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Vladimir Sorokin’s “Telluria”: A Linguistic Battle Royale for the New Middle Ages

“To love Sorokin the reader must submit entirely, without recourse or handhold,” writes critic Allison Bulger.

Of all the jobs esteemed translator Larissa Volokhonsky has rejected, only one text was physically removed from her apartment on the Villa Poirier in Paris.

“Take it back,” she said. “Rid me of its presence.”

The cursed title was Blue Lard (1999) by Vladimir Sorokin, known to some as Russia’s De Sade, and Volokhonsky’s revulsion was par for the course. It would be twenty years before another translator, Max Lawton, would provide eight Sorokin works unseen in the West, including Blue Lard, in which a clone of Khrushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin. Of Sorokin’s wickedness, Russian nationals were no more forgiving than Volokhonsky. A pro-Putin youth group threw copies into a massive faux toilet erected in front of the Bolshoi theater, and the novelist was subsequently investigated for pornography. 

The toilet thing was rather on the nose, because Vladimir Sorokin is obsessed with shit. His oeuvre is for the Cronenberg lover, the C- and D- list horror nut, the Gonzo holdout sheepishly retaining a dog-eared copy of Naked Lunch, or any “serious reader” who knows who Guyotat is. The novelist himself, a devout Catholic, remarked that the Bolshoi protest made him feel as though he’d been wormholed into one of his own stories. Indeed, in Sorokin’s novel The Norm, one of his more direct critiques of Soviet propaganda, citizens eat government-issued feces delivered in little packets; in Nastya, a girl is cannibalized by her own family; in Their Four Hearts, the first of Lawton’s translations out from Dalkey Archive Press, the four protagonists end up compressed into dice and bounced across a lake of frozen human remains.

To use Sorokin’s own favored literary device, I would describe for new readers his Boschian hills, veined with rivers of semen and excrement, on the banks of which human and not-so-human beings enact every nightmarish permutation of depravity and putrescence.

Vladimir Sorokin graduated with an engineering degree from the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas in 1977. He abandoned engineering, instead cutting his teeth as an illustrator in the underground art scene that throbbed beneath Soviet Moscow during the 80s. Sorokin was particularly influenced by the Sots Art movement—a Moscovian take on Andy Warhol and Pop Art—in which Russian visual artists torqued Socialist Realist forms and emblems into absurdity. Sorokin’s first novel, The Queue, told entirely in dialogue, applied this technique to literature. À la Waiting for Godot, the novel described Soviets waiting interminably for a product they know nothing about, their speech devolving into phonemes and blank pages. Banned in the USSR, The Queue was first published in France in 1985, adding Sorokin to a long list of Russian dissidents known first to the West.  It was only during Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika that Sorokin’s novels, along with other long-banned dissident texts—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem—were allowed to be published legally in Russia. But while Sorokin has written countless books deconstructing Soviet rhetoric and savagely mocking Russian politicians, you will find no vodka-swilling mouthpiece in his novels who neatly details the author’s polemic. For Sorokin belongs as much to the tradition of the political dissident as he does to that of the formal prankster and literary terrorist.

Max Lawton has explained Sorokin’s work as “shock treatment” for a Russian imagination that has marinated too long in authoritarian ideology. Now Dalkey Archive Press and NYRB Classics have zipped up their hazmat suits to give American readers eight Sorokin “treatments” that are as difficult to stomach as they are impossible to itemize. The author is often recklessly lumped with the postmoderns, the maximalists, the shock jocks—easy Western comps being Vollman or Pynchon or Miller or Ballard—and yet he doesn’t tidily gel with that particular crowd of Mr. Difficults because his novels also weaponize genre. Ice Trilogy and Day of the Oprichnik, for example, are often classified as science fiction. But while Ice Trilogy is exclusively futurist, Day of the Oprichnik takes place in an environment that is coetaneously medieval. The book follows a henchman—an oprichnik, named for Ivan the Terrible’s personal guards—as he rapes and pillages in the name of a 2028 iteration of Russia ruled by a tsar. This dystopian fantasy realm, orbiting a Russian state backsliding through time, spans many of Sorokin’s works. He calls it his “New Middle Ages.”

