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Ice Capades

Altogether there are 23,000 of them strewn around the Earth, most of them still “asleep” in their human bodies. But once all are found, awakened, and physically reunited, history will come to its end: “And the mistake will be corrected: Earth will disappear, dissolve in the Light. Our earthly bodies will dissolve together with the world of the Earth.”4 And what about the rest of humankind, the billions of “empties” who do not respond to communion with the ice and are correspondingly regarded by the chosen as the living dead? Well, their tough luck, basically.

The brotherhood’s project, in other words, is driven by an absolute imperative of which real-world extremists can only dream. Chiliastic religious groups are usually waiting for some key event that will restore a lost perfection or shattered wholeness, and justify their doctrine by the need to maintain faith and discipline until that salvational moment arrives. Totalitarian political movements are aspirational in their own way. The Nazis were striving to achieve a society based on an organic unity; impure elements (like Jews and Slavs) had to be “rooted out” to create a “healthy body of the people.” Communists tried, and try, to forward the design of history to its “logical” and “rational” end of a perfectly just society. All of these projects imply that people have to be reengineered, transformed into a race of “new men,” somehow made deserving of the blessing they are about to receive. The brotherhood is not like that. You’re either in or you’re not. And you can’t join up by changing your behavior.

This also limits our options as readers, and Sorokin refuses to let us off the hook. Well-told stories have a way of making us their accomplices, and so it is here. As our naive storyteller Varka struggles to overcome the nastiness of provincial life and then to survive the malevolent quirks of life in Nazi Germany, we find ourselves rooting for her. When she is sent back to Russia after the war, now as a full-fledged cult operative, and ends up being tortured by the Soviet secret police, some part of our readerly psyche wants to see how she’ll triumph over this horrific challenge (even though, in the normal scheme of things, humankind would undoubtedly be much better off with her dead, since that would probably slow down the count to the final day of reckoning). It all makes for a disorienting adjustment. Once Varka’s story joins with that of the cult, we find ourselves in narrative league with both. We are on the inside, and it is a startling vantage point:

We drove along the Rublev Highway past white prefab buildings. Meat machines [i.e., human beings] think them ugly, preferring houses built of brick. But what is a human house, in fact? A terrifyingly limited space. The incarnation in stone, iron, and glass of the desire to hide from the Cosmos. A coffin. Into which man falls, from his mother’s womb.

They all begin their lives in coffins. For they are dead from birth.

I looked at the windows of the prefab building: thousands of identical little coffins.

And in each one a family of meat machines prepared for death.

What happiness that WE are different.

The brethren can’t help being a bunch of sociopathic killers, in short; they’re just doing what comes naturally.5 Small wonder that their secret cells find a congenial fit with both the Gestapo and the NKVD.

This anchoring in historical reality is one Sorokin strategy that helps to differentiate his book from more traditional literary treatments of dystopia. Unlike, say, Orwell’s 1984 or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, this tale of totalitarian overreach is not sited in some imagined future. It’s intertwined with our world’s own real history. And just when we think that we’ve figured out what Sorokin is up to (some sort of satire of tyranny, perhaps?), he throws us another curveball: Khram and her fellow members of the elect suddenly find themselves thrust into “the cheerful and frightening era of Yeltsin.” It turns out to be their best opportunity yet, a “golden time.” The brotherhood takes advantage of democratic freedoms and economic reforms to exponentially expand its membership base.

The architect of this boom is a certain brother by the name of Uf. His biography, meticulously described by Khram, leaves no doubt that he is identical with Anatoly Chubais, the strawberry-blond author of the Russian government’s widely reviled privatization plan in the 1990s:

Uf headed a radical wing of the brotherhood. The radicals tried to increase the number of brothers by any means possible in order to live to the Great Transformation…. Thanks to the red-headed Uf we achieved genuine economic freedom.

This is perhaps the only moment in this section of the novel that can be described as overtly satirical.6 Otherwise, though, Khram’s account of the story preserves the cult viewpoint pretty much intact. The members of the brotherhood stand completely outside normal moral categories—as, indeed, they should, if they take their mission seriously. As in Nazism and Soviet communism, there are no competing truths, only the one. A good Bolshevik always writes the word “democracy” in quotation marks when referring to political systems that are not subject to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Borenboim, awakened but not yet reborn, is told by other cult members to be patient: “Your cynicism—is a kind of armor. Your only defense against sincerity.” Another member adds: “You will understand what genuine freedom is.” Lapin’s attackers reassure him after his awakening: “We aren’t a totalitarian sect. We’re simply free people.” Spoken like a true North Korean.

