Warlike Dreams of the Primate: On Vladimir Sorokin’s “Blue Lard” and “Red Pyramid”

Michael Scott Moore assesses the legacy of the Russian surrealist Vladimir Sorokin.

Warlike Dreams of the Primate: On Vladimir Sorokin’s “Blue Lard” and “Red Pyramid”

Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin. NYRB Classics. 368 pages.

ONE THING readers tend to know about Vladimir Sorokin’s 1999 Russian novel Blue Lard is that a pro-Putin youth group in 2002 set up a big papier-mâché toilet in front of the Bolshoi Theatre to protest the book by throwing it into the tank. The young Russians denounced Sorokin as a pornographer and a vulgar iconoclast because of a fanciful sex scene in the novel between Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. The Bolshoi incident, of course, is a perfect starting point for any discussion of Sorokin himself; it’s something he could have written. But it doesn’t begin to describe the book. So before this paragraph ends, I need to impress upon you that imaginary sex between Stalin and Khrushchev is the least offensive, outlandish, immoral, or offensive detail about Blue Lard, reissued this year in English translation by the publishing arm of The New York Review of Books.

It begins with a series of letters from a genetic scientist in a Siberian lab who writes in “New Russian”—a fictional future slang, like Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat, built of Chinese, German, and invented Russian. The year is 2068; the sensibility is savage and gay. The scientist tells his young lover that the lab’s first experiments in the production of blue lard have been successful. Blue lard is a source of boundless industrial energy that will fuel reactors on the moon: “We did IT, my tender little boy. And we were the first to do IT in all of Russia. […] At 09:34, the first phase of BL-3 ended successfully. Can it truly be that I’m going to see BLUE LARD? We’ll just have to wait, rips huaidan.”

I made it through 20 pages of the book before I realized it had a glossary. “Huaidan” is Chinese for “bastard,” and “rips” is an “international swear word, which appeared in Eurasian oral speech after the Oklahoma Nuclear Disaster of 2028.” The definition continues: “Derived from the last name of US Marine Sergeant Jonathan Rips, who willfully remained in the radioactive zone, broadcasting a detailed radio report about the state of his irradiated, dying body for twenty-five days.”

So rips huaidan is an affectionate term, something like my dear bloody bastard, and the imagined future is satirically violent and unrestrained. Blue lard is a type of human fat that collects at the base of the spines of clones developed in the lab, mainly in clones of sacred Russian writers, and only while they sit and type increasingly implausible manuscripts in the style of their long-dead originals. The first clones to produce this precious substance are named Tolstoy-4, Chekhov-3, Nabokov-7, Pasternak-1, Dostoevsky-2, Akhmatova-2, and Platonov-3. “Only people who had at some point written down their fantasies were capable of producing” blue lard.

The clone manuscripts are brilliant tour-de-force sources of entertainment on their own, and Max Lawton’s translations are pitch-perfect. The reader starts with a pleasant sense of recognition; then a twisted humor invades the story, a couple of weird glitches, until everything collapses into a comic-strip nightmare. Platonov-3, for example, gives us the furious stoking of a “lumpomotive” through the Russian countryside. A lumpomotive runs on chunks of human bodies, especially on enemies of the revolution:

“Give it a pull!” Bubnov shouted into the branch pipe, then opened the furnace.

Zazhogin stuck his thoughtful face out of the shredder and began throwing lumps into the furnace, first mercilessly dunking them into a trough of mazut. The incandescent interior of the furnace greedily swallowed these pieces of human matter.

“Whose lumps are we running on?” the other legless man suddenly took interest. “On Kappelites, I’d guess?”

“These days, you won’t go far running on officers!” Bubnov reasoned with him. “They burned through their white fat with hot fear! You can’t get anything off their bones!”

“Then we’re running on the bourgeoisie?” the invalid perked up.

“Exactly!” cried Bubnov.

This scene works as a thumbnail of the broader novel, since blue lard itself is a potent energy source. It becomes the target of a bizarre sect of Russian blood-and-soil patriots known as “Earth-Fuckers,” who steal the first batch of lard and send it to the Soviet past, specifically to 1954, one year after Stalin’s death. But in this version of history, Stalin is still in charge; Hitler’s alive too, and together, they’ve bombed London. A wall divides Prague, and Russian institutions are also hopelessly corrupt, including the Bolshoi Theatre, which fills with sewage at regular intervals from a rerouted pipe. Before a ballet performance, an unflustered black-tie audience has to strap on scuba gear.

Sorokin’s main surface business, you may have gathered, is to offend Russian patriots. But his own culture, its imperial heritage as well as its genius, and by extension its exploitation by Soviet and post-Soviet leaders, is his monumental theme.

Sorokin has been a baptized believer in the Russian Orthodox faith since the 1970s, and he’s written as savagely about Soviet Russia as he has about the mob-like system of oligarchy and patronage that replaced it. Vladimir Putin’s traditionalists may never recognize him as “moral,” but his revolting flights of fancy spring from a Christian point of view. They belong to an angry idealist, a moralist with a devastated image of the world.

Putin’s obscene hallucinations are such a reliable ingredient that Will Self, in his introduction to the companion volume Red Pyramid: Selected Stories, calls them “the Sorokinian lift-off point.” One way for a writer to dissolve a reader’s unwillingness to suspend disbelief is by doubling down, by providing “the helium lift of the writer’s unbridled fantasizing,” Self writes. With Sorokin, it comes at the expense of likable or even relatable characters, never mind any sort of predictable drama that might be turned into a Hollywood film. But the fantasies have a weight of their own.

In “White Square,” which starts as a satirical script from a patriotic Russian TV show, the klieg-lit happy talk descends into a restaging of the Flaying of Marsyas, a 16th-century painting by Titian, and soon a sheet of human skin finds its way by crow and hungry dog into a frozen ditch, in a rundown village, where two men argue over it until one of them brings it home, believing it’s a cut-rate sausage. The story returns to the TV studio in time for Alex and his droogs from Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) to break in, swinging their canes. Sorokin’s surrealism is not just disgusting: it comments on patriotism, class divisions, and the probability of arriving anywhere useful in a TV debate.

In “Red Pyramid,” the title story, a Soviet-era student named Yura meets a seemingly omniscient man on a rural train platform. There are clear echoes of the cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1967), in the sense that this man might be the Devil. He offers Yura some cryptic predictions. “What about communism?” Yura asks. “Isn’t it our … radiant future?” and the man answers: “It isn’t our radiant future, but the red roar of the present day.” Yura has no idea what the phrase means until the dull passage of time introduces him to his own sordid future.

And in Blue Lard, when the Stalin of 1954 finally injects the precious substance through his eyeball and into his brain using a syringe—following a dinner with Hitler in the Alps—his brain grows and flops across the countryside of Europe: “Soon, the entire Obersalzberg plateau was occupied by Stalin’s brain. Its pinkish-violet flanks hung out over the plateau’s edges. A buzz sounded out across the Alps. Avalanches exploded forth from the mountains.”

Ideas that fuel a tyrant’s imagination, of course, might be violent or beautiful. They might derive from Akhmatova, Dostoevsky, Lenin, or their bizarre, corrupt imitations. They might be a mixture of all those ideas and every piece of internet junk that informs what we now call “artificial intelligence.” From this angle, Sorokin’s 25-year-old satire is still cutting-edge. He believes in the sunlike power of the imagination, but he’s also aware that Promethean art and invention can express—on a nuclear scale—the warlike dreams of the primate.

LARB Contributor

Michael Scott Moore’s most recent book is The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast (2018). He is a contributor to The New Yorker and New Lines Magazine.


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