Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Book Review - Day of the Oprichnick by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell

New York : Farrer Straus and Giroux, 2011    ISBN 9780374134754

I've never fully understood Russian Literature - I always have the feeling that I'm missing an important piece of the puzzle, the one which would make the beautiful outline before me a complete picture. As I get older, I've realised that the missing piece is that I am not the least bit Russian; I lack that inner knowledge that is only held by those that are. Reading at the remove of translation is another impediment.

However, Russian novels can still be enjoyed, even with a limited understanding of their true depths, and Day of the Oprichnik is a very enjoyable novel, though there may be some deeper political meaning that I'm missing from my Antipodean viewpoint.

This short book (less than 200 pages) details one day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga*, a relatively senior member of the Oprichnik "order" - a group of men who's task it is to protect the King of Russia. The book is set in the not-too-distant future, when Russia has decided to cure it's problems by literally fencing itself off from the West, dealing with China only because it has to, and delving into "Russian-ness" to find it's raison-d'etre - folk songs, the Orthodox faith, and the reinstatement of the Russian nobility all form a part of this new Russia.

The Oprichnik's task is to "clean up" enemies of His Majesty, usually by very gruesome and public means. The vast majority of the population seem to fear and hate them, and in consequence they band together behind their symbols and rituals of power. What is also clear from the novel is that the whole system they protect is one based on blackmail and corruption, with a percentage of everything ending up in the lap of the Oprichniks.

While obviously a satire based on the current Russian leadership, and the corruption and venality that must be on display in that country, there are broader themes in this short work: How easy it is to use the masks of nationalism and religion to pursue ends that are anything but noble; how we can work at our job and gloss over the harm we may be doing; and how the trappings of power sometimes corrupt more than the actual wielding of power.

Having previously read Sorokin's Ice, I was prepared for this book to be a roller-coaster ride travelling the emotions from humour to disgust, and it delivered. Rape, murder, drug-abuse, sodomy - it's all here, all adding to the corruption that is revealed at the heart of the new Russia. The final scene of the Oprichniks forming a human caterpillar of sodomy is at the same time amusing, debasing, and I'm sure a comment on the current powers-that-be in Russia. The tone of Day of the Oprichnik, which is related in the first person, is that of a bureaucrat discussing one day in the office, which just adds to the absurdity of the narrative.

If you are at all interested in the current state of Russian literature, or indeed of political commentary, Vladimir Sorokin is a must-read - Day of the Oprichnik would not be a bad place to start.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

*If the title is meant to be a play on One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, the connexion passed me by.

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