Russians have been trying, and failing, to make their way through blizzards for as long as they can remember, or at least as long as they have been writing. The perilous-voyage-through-the-snow novella might be the Russian corollary to the American road novel. Vladimir Sorokin, Russia’s most inventive contemporary author, has written one too, and called it “The Blizzard.” His book alludes to every Russian literary portrayal of snow-threatened travel, from Alexander Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” to Alexander Blok, who wrote dozens of poems starring blizzards, to the rock group Nol (“Zero”), which in 1991 sang heartbreakingly of a man and his cat waiting for a doctor struggling through the snow to bring them healing white powder.
The protagonist of Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” is also a doctor, 42 years old, a pince-nez-wearing divorcé, unhappy, flawed, self-absorbed, well intentioned and ready for self-sacrifice in all the classic ways of the Russian intelligentsia, or its male representative as depicted in the Russian novel. The doctor must get to a village that has been struck by a deadly epidemic. Deadly in this case means that the virus turns its victims into zombies; it is transmitted, naturally, through human, which is to say zombie, bites. The accursed village is not remote — in good weather. But there is a blizzard. Only the doctor has the vaccine. So he ventures, recklessly, into the snow.
Sorokin, whose larger works, “Day of the Oprichnik” and “Ice Trilogy,” were published in English translations in 2011, and whose earlier novella, “The Norm,” was printed in the journal n+1 (it was translated by my brother, Keith Gessen), is known for his political satires and, later, dystopias. When “The Blizzard” came out in Russia, however, some readers saw in it only a baroque exercise. The critic for the then-highbrow daily Kommersant asked, “What’s the point?” Six years later, with the English translation just published, it is clear that this novella is in fact a satire and a dystopian tale rolled into one.
The doctor will travel by sled. This information, arriving in the first few pages of the book, comes as no surprise: Sorokin’s choice of vocabulary and style has already placed the reader in the 19th century. This poses some formidable challenges for the translator. In one breathless sentence describing the driver getting ready for the journey, Sorokin uses eight nouns, seven of which are strongly marked, for the reader of the original, as “dewy-eyed Russian writer describing rural life.” The translator, Jamey Gambrell, has no such words at her disposal and so translates the sentence straightforwardly. Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator, and Gambrell is one. Her translation is as elegant, playful and layered as the original — and never appears labored.
On closer inspection, the vehicle that will carry the doctor is not a sled but a sledmobile, a 50-horse-powered one. Meaning, it will be pulled by 50 little horses (similar terms are italicized in the book), each one no bigger than a partridge. With this description, on Page 14, Sorokin breaks with Russian rural hyperrealism: The world he is describing is not exactly the past.
Soon enough, the book makes it clear that it is set in the 21st century, a near future in which Russia has been plunged into darkness. People use oil lamps, wood stoves and samovars. There is gasoline, but it is prohibitively expensive and the vehicles it powers are exceedingly rare. The exchange rate appears to be one canister of low-octane fuel to one young colt to two dresses plus two suit jackets. These are sewn by hand, for there is clearly no industry. But everywhere there are remnants of a technological past: There are “radios” that project holographic images of the news — on three mind-dumbingly boring channels, just like in the Soviet Union; there are eternally illuminated picture frames and small cigarette lighters with a strong blue flame. The phones, however, do not work in the winter. The doctor may be carrying a vaccine that is effective against the zombie plague, but the rest of his kit seems to be decidedly last century. Toward the end of this short book, Sorokin narrows his time frame: The characters had great-grandfathers nostalgic for the Soviet era. This dark future that is the past is, it would appear, Russia’s present.
But then there is zoogenous material. The masters of this universe are the Vitaminders, an Asiatic tribe who build their yurts instantly from felt that is sprayed from a tube and set by a “Dead Water.” They make their fortunes from drugs, which they invent and manufacture. Their creations cause trips so vivid and awful that when the user crashes he is actually getting high — on life, from the sheer relief of emerging from the nightmare. When the exhilaration wears off, it is time for another trip. These hallucinogens are just one of the temptations to which the doctor surrenders despite his commitment to his noble journey.
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