TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 January 2018
‘Oprichnik’ was the name of a member of an enforcement group established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to suppress opposition to the Tsar and terrorise the citizenry. They rode black horses, dressed in black and wore the insignia of a severed dog's head (to sniff out enemies of the Tsar) and a broom (to sweep them away).
Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s foremost satirists, has set his book in 2028 when Russia ‘rose from the Gray Ashes’ to re-established its self-esteem and international power through the period of Holy Revival. It is fenced off ‘from the foreign without and the demon within’ by a Great Wall of Russia extending from Europe through the Caucasus to the edge of China, now led by the Celestial Ruler. Oprichniks levy 3% insurance from Chinese merchants transporting goods that now include everything the Russians use, including the official 400-horsepower Mercedovs cars. These goods are transported on the ten-lane, four-high speed railway track Guangzhou-Brest Road.
Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is one of the inner oprichniks, putting down opposition to His Majesty, Father Nikolai Platonovich, as well as gang-raping and pillaging. Their sordid fraternal bonding rituals involve violence, drug taking and orgies, described in all too graphic detail. The fable describes a typical day [the association with Solzhenitsynin’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is obvious] in Komiaga’s service of a country where religion is once again promoted.
Much of the dialogue harks back to an earlier age with salutations [‘Work and Word’, ‘We Live to Serve’, ‘Hail the Purge’,] and declamations [‘To Rus’, ‘Woe to this house’, ‘Hail the Sweep of the Broom - Hail and Sweep them Clean’], this being contrasted with advanced technologies [mobilov phones, news bubbles]. The characters are almost exclusively male – the main exceptions being a clairvoyant who throws books into the fire ‘because they burn so well’ and the fabulously-endowed half-Jewish Czarina.
Komiaga notices what is going on around him – offered a selection of food suitable for an oprichniki ‘rye vodka with gold or silver sand, Shanghai sturgeon caviar, Taiwanese smoked filled of sturgeon, marinated milk mushrooms in sour cream, jellied beef aspic, Moscow perch, in aspic, Guangdong ham’ he wonders what the waiter has to eat.
This is not a subtle satire but there is much more than mere shock value to the writing. The author can strike home, as when Komiaga reflects on the Czar’s decision to replace supermarkets by kiosks ‘Each kiosk has to have two of each product so the people can choose. It's wise and profound. Our people - God's people - should choose between two products, not three and not thirty-three. When the people choose between two they feel calm, safe for tomorrow, they have no worries and are content. And with a people like that, a content people, great things can be achieved.’
Sorokin includes narrative, poetry and film dialogue, and Jamey Gambrell had a difficult task creating a translation. The book is sprinkled with italicised words and with Russian, Chinese and German words and phrases that strangely are only translated very late on - were these in the original Russian text?
Readers better informed than I about Russia will probably understand a section where the oprichniks discuss the law ‘On the Four Taxes’. Others will better appreciate the various poetic lampoons [pasquinades] that Komiaga, clearly cultured despite his bloodthirsty actions, appreciates and which must have proved an especial challenge for the translator.
As ever, laws that repress the people are readily avoided or subverted by the ruling classes and their lackeys.
On page 66 there is, I assume, a feline misprint when Komiaga rages against opponents ‘Liberals differ from the lowly worm only in their mesmerizing, witch-brewed speechifying. Like venom and reeking puss they spew it all about, poisoning humans and God’s very world, defiling its holy purity and simplicity’.