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Found in translation

Could understanding contemporary Russian literature have given the west an insight into Putin’s intentions?

Picture: The New European

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, I wrote in The New European that the West might have been in a better position to anticipate Putin’s behaviour if, as in the past, reading the great Russian novelists of the 19th century had remained an intrinsic part of what it is to be a cultivated person. In the pages of Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky we find the conflict between Europhiles and Slavophiles that still dominates contemporary Russian politics; the sense of the state hierarchy penetrating into every corner of Russians’ lives, as evinced by the military titles bestowed even on pen-pushing bureaucrats; the equivalence between the mysteries of Russian orthodoxy and the belief Russians have of being a chosen people; and most importantly: the characterisation of the ruler – whether he be tsar or commissar – as at once a ‘little father’ to his multitudinous subjects, and a capricious despot, who oppresses them as if he were at the head of an invading Mongol horde.

But if the Russian literature of the past might have forewarned, surely its contemporary writing could have forearmed us? The lack of contemporary engagement in the Anglosphere with all other language cultures is a truth so universally acknowledged that Jeff Bezos has necessarily got in on the act: his imprint, Amazon Crossing, was launched in 2009, and its commissioning editors have been cruising the world ever since, snaffling up the English rights for entire foreign language lists like some publishing whale feasting on literary krill. But most of this stuff is middle-to-lower brow, and unlikely to educate anyone much in the mores of anywhere. When it comes to literary fiction and other more challenging writing, the translation costs are necessarily higher, and the potential rewards a great deal lower – so it’s no wonder conventional publishers in London and New York for the most part have only a handful of Russian titles on their lists.

Lunching in New York recently with my own editor, Peter Blackstock of Grove, he bemoaned this state of affairs – not least because he is himself a Russian speaker and reader, with a long-term and close interest in the country. I wondered if he’d been able to anticipate the invasion? He laughed, and said the paradox was that he’d been reading and listening to exactly the same state-controlled media outlets as the Russian people, and had become almost as convinced as them that Putin’s designs fell well short of outright war. Still, he needn’t have felt that foolishly purblind, given Vladimir Sorokin – arguably Russia’s most important contemporary novelist – was similarly caught out.

Sorokin, who for some years has divided his time between the environs of Moscow and those of Berlin, was at his apartment in the latter city when the Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border. As an outspoken critic of Putin, Sorokin’s position would have been difficult even if he hadn’t compounded it by publishing in the Guardian, shortly after the invasion, a typically flamboyant rhodomontade. Speaking of Putin as an KGB thug, whose superficially democratic mask was gradually corroded as he drank deeper and deeper of “the black milk of power”, Sorokin implicitly argues that only the decapitation of the Russian state will put an end to his imperialist ambitions for: “The perversity of the Pyramid of Power lies in the fact that he who sits at its peak broadcasts his psychosomatic condition to the country’s entire population.”

I was interested in Sorokin’s literary oeuvre before the invasion – not, I hasten to add, because I buck the trend adverted above: my grasp on contemporary Russian literature is feeble – the last Russian writers I read with any fixity were the monumental neorealists Solzhenitsyn, Grossman and Sholokhov, whose reputations have more or less been eclipsed along with the Soviet regime whose depredations they described. No: this was personal – a decade or so ago I met Max Lawton at a reading I gave at Columbia University in New York. Lawton, who was then an undergraduate studying Russian, got in touch with me last year to tell me eight of his English translations of Sorokin’s novels were forthcoming: the first two, Their Four Hearts and Telluria, will appear this year.

An admiring – if not effusive – profile of Sorokin appeared last month in the New York Times. Noting his reputation as a postmodern iconoclast, whose Janus-faced oeuvre looks both back to the Soviet past in which he began his career as a samizdat writer, and forward to a Putinesque near-future in which a new totalitarianism has emerged, the journalist observed: “He remains relatively unknown in the West. Until recently, just a handful of his works had been published in English, in part because his writing can be so challenging to translate, and so hard to stomach.”

The mere outlines of these books are enough to repel readers: Blue Lard features a graphic sex scene between clones of Khrushchev and Stalin that had him investigated as a pornographer; Nastya is the tale of a young girl who is ceremoniously butchered and eaten by her family. In Russia, Sorokin has always attracted opprobrium: one protest involved his disgusted quondam readers depositing copies of his books in a giant toilet bowl outside the Bolshoi theatre; something that – the writer laconically observed – reminded him of ‘one of my own stories.’