Telluria, out this summer from NYRB Classics, is another novel set in this material Dark Age, an environment that absorbs at least five of his books and is characterized by general polyglossic collapse, regressive political structures, cyberpunk technology, and alternative landmarks such as a Great Russian Wall. Unlike Day of the Oprichnik, which restricts itself to Russia, Telluria takes an international stage, picking up after a Holy War between Christians and the Taliban has pulverized Europe, Russia, and the West into disparate, xenophobic fiefdoms, all populated by outlandish, high-fantasy types: giants referred to as “biguns,” tiny people called “littluns,” and animal-human hybrids known as “zoomorphs.” The linguistic situation is just as berserk. There is proletariat Russian, purist Russian; sprinklings of French and German and Kazakh; Russian interpolated with Chinese. “In Russian!” exclaims the Prince of Ryazan to his fellow aristocrat. “And not in a Post-Soviet pidgin dialect of our great language! It took thirty years to find our way back to a clean stream. Ordo ab chao. The state is a language.” What all these motley cybercultures have in common is addiction: a piercing, reverent longing for tellurium, the narcotic metal that jettisons its users into hyperreal vision quests. On a tellurium trip, you can encounter anyone, living or dead. You brim with glory and confidence. But the substance is rare, and often fatal. It can only be “tested” with the help of a specialized carpenter who trepans a drug-loaded nail directly into your brain.

In contrast to, say, Their Four Hearts, a barbaric sendup of Soviet archetypes featuring graphic scenes of rape and child molestation, Telluria is one of Sorokin’s gentler rides. And yet it is not a novel about which one can easily recount the plot. Within the fifty disconnected chapters, no speaker or arc ever appears twice; the vignettes build into a cacophony of voices evidencing Sorokin’s fascination with register to the extent that language itself subsumes the need for any conventional narrative through-line. Epistolary efforts, a television transcript, a chapter imitating Ginsberg’s Howl (“I saw the worst minds of my generation torn out of black madness by Tellurium . . .”) and a chapter written in Old Church Slavonic, smartly rendered by Lawton into a pseudo Old English. Characters include princesses, centaurs, robots, and a dog-faced philosopher gobbling carrion from the battlefield. But the most unforgettable narrator, for this reader, has to be the runaway penis—in the novel’s jargon, the “transgenic phallic organism”—who rolls horizontally down echoing castle halls in a bid to escape the harem of the Princess of Schleswig-Holstein, whose vaginal juices are exhaustively described. A mind-boggling trot, this particular chapter, for which Lawton found inspiration, rather appropriately, in Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.

All of this is to say: Sorokin is funny. His phantasmagoric tapestry seethes with bizarre libidinal energies that leave nothing un-desecrated, not even the Greek philosopher Plato, encountered by one lucky man on tellurium:

He hadn’t been able to find a common language with Plato, they’d simply kissed torturously and wordlessly for a long time . . .

This schizophrenic whimsy is not without point. Originally published in 2013, shortly before Putin annexed Crimea, Telluria’s formal invention betrays the deeply Sorokinian idea that any literary stricture, convention, or rule can furnish the oppressor’s ideology. It would be insufficient to call the novel just a postmodern text, or just a science fiction number. Like his very own dog-headed carrion guzzler, Sorokin picks and chooses from the skeletons that decorate the lurid battlefield of his country’s own history and inserts them into Telluria’s anti-utopia, where the most coveted technological device is called, inconceivably, a “smartypants.” The diegetic incursion of feudal (think: Mongolian, Romanovian) and generally pre-Soviet energies into the world of Telluria drive home that Sorokin’s mythology is not a complete fantastic departure. I am thinking of a particularly hallucinogenic chapter in which a gay couple (one of whom cannot stop exclaiming “Dope!”) overdoses on tellurium at a kind of Stalin Disneyland. They die in a marble tub, heads freshly shaven to accommodate narcotic surgery, bodies enrobed in clothes featuring “delicately embroidered Stalinist symbols.” An evocative image, yes, but as to what it says about Communism, if anything, I haven’t the foggiest. This is the radical dissident pose that Sorokin occupies. He toys with figures and eras, and also says nothing coherent about them at all. No wonder the Soviets were terrified! What does it mean when a clone of Khrushchev screws a clone of Stalin? And why is Sorokin so fixated on all things medieval, including Ivan the Terrible and Lord of the Rings? The Christian warriors in Telluria decry the “Sauron of the Taliban”; and in interviews IRL, Sorokin—wizard supreme of the literalized metaphor—references “whiffs” of the dark ages, a “medieval odor” assaulting his nose in Putin’s Russia.

