Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., April 27, 2007
by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
NYRB Classics, 321 pp., $23.95
In the space between hate and genocide, it would be a short-sighted stretch to say that the February attack on Elie Wiesel in a San Francisco hotel the 78-year-old's 22-year-old assailant planned to kidnap and force him to "truthfully answer my questions regarding the fact that his non-fiction Holocaust memoir, Night, is almost entirely fictitious" is a harbinger of history repeating itself. But for Wiesel, it must have been approximately that: a horrible moment of powerlessness at the mercy of powerful harm. More horrible still must be the futility of reason in the face of that harm. Absolute belief brought it on to begin with, and there's no going back. It's neither random act nor terror tactic. It's a divine and predetermined means to an end, whether you're dealing with one nut in an elevator or 1 million armed SS administering to a network of concentration camps.
Vladimir Sorokin's Ice the first of his novels to be translated into English (and the first of a trilogy; its successor, Bro's Way, was released in Russia in 2004) is populated by blond and blue-eyed believers whose origin can be traced to one of those camps, but it would be a short-sighted stretch to say that it's about the Holocaust. Rather, it's about how humanity's history of conviction and violence repeats itself all around us all of the time. It's about the horror of losing one's reason. It's about no going back.
In present-day Moscow, "brothers and sisters" from among the "awakened" attempt to track down the blond and blue-eyed who might also be redeemed as the link between the eternal Light and the end of the world. There are 23,000 of them, and each will be discovered under the same conditions: The awakened will secure them and swing hammers "long, rough wooden shafts, attached to cylindrical ice heads with strips of rawhide" into their naked chests until their hearts "speak" their new names, themselves keys to the kingdom, as it were. The sick joke is that the names are the sounds a body might make internally while being traumatized; they're phoneticized guttural moans, nothing more.
That irony is the cruelest thing about the movement led by a woman named Khram who might have been part of Mengele-like experiments in her youth. The self-anointed awakened are clinical in the absence of malice and consider themselves preordained: Killing people to find what they're looking for is all in a day's work. As they have for the unawakened (the "empty" are left for dead; the brown-skinned or green-eyed or whoever else are ignored altogether), Sorokin has a cool disdain for his characters, although even that is overstating things. Much of Ice is impassive even amid disquieting gore and graphic sex. The author and for our purposes, his translator, Jamey Gambrell has a sense of how people interact but little in the way of style or humor.
For a book that Publishers Weekly called "Master and Margarita for the age of Buffy the Vampire Slayer," this isn't typically Russian or noirish, yet the story is unmistakably both in its politics and its paranoia. I would argue that it's for the age of not knowing what is real and what's not, of wondering what the hell is going on and how it could happen again.
Vladimir Sorokin will be at BookPeople on Saturday, April 28, 6pm.