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  • The San Juan Daily Star

He envisioned a nightmarish, dystopian Russia. Now he fears living in one.

The Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin in his office in Berlin, where he has been since the start of the war in Ukraine, March 19, 2022.

By Alexandra Alter

Over the past 40 years, Vladimir Sorokin’s work has punctured nearly every imaginable political and social taboo in Russia.

His novel “Blue Lard,” which features a graphic sex scene between clones of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, drew a criminal investigation over charges that he was selling pornography. Pro-Kremlin activists accused him of promoting cannibalism and tried to ban his novella “Nastya,” a grisly allegory about a girl who is cooked and eaten by her family. Protesters placed a giant sculpture of a toilet in front of the Bolshoi Theater and threw his books in it, a fecal metaphor that Sorokin said reminded him of “one of my own stories.”

With every attack, Sorokin has only grown bolder, and more popular.

“A Russian writer has two options: Either you are afraid, or you write,” he said in an interview last month. “I write.”

Sorokin is widely regarded as one of Russia’s most inventive writers, an iconoclast who has chronicled the country’s slide toward authoritarianism, with subversive fables that satirize bleak chapters of Soviet history, and futuristic tales that capture the creeping repression of 21st-century Russia. But despite his reputation as both a gifted postmodern stylist and an unrepentant troublemaker, he remains relatively unknown in the West. Until recently, just a handful of his works had been published in English, in part because his writing can be so challenging to translate, and so hard to stomach. Now, four decades into his scandal-scorched career, publishers are preparing to release eight new English-language translations of his books.

The attention comes as his portraits of Russia as a decaying former empire sliding backward under a militaristic, violent and repressive regime have come to seem tragically prescient. As Russia carries out its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Sorokin sees the conflict not just as a military onslaught but as a semantic war being waged through propaganda and lies — an assault on truth that writers must combat.

“The role of writers is going to change, given the current situation,” Sorokin said. “If a new era of censorship begins, writers’ words will only be stronger.”

In conversation, Sorokin — who is 66, with wavy silver hair and a placid demeanor that give him the air of a hermit or a sage — is soft-spoken and reflective, not quite the brash, polarizing figure he is frequently cast as.

Speaking from Germany, he seemed disoriented, but not surprised, to find himself facing what could be a long exile. He and his wife, Irina, who split their time between Vnukovo, a town outside of Moscow, and a bright, art-filled apartment in Berlin, left Russia just three days before the invasion of Ukraine. Though the timing of their trip was pure coincidence, it felt fated, and Sorokin is wary of returning to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power. He has denounced the invasion publicly and called Putin a crazed “monster,” putting himself in a precarious position after Putin labeled Russians who oppose the war as “scum” and “traitors.”

Watching the crushing use of force in Ukraine, Sorokin, who compared the Russian invasion to “killing your own mother,” has been reminded of his preoccupation with humanity’s bottomless capacity for violence, a constant theme in his work.

“Why can’t mankind get by without violence?” he said. “I grew up in a country where violence was the main air that everyone breathed. So when people ask me why there’s so much violence in my books, I tell them that I was absolutely soaked and marinated in it from kindergarten onward.”

‘His books are like entering a crazy nightmare’

Sorokin doesn’t fit the classic mold of a dissident writer. Although he has been critical of Putin’s regime, he is hard to pinpoint, stylistically or ideologically. He has been pilloried for violating Russian Orthodox Christian values in his stories, but he is a devout Christian. He deploys gorgeous prose to describe horrifying acts. He is celebrated as a literary heir to giants such as Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov, but at times, he has questioned the value of literature, dismissing novels as “just paper with typographic signs.”

He is a master of mimicry and subverting genre tropes, veering from arch postmodern political satire (“The Queue”) to esoteric science fiction (“The Ice Trilogy”) to alternate histories and futuristic cyberpunk fantasies (“Telluria”).

“His books are like entering a crazy nightmare, and I mean that as a compliment,” novelist Gary Shteyngart said. “He was able to find the right vocabulary with which to articulate the truth.”

It’s something of a grim coincidence that the new translations are arriving at a moment when Russian writers are fearful of another wave of repression — a threat that reminds Sorokin of his early days as an underground Soviet author.

“It’s been possible to write whatever you want in Russia, so long as it’s not a direct description of Putin or the leadership,” he said. “But I don’t know how it’s going to be. Maybe there will be literary censorship now. Maybe it will just be a kind of deja vu. If that happens, then I’ll be returned to the time of my youth.”

‘A master of making fun of the regime’

Growing up in a town outside Moscow, where his father worked as a professor of metallurgy, Sorokin had an early taste of literary notoriety. As a schoolboy, he discovered he could make money by writing erotic stories and selling them to classmates. He studied petroleum engineering at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, but he was drawn to visual art and found work as a cartoonist for a Communist youth journal, then as a children’s book illustrator and as a graphic designer. In the early 1980s, he became a fixture of Moscow’s underground literary world and wrote his first novel, “The Queue,” an absurdist send-up of Soviet bureaucracy and oppression that unfolds as snippets of dialogue between people waiting in a line for hours to buy unknown goods.

“I just wanted one thing, which was that the KGB not get ahold of my text,” Sorokin said.

When it was published in France in 1985, “The Queue” earned Sorokin a reputation as a slippery provocateur. It wasn’t released in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“He was such a master of making fun of the regime,” said Masha Gessen, a Russian American author and writer for The New Yorker. “He really saw the Soviet regime as ridiculous and, by extension, the explicit confrontation with it as absurd.”

‘The world is changing so unpredictably’

Sorokin says he is drawn to futuristic, fantastical settings because they feel like the most accurate lens to examine the chaos and instability of the present.

“The world is changing so unpredictably that classical realistic prose isn’t able to catch up to it,” he said. “It’s like shooting at a bird that’s already flown away.

“This is why I prefer complicated optics. In order to see what is real, you need two telescopes.”

Switching to English, he slowly added: “One from the past and another from the future.”

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