Last week, when I talked with my mother, who lives in Hungary (where modern Russian literature is appreciated in a wider circle than in the US, relatively speaking) she recommended Vladimir Sorokin. Next day I looked up whether my local library has any books from him and reserved his novel titled “Ice“. Two day later I picked it up and three days later I finished reading it. It was impossible to put it down, thus I stayed up till 1 AM; something I rarely do nowadays. Unfortunately my comprehension level declined after midnight and I had to reread the last tenth of the book the following day to understand what happened. I am still not sure I did. It’s one of those books where the last few pages change the meaning of everything that was written before.
What was before is a story about a group of people who all have blond hair and blue eyes. Sounds familiar? Yes, there is a connection to Aryans, but as the second part of the book shows this group accepted people of Slavic origins to join. “Accepting” may be the wrong choice of terms as the recruiting process had one of two results: you either manage to whisper “your true name” or you die by being hit multiple times with an ice-axe. No, not like the one that was used to Kill Trotsky, this is made of special ice. I won’t tell more of the story, but promise you learn eventually everything that is worth learning about the group and the ice they use.
Instead I want to tell you why I think this is stylistic masterpiece. The first half of the book is a straightforward story, running on three threads that meet at the end of this section. Each major character’s outlook (body type, clothing, face…) is introduced with a 3-4 lines long description. I found this and the fact that their name was boldfaced a rather effective and clear way of organizing text. I don’t recall seeing in any novel boldfacing, while in everyday business communication millions of people are using it I their emails, webpages, word processing documents. I like that Sorokin stepped over the taboo that the text of a novel has to be displayed in a linear monotone way so the text itself could speak for itself. But he changed the customs only slightly, unlike avant-garde poets and writers, who treated the letters and words as elements of a canvas, and thus relegating their work often incomprehensible in my opinion.
The second part of the book tells the story of a single person, from a first person account. This has a rather different tone; the reader truly believes that it is the voice of an uneducated farmgirl, whose life experience are both unique and typical. The unusual, fantastic events are the former, but the description of Nazi camps and being part of the Soviet system is the latter. I enjoyed reading about both. They are both horrific in their own ways, but they also felt historically accurate as much as possible.
The third section is a series of vignettes, testimonials about a product. These range from 10 lines to 3 pages. Each of these are written from a the perspective of a person on a different path of life than the others. The common element was the product theyr reviewed and the end of their experiences. Including that they all ended with the word “light” and omitted the closing period at the end of the last sentence. As if they couldn’t finish it. The last, short (4 pages long) section is yet another story, this time told from a small boy’s perspective. They way Sorokin managed to put himself into all these characters was genius. What he did with it, i.e. the deciphering of the meaning of the book, is a whole other matter. That I need to think more about.