A Strange and Endless Journey: A Conversation with Jamey Gambrell, translator of Vladimir Sorokin’s “The Blizzard”




VLADIMIR SOROKIN’S new short novel, a form known in Russian as a povest, contains many of the typical markers of a Russian story — heavy winter clothing, a snowstorm, cabbage, and vodka. In The Blizzard, a country doctor sets off on a journey to bring a vaccine to a village riddled by plague, traveling on the sled of a man named Crouper.

And so a trip that should only take a couple of hours quickly becomes a strange and endless journey, buffeted by much more than the storm of the title. The horses that pull Crouper’s sled are the size of birds. The traveling pair encounters men both tiny and giant, a vapor that induces intense hallucinatory experiences in anyone nearby, and a snowman with an enormous erection.

Born in 1955, Moscow-based Sorokin is known for his playful engagement with the Russian literary canon and his incisive political satire. His subversive work was banned in Russia during the Soviet period, though he’s recently won literary awards from the government. Sorokin was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.

Jamey Gambrell, Sorokin’s translator, spoke to me about some of the oddities and finer points of translating such a novel. The Blizzard is rich with meaning and mystery, a volume that offers a unique variation on a traditional Russian theme and a strange, intriguing voice in contemporary Russian literature.

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ALINA COHEN: As someone who’s intimately familiar with Sorokin’s past work, what was your experience with this particular book, reading it for the first time, and working with it over an extended period of time?

JAMEY GAMBRELL: It’s very different from much of his previous work, although each book is unique. On first glance, this volume appears to be much more traditional. It takes place in the Russian countryside. You’ve got a doctor going through a snowstorm. But of course, it gets stranger and stranger as it goes along. The language, which is related to classical 19th-century literature, was much more familiar to me than is often the case with Sorokin’s work.

I was kind of lulled into thinking, “Oh! This is going to be so much easier to translate than the previous books, where you may have 10, 15 different styles of writing going on at the same time, or within the same book.” For example, Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is a kind of political satire (although it’s not so funny if you know what’s really going on in Russia), written in this mixture of old Russian and some Soviet sorts of language. There’s a lot of swearing and slang and made-up words because it’s Russia in the future, though the country has launched itself back into the past. The church has taken over. People have cell phones, but they live as though they’re in the 15th and 16th centuries, in a lot of ways.

So The Blizzard seemed much more comfortable and familiar. But every time you get into translating a book, there are always surprises. In this particular novel, one of the biggest challenges was getting the language of the character Crouper, who speaks like a 19th-century peasant. There’s no equivalent for that kind of language in American English. You don’t want something to sound really “country,” which can wander into sounding like Southern dialect. That’s extremely problematic, as it’s attached to a particular time and place.

And then — this is a really hypnotic book! It seems like a slight little book, but as you follow these characters into the snowstorm, things get slower and slower and slower. I really felt trapped in it myself.

For much of The Blizzard, two characters wander around in the snow, their meanderings broken up by brief, seemingly unconnected interludes. I felt disoriented as I read. What do you think drives the plot? And what’s going to keep people reading?

You’re supposed to feel disoriented — these characters are extremely disoriented!

The book pays homage to a lot of Russian stories, most notably Tolstoy’s “The Blizzard,” about getting lost in a snowstorm. One can imagine this used to happen a lot. It’s like flying through clouds. You lose all sense of distance and time.

I found the characters really compelling. First of all, they’re such an odd couple, really the antithesis of each other. Crouper’s long-suffering indifference to the elements and desire to get his job done contrast with Dr. Garin’s impatience and philosophical asides about life and love. Then you have the doctor’s horrifying hallucination when he takes those drugs — one of the most terrifying things I’ve translated in a long time. It was so claustrophobic! Talk about a bad trip. And then he has this completely counterintuitive reaction, and this becomes his favorite drug because it makes life seem worth living. Only a Russian could write something like this. It’s like, you’re so miserable that your life seems delightful once you come out of it.

