by Robert WeibezahlMarch 2011
A twisted Russian satire
Vladimir Sorokin’s darkly comic novel, Day of the Oprichnik, is set in Moscow in 2028, and offers a warped futuristic vision of a Russian society where advanced technology and medieval brutality seamlessly merge.
A major Russian literary voice, born in 1955, Sorokin began his career as part of the underground scene during the last days of the Soviet era. He has since gained respectability—including a Russian Booker Prize nomination—and his work has been published in some 20 languages. But his writing still riles many in his homeland, and reading Day of the Oprichnik it is easy to see why.
Sorokin is both lamenting and lampooning his homeland’s fate, its ever-tumultuous history, bound equally in faith and apostasy.
As the title suggests, the first-person narrative recounts 24 hours in the life of an oprichnik—a member of an elite force of government-sanctioned strongmen (read: thugs) who carry out the wishes of the restored Russian monarchy. It begins when Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is awakened by a cell phone call—his ring tone is a scream, a moan and a death rattle—summoning him with the first order of the day. Racing in his red Mercedov, upon which the freshly severed head of a new dog is mounted each morning, Komiaga joins his fellow oprichniks at the estate of a hereditary nobleman to kill, rape and pillage. All before breakfast.
As the day progresses, Komiaga will be sent on short plane trips to outposts of the nation, visit a clairvoyant, have tiny fish with hallucinogenic powers injected into his bloodstream, go to church, have an audience with the half-Jewish tsarina and engage in ritualistic copulation with the oprichnik brotherhood. Komiaga’s behavior, a blend of gleeful debauchery and ardent patriotism, is consistently disturbing, even as he cracks jokes or waxes poetic about the fatherland. At once charming and menacing, Komiaga is someone for his fellow Russians to both fear and envy.
It is easy to see that Sorokin is commenting on the mess and corruption of contemporary Russia while projecting the story into a not-so-distant future when the country has isolated itself from the West behind a fortified wall and lives in economic thrall to the Chinese. During a visit to the Kremlin Concert Hall, Komiaga listens to a song about the time of Ivan III: “A grim, fateful time in Russian history. A serious struggle for the integrity of the Russian state is under way—a fledgling state, not yet strong, only beginning to stand on its own.” These words clearly describe not only the Russia of this novel, but the Russia of the novelist as well. Sorokin is both lamenting and lampooning his homeland’s fate, its ever-tumultuous history, bound equally in faith and apostasy (the last, perhaps ironic words of the novel are “And thank God”), in warm-hearted fellowship and abject greed.
The translation by Jamey Gambrell is fresh and contemporary, retaining just enough Russian words and phrases to remind us that the story could take place nowhere else. The humor is dark and intentionally tasteless, certainly not for every reader. But, like any great satirist, Vladimir Sorokin is a provocateur. One can’t paint a dystopian nightmare with a subtle palette, and Day of the Oprichnik is undeniably vivid in the telling.
Readers who crave more of Sorokin’s caustic fiction can seek out his seminal Ice Trilogy, newly published in a one volume edition by NYRB Classics.