zemschina, and not to have anything in common with them. On this I kiss the cross." (Wikipedia)
The oath would have change very little in the novel. The Oprichniks of Sorokin's world are cloaked in a veneer of monasticism: they thank God for everything, they do not swear, they protect the Tsar and his country with all that they have, and support the decisions of His Majesty seeing all that he does as for the good of the country. The Oprichnina are both the past and the future of the Russian secret police.

It is hard not to draw parallels between present day Russia and Sorokin's Russia of 2028 - there are too many to ignore - and Sorokin is an arch-satirist, not to mention writer-prophet. 'Day of the Oprichnik' was published in 2002, forseeing a Russia only 26 years into the future. By the time I got round to reading it that distance had almost halved to 14 years, and in an incredibly short space of time it seems that a number of Sorokin's ideas have become, or are becoming, a reality: Russia annexed Crimea (theoretically in order to protect Russia and her people); Russia is becoming separated from Europe by a virtual wall, much like the Iron Curtain and ideologically similar to the Western Wall of the novel that keeps Russia safe from the putrefying effect of Europe; Russia has signed a deal with the Chinese over gas supply which could see the dominance of the $ as the petrocurrency wane (China is Russia's main trading partner in the novel, though that does lead to some taxation issues); and perhaps most tellingly, New Rus has returned to Tsardom, and I am far from the first to remark upon the resemblance of Putin's leadership to that of the tsars who have gone before.

Recently, Putin has been likened to Hitler and within the novel there are two particular actions that have been identified by other reviewers as Hitler-esque: the book-burning by the psychic and the style of the Russian bookstand. Komiaga, the Oprichnik whose day it is that we follow, is happy with a bookstand that provides reading materials that are standardized and approved by the Tsar and the Literary Chamber. He sees control as necessary for the good of the country but he also believes that the selected literature and writers are "caressed by the love of the people and His Majesty". As for the book-burning, I do not feel that this sits so comfortably with Komiaga, though he does not say as much and indeed requests more books from the Tasrina for the psychic to burn. The monkish attire of Komiaga and the book-burning brings to mind not just Hitler but also Savonarola who, with his supproters, held Bonfires of the Vanities in 15th century Florence. These bonfires not only included manuscripts and books but any items that could be seen to encourage vanity or tempt one into sin. Komiaga and a number of fellow Oprichniks lit one very large bonfire in the form of a dissident nobleman's house at the start of the day, at the same time gang-raping his wife; the latter not something that Savonarola would have approved of.

This is the irony - the veneer of monasticism is paper-thin. The Oprichnina indulge in crimes for which they would torture, mutilate or kill citizens of New Rus for committing. As well as the burning and gang-rape, they 'do deals', take hallucinogenic fish drectly into the vein and the day climaxes with an orgasmic caterpillar with glowing members. Despite these nefarious activities, I was not as disturbed by the novel as I was led to believe I would be; Sorokin has written far more undigestable works than this. Perhaps it is the light touch with which Sorokin paints the picture, reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's 'Day in the Life of ...', or maybe it's because with no plot to be absorbed within, I was less involved.

This is a work that looks back almost as much as it looks forward; like a pushme-pullme, it is going nowehere. However, the blend of futuristic - mercedovs, mobilovs, news-bubbles and rayguns - with the ancient - knives, torture rack and the Tsardom and Oprichnik revival - drives home the realisation that for all the technological changes the human race has changed very little.

Sorokin draws upon dystopian and Sci-Fi novels of yesteryear with Bradbury's 'Farenheit 451' and Orwell's '1984' to name but two that are evident. Orwell's use, or misuse, of language is similarly employed by Sorokin. When Komiaga listens in on radio channels for dissidents he hears of 'medhermeautical adultery' and a barrage of meaningless neologisms strung together with some standard conjunctions (like listening to a Homi Bhabha theory being read aloud, it's a wonder Komiaga's ears didn't start to bleed!). Sorokin also employs a number of italicised words which draw attention to the way in which ordinary, seemingly innocent, words and phrases are used to describe contradictory actions: the rape is described as 'succulent work' and book-burnings take place in the Oprichnina 'courtyard', which to my mind is like calling the gas chambers in Auschwitz ovens - these are not innocent spaces.

All in all, this is a very readable novel despite the violence. I have seen it described a funny or hilarious, not adjectives I would readily use, but there is a dark humour to its scarily predictive text. I must read it again soon to see what Putin will be up to next.

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