’Tis time to shake the Kremlin walls!

Vladimir Sorokin, trans. Max Lawton, Telluria

NYRB Classics, 325pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781681376332

reviewed by Patrick Preziosi

To read about Vladimir Sorokin is to be inundated with suppositions about real-world analogues. Who or what was the inspiration for this passage of remarkable scatology, violence, profanity, fascistic activity — or some amalgamation of the four? Often considered Russia’s leading contemporary novelist, Sorokin’s work has been long suppressed by the authorities of his own country. However, the rate of English translation has distorted American critics’ ideas of relevance, drilling impossible inferences into a prose that is more indicative of an abstract, flexible misanthropy. (Telluria is the second in Max Lawton’s in-progress spate of muscular translations; six more are slated for publication.) Corruption, abuses of power, a further slide into environmental catastrophe: the strange, heady timelessness of Sorokin (his work skirts both sci-fi and fantasy) renders these intense preoccupations the very text; he’s generously done the laborious act of connecting the social and political dots for us. The onus is on the reader to engage with Sorokin in the worlds he has created, not the one he comes from.

The scope of something like Telluria doesn’t deserve compartmentalisation or rationalisation. Its overabundant narrative is already — endearingly and sloppily — carved out into 50 standalone chapters, with a recurring political climate, lexicon, unspoken history and so forth, but no characters, no overarching storyline. The name comes from one of many new nations that have arisen from a still in-progress, Crusadesesque world war. What’s special about Telluria is that its sovereignty is rooted in the legal consumption of tellurium, a drug administered as a nail driven into the skull, unleashing euphoria, sometimes death. It’s bought in back alleys, gobbled by government officials, the drilling performed as a pre-battle holy rite for certain armies.

The origins of the drug, the war, the machinations of the world as we know it – of the entire novel, really — are hazy, yet Sorokin is able to thread each vignette through the next as if he were falling back on a canonised text as guidance. The brevity of these chapters delivers information obliquely but never half-heartedly. The grander design, though never achieved, is always worked towards. To perfect the quotient of world-building to narratological momentum is a fool’s errand; Sorokin redirects his energy to the former, mini-stories naturally arising before flitting out of sight. In BOMB Magazine, he spoke of ‘literature as drug’: ‘I simply wish for each book to just ask a question, then live its own life,’ he said.

That ethos was manifest in the punkish depravity of Sorokin’s more underground work, like the Sadean Their Four Hearts, which matched an inscrutable, violent end goal with a dearth of orientational signposts — a ‘parade of atrocities’, as illustrator Gregory Klassen dubs it, the metaphysical import quite literally carved into the victims’ bodies. The sequential methods remain, but the horizons are now remarkably broadened, encompassing soldiers, despotic leaders, talking phalluses, carpenters (the ‘official’ title for those who are trusted to hammer in the tellurium nails), horse traders, humans with the heads of animals, sentient technology and escaped royalty. Sorokin teases us with obvious parallels to our own world, but the appetite of his imagination is too insatiable to simply put forth parables or metaphors.

And thus there is nothing to do except open the novel in media res. ‘“’Tis time to shake the Kremlin walls!” Zoran walked back and forth under the table with great focus, driving his fist into his palm. “’Tis time!” “’Tis time!”’ Telluria’s wonderfully inscrutable taxonomy is delivered without any ancillary scaffolding. Some terms are easier to parse — littluns and biguns account for a more universally common dwarfism and gigantism, respectively — while others are enfolded into Sorokin’s larger macrocosm: from what I can glean, a ‘smartypants’ is an all-purpose smartphone that can adopt a variety of anthropomorphised forms, while ‘brass knuckles’ do not seem to pertain to their usual definition. Zoran and his compatriots enact a smelting procedure that teases Sorokin’s educational history as an engineer at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas; they prepare for an unspecified holiday; they discuss the monetary effects of this assumed business. Then, the chapter ends.

This clipped mythology has antecedents in authors like Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino and even David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas similarly bent already fictional dialects at will, but Sorokin’s authorial hand isn’t as present, functioning like a flickering conduit for this world, dispatching at random. The difficulty of writing about the novel stems from Sorokin’s stacking of styles and genres and cadences atop one another, prodding one to merely list their favourite sections, the events they find the most shocking or affecting. Still, there’s a commendable restraint, the omissions expertly threaded throughout, giving the impression of material left on the cutting room floor. It is as if Sorokin had written those more conventional chapters that we’d anticipate in a lesser work, only to jettison them once he’d established the through-lines for himself and himself only. Shards of poetry tumble forth: we learn how tellurium is prohibited to those not of age, something the teenaged Ariel circumvents by going to a ‘riveter’ (an illegally operating carpenter), who is introduced ‘. . . soaping up Ariel’s head using an old shaving brush with a cracked bone handle. The foam was warm, though there was no hot water in the garret where the riveter had been living for three months’. Somewhat adrift in an environment of illicit activity, we’re nevertheless attuned to the tactile, the sensorial.

As Sorokin has drifted from an already nominal realism, his language has displayed an acerbic classicism, like the human-bodied, dog-headed poet and thespian, one canine cranium for each profession. Grandiloquent discourse passes between the two heads, denoted as a script, as they chew on the carrion of a battlefield’s massacre. The two will trot out words like ‘demagoguery’, quote Nietzsche and drop references to Baudelaire, all while a rotting corpse is spit-roasted over a fire. Sorokin demonstrates this tendency not just within single vignettes — an outmoded horse bartering session welcomes ‘a businesslike secondhand dealer wearin’ lots of of gold, in a silk brocade, with three smartypantses and a tellurium nail stickin’ outta his dome’ — but often between chapters themselves. A voyeuristic hotel cleaning woman’s internal monologue (‘Friday’s a good day for lovers too, I must needs solely catch ‘em on time’), prone to fits of subjective poeticism, segues into a pulpy sci-fi scenario: ‘“Robots!” Kerya the machinist bellowed… their hearts skipped and tripped and skipped a beat: a psychic attack!’ A train carrying ‘ghee, lard, wheat, salt, Kerch herring, seeds and Caspian roach’ is overtaken by an army of interlinked robots who quickly abscond with the loot.

Sorokin’s literary whiplash serves a larger sense of discombobulation; a world which, despite being thrown off its axis, keeps turning nonetheless. Passages bereft of punctuation detail Cormac McCarthy-beholden bloodshed. And yet there’s plenty of contentment to latch onto: a ‘gramma’ teaches two sisters a pre-war history lesson about a forest and ‘on the way back, we stopped by our family’s favorite restaurant, Snowman, and, I gotta say, we had a great lunch’. Sorokin penetrates all the corners of his world, but also relaxes himself and his characters in restful interludes. It is left to us as readers to gain whatever minimal bearings we can. The concluding chapter locates its own Walden, the narrator mumbling with quasi-colloquialisms, exhaling all the pent-up confusion of the preceding 49 sections. ‘Caress nothin’ but furry creatures. An’ bicker with nothin’ but birds of the forest. What else’s a man need?’

Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn-based writer who has written on literature and film for Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook, photogénie, Screen Slate, Commonweal, and more. He also has a Substack titled triple feature.