Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

I’ve always suspected that Russian is an aphoristic language. I don’t know what is it about sloganeering, maxim-making, and other lapidary bon mots that speak to Russia’s national mentality, but I see it all over that country’s literature. My long-held suspicions have once again been confirmed, this time by Jamey Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s infamous dystopian romp, Day of the Oprichnik. With lines that echo back to Bulgokov (oh, that great zinger about burning manuscripts) and Dostoyevsky, Sorokin’s novel is very much aware of the traditions in which it is ensconced.

The year is 2028 and the setting is Moscow. Russia has morphed into a devilish hybrid of monarchy, hyper-capitalism and brutal totalitarian state. The men in charge of keeping order and crushing sedition are called the Oprichniks. At the height of their vicious acts, these men will yell out phrases like “Work and Word!” and “Hail Hail Hail!” They murder, rape and destroy—all in the service of His Majesty, looking to breed absolute obedience and loyalty from the Russian population. Our protagonist, the hard-drinking Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, is at once brainwashed by the Oprichnik fraternity and capable of glimpsing the world that exists beyond, the consequences of  violence and unwavering order. His is not a story of slowly revealed revelation—a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty Four. It is rather his own distanced description of a world that he knows on some level is immoral and yet cannot control or find a way out of.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately Day of the Oprichnik just doesn’t hold together. Sorokin—perhaps in the interest of appearing original—relies too heavily on elision: we never get a sense of the broader machinations of the society he creates or how Russia arrived in the state that it’s in. Komiaga’s inner world comes off as rather hollow. He doesn’t really change or evolve over the course of the novel, doesn’t ever build upon his sense of the magnitude of his actions or the role he plays in this horrific society.

In the end, Day of the Oprichnik feels somewhat half-assed and derivative. It’s sort of a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies, only without the heart or the moral background. This is a highly touted novel, but probably worth skipping.

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