And no matter how hard things get, Crouper doesn’t seem to be terribly disturbed. He’s willing to go on. He’s very protective of his little miniature horses (the size of birds — I missed that on my first read!).

Much of the imagery, including the way the sled is constructed, is extremely hard to visualize. The novel hinges on that. Because it is so disorienting, I think people will be intrigued about where it’s going and what’s going to happen. How will they get out of this snowstorm? You expect that something must happen, that something will happen at any minute. It’s very much like Russian life, at least throughout the ’90s, when it felt like something was always on the verge of happening. And then it doesn’t. And then it feels like that again. It has a lot of universal resonance. Somehow, the absence of happening manages to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Then there’s a revolver in this story, which never goes off, yet still feels like a nod to Chekhov. Do you see Sorokin as simultaneously fitting into and denying Russian literature? How would you explain his relationship to Russian literature?

I don’t think he denies Russian literature at all. He’s immersed in it. He plays with it constantly. He plays with the canon of Socialist realist literature. There’s this story of his called “The Start of the Season” where you have a grandfather teaching his grandson to hunt. They’re out in the woods and the grandfather is teaching the son how to set a trap. You find out later that it’s for humans, and particularly the members of the intelligentsia. They hang a tape recorder in a tree playing Vladimir Vysotsky, who was, if not the Bob Dylan of Russia, a very popular singer, writer, and actor who was vaguely associated with the intelligentsia and an anti-Soviet point of view. With the recorder, they’d attract liberals so they could shoot them. The story starts like any number of short stories, and then this twist turns the whole thing up on its head.

That kind of playing with genre and specific tradition in Russian literature is a hallmark of Sorokin’s work. Almost every Russian writer has something called “The Blizzard.” There’s a Pushkin story, there’s a poem by Alexander Blok, and of course the Tolstoy one. Obviously this is one of the big Russian subjects because of where they live, although global warming has affected them. There seems to be less and less snow in the Western part of Russia every year. But man, when it snows, it really snows.

It’s very difficult to situate this story in time. There’s one small mention of Stalin. At the end of the story, there’s a cell phone. To what degree does this book comment on contemporary Russia, in general and politically?

I don’t think Sorokin would call himself a political writer even though for a long time he was not allowed to join writers’ unions. Nothing of his was published in Russia until 1991, although he’d written many novels and some were published in Europe. What was controversial in his work was the use of language. Of course, Day of the Oprichnik is overtly political, but this was different.

In The Blizzard, you have little clues that set this in the present or at least in the not too distant future. There’s a reference to Stalin and the Stalinist period and the saying, “when you fell trees, chips will fly.” It’s like, “when you make an omelet, you have to break eggs.” The idea is that there’s going to be collateral damage. It’s clear that era was a long time ago but, say, in living memory of the characters’ grandparents. So that places it in the 21st century. Although it’s deliberately kind of foggy. The idea is that Russia has gone backwards in many ways. Not to the vast majority of the population, which supports Putin, but to the intelligentsia. It’s gone back to an autocratic state.

For Russia, there’s a kind of timeless quality to that, which this book certainly has. It’s a very unfortunate kind of timeless quality. It’s sad to see what’s happened since the hope at the beginning of Yeltsin’s tenure that Russia would really open up. It did in many ways, though it’s slowly but surely being closed down again and reverting to a prior mentality. I think that’s what’s going on in this book.

Then the Chinese come in at the end. This happens in Day of the Oprichnik too. This has become one of Sorokin’s themes. China has become a huge influence because they make everything. This is true to a larger extent in Russia than it is even in the States. Russia doesn’t really produce anything. They just have natural resources.

The Chinese are part of some border patrol or something official. They have uniforms.

And a three-story horse!

Yes! So it becomes about a mutant history. It’s not entirely clear at first. But by the time you get about halfway through the novel, you know that it’s definitely not in the past, that it’s probably in the near future. By the end, I think you’d say it’s probably somewhere in the late 21st century. But it’s unspecific.