3.

None of this is calculated to make us identify emotionally with Khram and her brethren; their actions are just too alien, their motivations too bizarre. Those readers (and reviewers) who turn to literature for consolation, or moral enlightenment, or lessons in self-esteem, are well advised to look elsewhere. But Sorokin’s novel does exercise a monstrous fascination, in ways not unlike those described in his essay on the pinnacle of Stalinist cinematic art. In the last two sections of Ice, which are much shorter than the previous ones, Sorokin pulls the carpet out from under us again. Khram’s deadpan tale of salvation-in-progress is followed by a pastiche of advertising testimonials for a clever product called the “‘ICE’ Health Improvement System.” Each brief text is told in the voice of someone—a retiree, a film director, a student anarchist, a professor, a priest—who has purchased this device, which promises to fill them with a sense of well-being by exposing them to a mysterious ice-like substance that’s delivered with it. Evidently Uf’s entrepreneurial brethren have figured out a much more efficient method than that clumsy old bit with the hammers. Forget about the secret police; if you really want to foist your salvational ideology on an unsuspecting public, all you need to do is turn it into a New Age wellness cure and your customers will do the rest themselves.

In contrast to the other parts of the novel, this section offers Sorokin an opportunity to deploy his unique gift for parody and mimicry—a talent that has often stood at the center of previous works. Sorokin’s writerly career presents a remarkable case study in artistic evolution. Born in 1955, he took an engineering degree from the Moscow Oil and Gas Institute in 1977 but ended up doing most of his professional work as a book illustrator. He soon became drawn to Moscow’s lively underground art scene in the late 1970s and 1980s. Like many of his equally interdisciplinary friends, Sorokin didn’t restrict himself to one genre but dabbled enthusiastically in music and the visual arts as well as literature.

As a writer he is at once fervidly inventive and scrupulously beholden to the authors he has taken as models. For much of his career Sorokin has held firmly to the postmodernist creed that literary works (or “texts,” as he would usually call them) and the reality we inhabit are mutually exclusive rather than linked.7 In Sorokin’s earlier works it’s an approach that expresses itself in sly assimilation and warping of socialist realist literary styles and motifs as well as material borrowed from the Russian classics (whose immense spiritual and moral authority over the country’s cultural traditions also lend themselves to supremely disrespectful treatment). His novels and stories typically alternate razor-sharp parodies of Soviet kitsch or classical authors with abrupt detours into acts of horrible violence (frequently involving extravagant mutilation), coprophagia, or sex acts of studied perversity. Ripe metaphors from the repertoire of proletarian prose become literal facts to be acted upon accordingly. In one of his recent novels, a send-up of the early-Soviet-period writer Andrei Platonov depicts a train engineer who is feeding the fire of the locomotive of the revolution with the dismembered bodies of the Whites. This brand of forbidding literary conceptualism is not exactly calculated to ensure Sorokin best-seller status.

Lately, though, something seems to be changing. In 2002 members of Vladimir Putin’s quasi-official youth organization singled out Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard for its pornographic excesses. They flushed his book down a mock toilet installed in the center of Moscow and demanded that it be officially proscribed.8 Never mind that Russian officialdom continues to happily tolerate myriad forms of genuine pornography on the streets and the Internet; what seems to have incensed the ultranationalist demonstrators more than anything else was Sorokin’s depiction of cloned Soviet leaders—specifically Khrushchev and Stalin—engaging in gay sex.

The experience of being attacked seems to have come as a shock to Sorokin. Earlier this year he gave an interview to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in which he made the following observation:

The citizen lives in each of us. In the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I was constantly trying to suppress the responsible citizen in me. I told myself that I was, after all, an artist. As a storyteller I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude—you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you. I held fast to that principle until I was fifty. Now the citizen in me has come to life.9

Aside from its effect on his civic awareness, Sorokin’s brush with official disfavor also seems to have accelerated his shift toward a more conventional mode of storytelling. That now seems to have culminated in Ice, which, for all its twists and provocations, is almost hypnotically readable (a quality admirably preserved by Jamey Gambrell in her fluid and discriminating English translation).