Sorokin provided inadvertent answers to these questions in a recent Op-Ed for the Guardian provoked by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “In Russia, power is a pyramid,” he declaimed, an image which will be familiar to anyone who read his satisfying, Gogol-y short story “Red Pyramid,” also translated by Lawton and published in the New Yorker. Another example of Sorokin stringing meat onto metaphor, the story follows a boy as he learns the truth about Russia from a featureless man at a train station. There is a red pyramid in Red Square, says the mystery man, and it emits a red roar. In an interview with the magazine about the story’s inspiration, Sorokin recalls his own youth in the USSR: “A certain roar really did emanate from the texts in those newspapers, from that collective Stalinist paranoia, a roar that set a single goal for itself—to crush each individual personality and subordinate it to the collective will.” This roaring pyramid is, I think, not really a metaphor for Sorokin at all, but a material landmark of his greater mystic discourse. In the Guardian piece, he states that the pyramid was first created by Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century—not by the Bolsheviks!—and persists to this day, its vile frequency now emanating from Vladimir Putin’s rictus grin. Which, elaborates Sorokin, was deformed over time by the pyramid’s medieval energies in precisely the same way that Frodo, in the critical juncture on Mount Doom, went daft and spiral-eyed, at last poisoned by the ring. While the invasion of Ukraine finally made the pyramid’s tocsin audible to the rest of the world, Vladimir Sorokin has heard its keening all along. He created the cyber-feudal mashup that is Telluria not to engage in any genre trope but because the red pyramid was born in the dark. Only the total dissolution of the Russian State will silence its roar, says Sorokin. Thus Telluria, in which Russia is fractured into many smaller red pyramids (“PodMoscovia,” “the United States of Ural,” “the Kingdom of Ryazan” etc.) with more manageable red roars.

To love Sorokin the reader must submit entirely, without recourse or handhold. I was on the fence about Telluria myself until I relinquished all sense of direction and let the language have its way with me. Many reviewers have missed the point when they describe the writer’s conceits as “hard to swallow” (cue Sorokin joke) or bemoan his unrelenting obscenity. Sorokin is at core a spiritual writer, his antennae picking up what many Western writers might immediately reject—ergo, harem of phalluses—never doubting for an instant the Janus-faced powers of language itself. His allegiance is not to Russia, but Russian. That’s the real assault when reading Telluria; Max Lawton had his work cut out for him. Untranslatable profanity and neologisms, slogans and idioms plucked from disparate eras in Russia’s tortured history, all written in a cornucopia of styles Lawton has magicked into everything from the McCarthy-esque action sequence,

And the robots are real close. They shine unbearably in the sun.

to the accelerationist liturgy,

By the grace of the Sovereign Top-Manager, ad majorem Gloria, the CPSU and all the saints, for the happiness of the people by the will of the Lord alone, at the behest of world imperialism, as per the request of enlightened Satanism, by the burning of Russian-Orthodox patriotism . . .

to a play in which a dog-headed poet chomps down on a tellurium nail while eating brains.

ROMAN. You’re . . . m-m-m . . . a provocateur . . . you’re . . . m-m-m . . . a dangerous Neo-Hegelian . . . you . . . oof, how delicious . . . owwww! (he screams and stops eating.)

Sorokin can’t mock Putin directly without risking censorship, but he makes do. Hidden inside a soliloquy from the Prince of Ryazan is the story of a post-Soviet leader conducting a search for a national idea. The Putin puppet lands on the “great, noble, and correct Russian language” as the perfect ideological net to trap the Russian people. Like an antidote to this linguistic prison, Telluria unleashes lexical anarchy. Vladimir Sorokin pledges allegiance to language by obliterating it entirely.