You’ve said before that Sorokin intentionally includes a lot of repetition, and I saw this in the book. Crouper is constantly compared to a bird. The horses that pull Crouper’s sled are all bird-sized. And noses — the color and size of the doctor’s nose are constantly mentioned. How do you understand all the repetition here?

One thing I’ll say about Russian in general is that it tolerates repetition of specific language far better than English does. When I work with The New Yorker, they don’t want the same word, except maybe a preposition, appearing within three paragraphs of each other. That’s not the case in Russian at all.

The repetition in this novel is a deliberate slowing down of time. It also serves to increase the confusion and slowness and disorientation caused by the storm itself. At least, that’s how I see it.

As for the noses, it is the thing that sticks out the most when you’re in the cold. It’s an indication of whether you’ll get frostbite.

And then you’ve got Gogol’s story, “The Nose,” in which a nose detaches itself and just goes around wearing a hat and coat. It’s this kind of absurdist, grotesque thing that the nose becomes the character. There may be some kind of reference there.

The book begins in medias res. Most of what we know about the main character, the doctor, is through flashback in the form of dreams. Is the blizzard a punishment for something in the doctor’s past?

Well, he comes to think that. There’s the incredible hallucination when he takes the drug — the pyramid in vaporized form. He begins thinking back on his relationship with his wife and its disintegration when she wanted a child and he didn’t. He’s seeing his own callousness and regretting it. He feels this incredible longing. There are these moments when he wanders off into this internal space where he’s reviewing his past.

This kind of question is typical for Russian literature — is this a form of punishment? When he really thinks he’s going to die, he wonders it, and he’s willing to make amends and do better. He’s ready to repent for whatever he thinks his sins are.

Of course Crouper doesn’t see things in that respect at all. He just regrets that, in his youth, he wasn’t able to follow his father’s wish to save a chrysalis and the butterfly it contained. And that’s really magical and strange. It was totally unexpected for me, and very moving in a way. All of a sudden this kind of nothing character who seems to have only outside mannerisms has this very sort of profound inner life that you wouldn’t guess.

Sorokin’s changing as a writer, but I’d say it’s generally a mistake to see his characters as “real people.” They’re ciphers for something. Particularly Crouper, I think. It’s not like either of them represents the author’s voice or the other’s point of view.

Sorokin introduces the intriguing concept that zombies are related to this plague that is ravaging the village people, but then they never show up! The reader never gets to see them. What do you make of this?

What did I say? You think something big and earth-defying is going to happen, and then it never does! I think that’s part of it. Here you have this doctor whose goal in life is to save people. He has this rivalry with this other doctor, Zilberstein, so he’s not totally selfless in his desire to help. But he doesn’t want the possible zombie plague to spread, and he seems professionally competent. But then the point of the trip, the delivery of the vaccine, never materializes.

This actually didn’t surprise me at all after a while. It’s like, zombies? What? Hello? Really? This is clearly not a zombie novel. It’s like the reason behind human endeavor is mythological in some way, so you can never arrive at it. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist. In Russian existence, this is a constant theme.

It would have caused all kinds of problems for the novel if the zombies had materialized. You’ve got the little horses, tiny people, giants. But these are all still people or horses. They’re recognizable creatures. Other than that, the story doesn’t go beyond the bounds of the normal and experiential. It doesn’t go into the Twilight Zone. And the pyramid — that’s drugs. It’s even more metaphysical. In that realm he ends up in a public torture and execution kind of place where he’s fried and boiled in oil. The scene seems like it could be out of the Salem witch trials or something. At that point you think maybe he sees this storm as a punishment for his sins.

It’s the zombies, the really, really strange part, that never happens. In a way, you almost don’t know if they were really there or not.

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Alina Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine, Travel + Leisure, The Rumpus, and The Millions, among other publications.

 

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