Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sorokin: From Scandal to Literary Redemption

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Russia's most famous living writer, Vladimir Sorokin, recently found himself at the center of another scandal. The cause of all the fuss was the Bolshoi Theater's premiere of "Deti Rozentalya" (The Children of Rosenthal), an opera for which Sorokin wrote the libretto.

The first to sound the alarm was the State Duma. Deputies discussed the upcoming premiere in open session and called on the Bolshoi to cancel the opera because of Sorokin's "pornographic" libretto. The normally reserved Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska declared that she would not attend such a shameful spectacle. The Bolshoi's protest that the opera contained nothing pornographic fell on deaf ears. The opera's critics hadn't even bothered to read the libretto.

Then the heavy artillery was wheeled out -- the pro-Kremlin youth organization Moving Together, a sort of capitalist Komsomol. They mobilized hundreds of young men and women, and bused them in from God-knows-where. The kids were decked out in standard-issue baseball caps, waving flags and banners and shouting slogans through megaphones. On opening night, Moving Together took up positions in front of the Bolshoi and called on the Duma to defend the Russian stage against pornographers. They can't get enough of protesting against Sorokin. Two years earlier they publicly dumped his novel "Goluboye Salo" (Blue Lard) into an enormous mock toilet erected in the center of Moscow. The authorities opened a criminal investigation against Sorokin on the charge of pornography, but the case was later closed.

Yet amid all the hullabaloo, no one noticed that Sorokin had become a very different writer. The press and the literary critics, greedily following the scandals surrounding Sorokin, missed the fact that he had broken decisively with his previous work. Sorokin has attempted to announce this, but no one's listening.

"I'm no longer a Hegelian metaphysician; I've become a neo-Platonist," he says. What exactly does he mean?

Few recall that Sorokin, born in 1955, started out as a mild-mannered illustrator of Soviet books. His literary debut came in 1972, when his poetry was published in the mass-circulation newspaper "Za Kadry Neftyanikov." Only later, when he became associated with the avant-garde writers Viktor Yerofeyev and Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov, did Sorokin assume the mantle of metaphysical monster. His transformation was prompted by another fact that few people remember: In those days, Sorokin had a pronounced stutter that made it impossible for him to read his stories before an audience. Prigov did the reading.

At first, Sorokin's texts were distributed in samizdat. His prose was first published abroad. Back home, Sorokin's first book, "Sbornik Rasskazov" (Collection of Stories), did not appear until 1992. Now, 13 years later, it's clear that the book spelled the end of Soviet literature. Sorokin turned a monstrous magnifying glass on the molecules of Soviet existence, the building blocks of the country's ideological carcass, and mixed the innocent pathos of party literature with existential nightmares.

Over time it became clear that re-reading Sorokin's stories was nearly impossible. His work wasn't so much prose as a series of intellectual experiments intended to dissect the reader's consciousness. Sorokin goes after the basic principles of human existence, and the wounds never fully heal. He produced a series of merciless books, such as "Ochered" (The Queue) and "Norma" (Norm), that drain your will to live.

This is the Hegelian aspect of Sorokin's work, for in his philosophy Hegel set extremely ambitious goals: to put an end to the further development of thought and to resolve all remaining questions and thereby to abolish cognition. After doing in Soviet literature, Sorokin took aim at the Russian classics. In his books "Roman" (Novel) and "Blue Lard," Sorokin created something like a second Russian literature that not only parodied the classics but undermined all of their postulates, from humanism and belief in Jesus Christ to faith in the people and hope for the little guy.

All of this has now changed. The former Sorokin is no more. In his last two novels, "Lyod" (Ice) and "Put Bro" (Bro's Way), as well as the libretto for "The Children of Rosenthal," Sorokin has broken new ground and declared that his new work is a way of asking forgiveness for his extreme negativity in the past.

The neo-Platonist Sorokin said at a recent book fair in Paris that the attacks on "The Children of Rosenthal" would soon cease because he and composer Leonid Desyatnikov had "made a good thing worthy of the Bolshoi and other theaters." "I'm certain that normal people will enjoy the opera," he said. In the past, the very idea of "normalcy" -- dissected in "Norm" -- was anathema to Sorokin.

The media are reluctant to part with the old Sorokin, however. They ignore him when he says that he is a different writer now, and they choose not to notice that foul language, necrophilia and the cult of feces have disappeared from his books. The champions of morality got the wrong man when they attacked his new opera. It's a timid, tender story about the fate of five cloned children who have lost their father.

The story goes like this: The biologist Alex Rosenthal was born in Berlin in 1910. At 26 he discovered how to clone any living being in the laboratory. The Nazis condemned his work, however, and Rosenthal emigrated to the Soviet Union, where in 1940 he cloned a human for the first time. The Communist Party approved of cloning Stakhanovites, but Rosenthal had other ideas. A music lover, he decided to clone his favorite composers: first Richard Wagner, then Giuseppe Verdi, Modest Mussorgsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and finally Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The five brothers enjoyed a happy childhood, but suddenly their world came crashing down. Rosenthal died, his lab was closed and the clones degenerated into bums living on the streets of Moscow.

The second act opens with a scene of the clones singing for their supper on Ploshchad Tryokh Vokzalov, Moscow's version of Place Pigalle. Their battle for survival is presented as a grotesque comedy filled with pimps, prostitutes, cops and a waiter who laces the poor clones' vodka with poison in the end.

A curious story, to be sure, but entirely free of pornography. Yet because of the scandal surrounding the opera, the Bolshoi was surrounded with metal barriers on opening night and opera-goers were intensively screened. Bomb-sniffing dogs had to be deployed before the performance due to a bomb threat.

No explosives were found, of course. And no foul language or shocking situations are found in Sorokin's last two novels, which tell a rather romantic tale of a mystical brotherhood that turns a group of blond, blue-eyed humans into a superior race called "living hearts."

Sorokin has become a fan of Plato, who, as we know, idolized man.

Time will tell if Sorokin can pull off this mid-career switch from "devil" to "saint," but the cards are stacked against him. His reputation, built on his previous stories and novels, precedes him.

The soroka, or magpie, is a symbol of death in European mythology. Spreading its mournful wings it glides over a wintry landscape and over mortal man, symbolizing the vanity of life. The magpie cannot become a joyful lark. But Sorokin is trying.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer in Moscow. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.