© 2022 Allison Bulger. All rights reserved.

English

Of all the jobs esteemed translator Larissa Volokhonsky has rejected, only one text was physically removed from her apartment on the Villa Poirier in Paris.

“Take it back,” she said. “Rid me of its presence.”

The cursed title was Blue Lard (1999) by Vladimir Sorokin, known to some as Russia’s De Sade, and Volokhonsky’s revulsion was par for the course. It would be twenty years before another translator, Max Lawton, would provide eight Sorokin works unseen in the West, including Blue Lard, in which a clone of Khrushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin. Of Sorokin’s wickedness, Russian nationals were no more forgiving than Volokhonsky. A pro-Putin youth group threw copies into a massive faux toilet erected in front of the Bolshoi theater, and the novelist was subsequently investigated for pornography. 

The toilet thing was rather on the nose, because Vladimir Sorokin is obsessed with shit. His oeuvre is for the Cronenberg lover, the C- and D- list horror nut, the Gonzo holdout sheepishly retaining a dog-eared copy of Naked Lunch, or any “serious reader” who knows who Guyotat is. The novelist himself, a devout Catholic, remarked that the Bolshoi protest made him feel as though he’d been wormholed into one of his own stories. Indeed, in Sorokin’s novel The Norm, one of his more direct critiques of Soviet propaganda, citizens eat government-issued feces delivered in little packets; in Nastya, a girl is cannibalized by her own family; in Their Four Hearts, the first of Lawton’s translations out from Dalkey Archive Press, the four protagonists end up compressed into dice and bounced across a lake of frozen human remains.

To use Sorokin’s own favored literary device, I would describe for new readers his Boschian hills, veined with rivers of semen and excrement, on the banks of which human and not-so-human beings enact every nightmarish permutation of depravity and putrescence.

Vladimir Sorokin graduated with an engineering degree from the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas in 1977. He abandoned engineering, instead cutting his teeth as an illustrator in the underground art scene that throbbed beneath Soviet Moscow during the 80s. Sorokin was particularly influenced by the Sots Art movement—a Moscovian take on Andy Warhol and Pop Art—in which Russian visual artists torqued Socialist Realist forms and emblems into absurdity. Sorokin’s first novel, The Queue, told entirely in dialogue, applied this technique to literature. À la Waiting for Godot, the novel described Soviets waiting interminably for a product they know nothing about, their speech devolving into phonemes and blank pages. Banned in the USSR, The Queue was first published in France in 1985, adding Sorokin to a long list of Russian dissidents known first to the West.  It was only during Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika that Sorokin’s novels, along with other long-banned dissident texts—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem—were allowed to be published legally in Russia. But while Sorokin has written countless books deconstructing Soviet rhetoric and savagely mocking Russian politicians, you will find no vodka-swilling mouthpiece in his novels who neatly details the author’s polemic. For Sorokin belongs as much to the tradition of the political dissident as he does to that of the formal prankster and literary terrorist.

Max Lawton has explained Sorokin’s work as “shock treatment” for a Russian imagination that has marinated too long in authoritarian ideology. Now Dalkey Archive Press and NYRB Classics have zipped up their hazmat suits to give American readers eight Sorokin “treatments” that are as difficult to stomach as they are impossible to itemize. The author is often recklessly lumped with the postmoderns, the maximalists, the shock jocks—easy Western comps being Vollman or Pynchon or Miller or Ballard—and yet he doesn’t tidily gel with that particular crowd of Mr. Difficults because his novels also weaponize genre. Ice Trilogy and Day of the Oprichnik, for example, are often classified as science fiction. But while Ice Trilogy is exclusively futurist, Day of the Oprichnik takes place in an environment that is coetaneously medieval. The book follows a henchman—an oprichnik, named for Ivan the Terrible’s personal guards—as he rapes and pillages in the name of a 2028 iteration of Russia ruled by a tsar. This dystopian fantasy realm, orbiting a Russian state backsliding through time, spans many of Sorokin’s works. He calls it his “New Middle Ages.”

