The Russian Novelist Vladimir Sorokin

One thing you can say about the novelist Vladimir Sorokin: He has the hair of an honest-to-God, old-school Russian sage. It radiates in luxuriant white waves around his unlined face, suggesting that he has emerged — half-monk, half-lion — from the sun-dappled glades where Tolstoy once walked.

Beyond that, though, readers in the West will have to let go of whatever expectations they attach to the term “Russian novel.”

Mr. Sorokin, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, has spent decades puncturing those expectations, typically by confronting the reader with shocking (but, I am sorry to report, unforgettable) visions of violence, cannibalism and scatology. Called upon to address the sanctified role of the novelist in Russian culture, he once responded: “I do not overrate literature as such. For me, it is just paper with typographic signs.”

It should not be necessary to point out, given that response, why it has sometimes been tricky to introduce his novels to an English-speaking audience. Like many of his peers during the years after the Soviet collapse, Mr. Sorokin largely dispensed with moral uplift, marshalling his virtuosic talent with language to create a world devoid of heroes. This path culminated in a savage little fairy tale about Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, “Day of the Oprichnik,” which suddenly, and for the first time, positioned Mr. Sorokin as a direct combatant in Russian politics.

His admirers in the United States are hoping that an English translation of “Day of the Oprichnik” by Jamey Gambrell will provide an opening for Mr. Sorokin, 55, who is already popular in Germany and Japan. This spring, two American publishers released translations of his novels on the same day, and Mr. Sorokin will appear on Saturday afternoon at the PEN World Voices Festival (pen.org/festival) in New York City, discussing his work with the novelist Keith Gessen. This concerted roll-out — as well as a broader effort to make contemporary Russian authors available to English-language readers — feels like an experiment for all parties involved.

“There used to be a simple story about Russian literature, that we thought the good writers were the ones who opposed the regime,” said Edwin Frank, the editor of NYRB Classics, which published Mr. Sorokin’s novel “Ice Trilogy” in March. “Once we don’t have that story about Russia as a competitor, or an enemy, it was much less clear to us what we should be interested in.”

In person, Mr. Sorokin is diffident and thoughtful; a former stutterer, he releases words into the air around him as carefully as a cashier counting out change. In the 1980s, when his writing began circulating as samizdat in Moscow’s avant-garde circles, the central mystery was how such violent material could originate in such a polite young man.

“It was as if an icon painted by Andrei Rublyov from time to time threw up on worshipers,” Pavel V. Pepperstein, an artist, told the magazine Afisha. Using an uncanny ability to mimic language, Mr. Sorokin would lull readers into a reminiscent trance, sometimes by imitating beloved Russian writers. Then he would pull the pin out of the grenade.

“The Start of the Season,” a short story first published in 1985, follows two hunters stalking their prey over quiet, folksy conversation, until it takes a jarring turn: the bait they are using is a recording of Vladimir S. Vysotsky, the singer worshipped by Russian intellectuals, which brings a man galloping through the woods. They shoot him. And then, over quiet, folksy conversation, they gut him and eat his liver.

This pattern was well established by the time Mr. Sorokin published the novel “Blue Lard,” which featured a scene in which a clone of Khrushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin. It was for this scene that a pro-Putin youth group, Moving Together, filed a complaint against Mr. Sorokin on the grounds that he was disseminating pornography.

One day in 2002, a friend called Mr. Sorokin to tell him that a huge toilet bowl had been erected outside the Bolshoi Theater, and that the public was invited to throw his books into it. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” Mr. Sorokin said last week, in a Moscow apartment as spare and white as a hospital room.

But his amusement gradually turned into something like dread. One day a workman rang his doorbell and said he had an order to fit Mr. Sorokin’s windows with prison bars; another time he opened his door to find a sack of his own books, each stamped with the word “pornography,” he said. State prosecutors opened a case against him for disseminating pornography, which could have brought a prison sentence of up to two years. (The charges were dropped.) It became harder and harder for him to write.

“In the end,” he said, “I got in the car with my wife and drove north” to Estonia, where he lived in the woods for a month. ...

NYTimes.com

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