And just in case we were doubting his skill at confronting the menacing absolute with the blithely mundane, Sorokin finishes off the book with a three-page section centered on an unnamed toddler who has been left alone at home. Mother is gone and she may not be coming back, given that she has recently purchased one of those mysterious feel-good machines that were making the rounds in the previous section. One piece of ice is left in the device, and the boy takes it out:

He tapped the ice against the glass of the sideboard.

It’s me, ice!”

Sucking on the ice, he went into his room. There in the corner, on a wooden stand for CDs, stood little plastic figures of Superman, an X-Man, and a Transformer. The boy put the ice between them.

Hey, dudes, I’m ice, I came to see you!”

He picked up the Transformer, who held a laser spear in his hand. He jabbed the ice with the end of the spear.

Ice, hey ice, who are you?”

He answered with the ice’s voice: “I’m cold!”

He asked with the voice of the X-Man: “What do you need, cold ice?”

He answered with the voice of the ice: “Warm me up!”

He helped the ice to get on the [toy] dinosaur’s back. He crawled with the dinosaur over to the bed. He helped the dinosaur clamber onto the bed. He put the dinosaur on his pillow and placed the ice next to it. He covered them with his blanket and roared: “You’ll be warm here, ice.”

He remembered the orange. He ran into the kitchen.

The ice lay next to the dinosaur, jutting out from under the blanket. The sunlight shone on its wet surface.

Those are the final words of the novel—a spooky, drifting conclusion that leaves everything open.10 The natural self-absorption of the child is, of course, the perfect antidote to both the cynical decadence of late-twentieth-century Russian society and the single-minded brutality of the brotherhood. The gods (in the form of the child’s superhero action figures) have been cut down to size, and the ice itself may have finally met its match as well. One wonders: Does the child’s insouciance mean a postponement of the day of the apocalypse? Or will his contact with the ice bring the boy over to the side of those seeking reunification with the Primordial Light? The author does not deign to take sides. What saves the day for Sorokin as a writer, in the end, is his pitilessly sharp ear for the cadences of human longing, for the mythic traps that even our most harmless stories hold at the ready. So we yearn for certainty, salvation, the absolute—what’s wrong with that? We always have and we always will. Go ahead, Sorokin seems to say; you can’t really help it. Just be careful what you wish for.

  1. 4

    The scholar Birgit Menzel, in a fascinating but regrettably brief discussion of the novel, explains that Sorokin’s story line deftly draws on a number of mystical themes with rich Russian pedigrees. The Tunguska event, she notes, is a touchstone for Russian occultists, while Sorokin’s notion of an Aryan elite unified by a shared spiritual “energy” echoes the “Eurasian” racialist theories of Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev. The members of the brotherhood, who are described as individual rays waiting to join up with the divine light of the cosmos, is a “Gnostic tale in popular disguise.” See “The Occult Revival in Russia Today and Its Impact on Literature,” www.harrimaninstitute.org/ MEDIA/00786.pdf.

  2. 5

    Take, for example, the scene where the three new brotherhood members achieve illumination:

    Ural, Diar, and Mokho opened their eyes.

    The faces shone with a rapturous peace.

    Their eyes sparkled with understanding.

    Their lips smiled.

    They were born.

  3. 6

    Chubais’s many Russian critics—and their name is legion—sometimes denounced him as a “democratic Bolshevik,” i.e., as a reformer whose radical zeal did not allow him to tolerate any competing choices. It should also be mentioned, perhaps, that his hair color was sometimes cited as a reason to distrust him: there is a Russian folk tradition that types redheads as inherently cunning and unreliable characters.

  4. 7

    The critic Mikhail Epstein has even argued the case that Russia has been a postmodern country for the past few centuries, given the vast divide between the country’s reality and the often utopian ideas of its rulers. For anyone who wants to explore the vast terrain of Russian postmodernist art during the last quarter or so of the twentieth century, Epstein’s essay “The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism,” in his book After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), is one good place to start. Another is Boris Groys’s remarkable book The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 1992).

  5. 8

    See Jamey Gambrell, “Russia’s New Vigilantes,” The New York Review, January 16, 2003.

  6. 9

    Russia Is Slipping Back into an Authoritarian Empire,” interview with Vladimir Sorokin, Der Spiegel, February 2, 2007.

  7. 10

    Ice is actually part of a trilogy that includes the novels Bro (describing the discovery of the ice in the Siberian wilderness and the creation of the brotherhood) and 23,000 (which brings the saga to an end). Both books are set to appear in English in the not-too-distant future.

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