Telluria, out this summer from NYRB Classics, is another novel set in this material Dark Age, an environment that absorbs at least five of his books and is characterized by general polyglossic collapse, regressive political structures, cyberpunk technology, and alternative landmarks such as a Great Russian Wall. Unlike Day of the Oprichnik, which restricts itself to Russia, Telluria takes an international stage, picking up after a Holy War between Christians and the Taliban has pulverized Europe, Russia, and the West into disparate, xenophobic fiefdoms, all populated by outlandish, high-fantasy types: giants referred to as “biguns,” tiny people called “littluns,” and animal-human hybrids known as “zoomorphs.” The linguistic situation is just as berserk. There is proletariat Russian, purist Russian; sprinklings of French and German and Kazakh; Russian interpolated with Chinese. “In Russian!” exclaims the Prince of Ryazan to his fellow aristocrat. “And not in a Post-Soviet pidgin dialect of our great language! It took thirty years to find our way back to a clean stream. Ordo ab chao. The state is a language.” What all these motley cybercultures have in common is addiction: a piercing, reverent longing for tellurium, the narcotic metal that jettisons its users into hyperreal vision quests. On a tellurium trip, you can encounter anyone, living or dead. You brim with glory and confidence. But the substance is rare, and often fatal. It can only be “tested” with the help of a specialized carpenter who trepans a drug-loaded nail directly into your brain.

In contrast to, say, Their Four Hearts, a barbaric sendup of Soviet archetypes featuring graphic scenes of rape and child molestation, Telluria is one of Sorokin’s gentler rides. And yet it is not a novel about which one can easily recount the plot. Within the fifty disconnected chapters, no speaker or arc ever appears twice; the vignettes build into a cacophony of voices evidencing Sorokin’s fascination with register to the extent that language itself subsumes the need for any conventional narrative through-line. Epistolary efforts, a television transcript, a chapter imitating Ginsberg’s Howl (“I saw the worst minds of my generation torn out of black madness by Tellurium . . .”) and a chapter written in Old Church Slavonic, smartly rendered by Lawton into a pseudo Old English. Characters include princesses, centaurs, robots, and a dog-faced philosopher gobbling carrion from the battlefield. But the most unforgettable narrator, for this reader, has to be the runaway penis—in the novel’s jargon, the “transgenic phallic organism”—who rolls horizontally down echoing castle halls in a bid to escape the harem of the Princess of Schleswig-Holstein, whose vaginal juices are exhaustively described. A mind-boggling trot, this particular chapter, for which Lawton found inspiration, rather appropriately, in Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.

All of this is to say: Sorokin is funny. His phantasmagoric tapestry seethes with bizarre libidinal energies that leave nothing un-desecrated, not even the Greek philosopher Plato, encountered by one lucky man on tellurium:

He hadn’t been able to find a common language with Plato, they’d simply kissed torturously and wordlessly for a long time . . .

This schizophrenic whimsy is not without point. Originally published in 2013, shortly before Putin annexed Crimea, Telluria’s formal invention betrays the deeply Sorokinian idea that any literary stricture, convention, or rule can furnish the oppressor’s ideology. It would be insufficient to call the novel just a postmodern text, or just a science fiction number. Like his very own dog-headed carrion guzzler, Sorokin picks and chooses from the skeletons that decorate the lurid battlefield of his country’s own history and inserts them into Telluria’s anti-utopia, where the most coveted technological device is called, inconceivably, a “smartypants.” The diegetic incursion of feudal (think: Mongolian, Romanovian) and generally pre-Soviet energies into the world of Telluria drive home that Sorokin’s mythology is not a complete fantastic departure. I am thinking of a particularly hallucinogenic chapter in which a gay couple (one of whom cannot stop exclaiming “Dope!”) overdoses on tellurium at a kind of Stalin Disneyland. They die in a marble tub, heads freshly shaven to accommodate narcotic surgery, bodies enrobed in clothes featuring “delicately embroidered Stalinist symbols.” An evocative image, yes, but as to what it says about Communism, if anything, I haven’t the foggiest. This is the radical dissident pose that Sorokin occupies. He toys with figures and eras, and also says nothing coherent about them at all. No wonder the Soviets were terrified! What does it mean when a clone of Khrushchev screws a clone of Stalin? And why is Sorokin so fixated on all things medieval, including Ivan the Terrible and Lord of the Rings? The Christian warriors in Telluria decry the “Sauron of the Taliban”; and in interviews IRL, Sorokin—wizard supreme of the literalized metaphor—references “whiffs” of the dark ages, a “medieval odor” assaulting his nose in Putin’s Russia.

Sorokin provided inadvertent answers to these questions in a recent Op-Ed for the Guardian provoked by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “In Russia, power is a pyramid,” he declaimed, an image which will be familiar to anyone who read his satisfying, Gogol-y short story “Red Pyramid,” also translated by Lawton and published in the New Yorker. Another example of Sorokin stringing meat onto metaphor, the story follows a boy as he learns the truth about Russia from a featureless man at a train station. There is a red pyramid in Red Square, says the mystery man, and it emits a red roar. In an interview with the magazine about the story’s inspiration, Sorokin recalls his own youth in the USSR: “A certain roar really did emanate from the texts in those newspapers, from that collective Stalinist paranoia, a roar that set a single goal for itself—to crush each individual personality and subordinate it to the collective will.” This roaring pyramid is, I think, not really a metaphor for Sorokin at all, but a material landmark of his greater mystic discourse. In the Guardian piece, he states that the pyramid was first created by Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century—not by the Bolsheviks!—and persists to this day, its vile frequency now emanating from Vladimir Putin’s rictus grin. Which, elaborates Sorokin, was deformed over time by the pyramid’s medieval energies in precisely the same way that Frodo, in the critical juncture on Mount Doom, went daft and spiral-eyed, at last poisoned by the ring. While the invasion of Ukraine finally made the pyramid’s tocsin audible to the rest of the world, Vladimir Sorokin has heard its keening all along. He created the cyber-feudal mashup that is Telluria not to engage in any genre trope but because the red pyramid was born in the dark. Only the total dissolution of the Russian State will silence its roar, says Sorokin. Thus Telluria, in which Russia is fractured into many smaller red pyramids (“PodMoscovia,” “the United States of Ural,” “the Kingdom of Ryazan” etc.) with more manageable red roars.

To love Sorokin the reader must submit entirely, without recourse or handhold. I was on the fence about Telluria myself until I relinquished all sense of direction and let the language have its way with me. Many reviewers have missed the point when they describe the writer’s conceits as “hard to swallow” (cue Sorokin joke) or bemoan his unrelenting obscenity. Sorokin is at core a spiritual writer, his antennae picking up what many Western writers might immediately reject—ergo, harem of phalluses—never doubting for an instant the Janus-faced powers of language itself. His allegiance is not to Russia, but Russian. That’s the real assault when reading Telluria; Max Lawton had his work cut out for him. Untranslatable profanity and neologisms, slogans and idioms plucked from disparate eras in Russia’s tortured history, all written in a cornucopia of styles Lawton has magicked into everything from the McCarthy-esque action sequence,

And the robots are real close. They shine unbearably in the sun.

to the accelerationist liturgy,

By the grace of the Sovereign Top-Manager, ad majorem Gloria, the CPSU and all the saints, for the happiness of the people by the will of the Lord alone, at the behest of world imperialism, as per the request of enlightened Satanism, by the burning of Russian-Orthodox patriotism . . .

to a play in which a dog-headed poet chomps down on a tellurium nail while eating brains.

ROMAN. You’re . . . m-m-m . . . a provocateur . . . you’re . . . m-m-m . . . a dangerous Neo-Hegelian . . . you . . . oof, how delicious . . . owwww! (he screams and stops eating.)

Sorokin can’t mock Putin directly without risking censorship, but he makes do. Hidden inside a soliloquy from the Prince of Ryazan is the story of a post-Soviet leader conducting a search for a national idea. The Putin puppet lands on the “great, noble, and correct Russian language” as the perfect ideological net to trap the Russian people. Like an antidote to this linguistic prison, Telluria unleashes lexical anarchy. Vladimir Sorokin pledges allegiance to language by obliterating it entirely.

© 2022 Allison Bulger. All rights reserved.

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