Needless to say, the Kremlin has always been his most prominent critic – and reading Their Four Hearts, it’s not hard to see why: written in 1991, Max Lawton has described it as “the last novel of the Soviet era”; yet now Putin’s regime is lurching into full-blown authoritarianism, we can see the Stalinist skull over which his Golem-features are stretched, features Sorokin limns brilliantly. Ostensibly the tale of four heroic Soviet stereotypes: the Olympic athlete, the Stakhanovite worker, the disabled veteran of the Great Patriotic War, and the guileless young boy, the novel is a sustained exercise in the grotesque and the absurd. Lawton was introduced to Sorokin by an article he read while still in high school in Illinois, in which the writer was described as a ‘Russian Houellebecq’. Admiring the French novelist’s work, Lawton found the only Sorokin available at that time in translation – his so-called ‘Ice trilogy’, of near-future dystopian novels – and having absorbed them, determined he would learn Russian himself in order to do a better job.

The Houellebecq comparison really isn’t that fruitful: both may be provocateurs, but the French one is really only intent on attacking hypocritical left-leaning French liberals, hardly as dangerous an opponent as the Russian state. (And indeed, the soi-disant contrarian has accepted the Legion D’Honneur, and boasts highly placed politicians as his friends.)

Moreover, Houellebecq reads, in French, as a classical writer, working within the normal range of acceptable French prose, albeit with some innovations. Sorokin, by contrast, is like a bull let loose in a china shop full of treasured Russian idioms. There’s this linguistic iconoclasm – and there’s the emetic content of the works. In this respect, the closer comparison would be the William Burroughs of Naked Lunch, although not even he would’ve dared to have as the climactic (!) scene in a novel, the sexual penetration of a living woman’s brain.

Sorokin has defended the sexual violence that saturates his works as the greatest possible realism: this is the brutality successive Russian rulers and their henchmen have imposed on its people. But the task for a good translator is not only to rise to the challenge set by this graphic content, but to transpose it from the semiotic matrix of Russian into that of English. Any translator faces a straightforward dilemma: universalise by transliterating the idiomatic, metonymic and metaphoric, at the risk of losing what’s distinctive in the work; or retain these elements as much as possible, with the risk of losing uncomprehending readers. Lawton, who now not only speaks and reads in four other languages in addition to Russian, but is himself a writer of fictions, has done a brilliant job of plotting the strange topography of these fictional worlds: stories that begin in a pedestrian enough way, then after a few pages descend into madness and mayhem – Sorokin calls them his ‘timebombs’.

By mixing metaphors and idioms from different periods, Lawton suggests how alive Sorokin is to the incommensurability of signifier and the signified – surely the root insight of the postmodern. In the Russian versions, Sorokin simply slips into Ukrainian when he wants to probe the relationship of ‘great’ to ‘little’ Russia; Lawton doesn’t have this option, so instead he uses ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to suggest how Ukrainian sounds archaic to the Russian ear. Idioms that earlier translators have simply swapped for English ones, Lawton tries to vivify in English. So what if they read a little oddly – they often do in Russian as well, so intent is Sorokin on improvising in his native tongue as a jazz musician does in the pentatonic scale.

Which explains why Lawton likens him in more recent years to later-period Miles Davis: riffing on his already well-established themes. Employing the modern inversion of samizdat – the web – Sorokin has published a work composed solely of hundreds of nonsensical idioms he himself has coined. But in order to capture the complete – yet almost deliberately botched – character of Sorokin’s fictional realm, Lawton makes the comparison with William Blake, with whom the Russian shares a Christian mystical sensibility of goodness as a quality that transcends human existence, both individual and collective. If this seems an unlikely combination: devout idealism and hyper-dirty realism, then it simply serves to show quite how disconnected we’ve become from any understanding of Russian actuality.

Lawton is fairly trenchant about the failings and weaknesses of other Russian writers who have a toehold in the west; but then he would be, wouldn’t he, having spent four long years working, entirely gratis and with no prospect of their being published, on his translations of Sorokin. During this period, the young linguistic wunderkind and the sexagenarian Russian provocateur became fast friends. With the benefit of hindsight there seems some strange inevitability about all this: as together they worked to reveal this devastating critique of Russian state power to western readers, Putin was gearing up his war machine. I wondered if Lawton had, as a result of his growing closeness to Sorokin, been any better placed to anticipate political realities than the rest of us – but the answer came back that he, in common with Sorokin, had always believed that whatever the proto-dictator’s moral turpitude, he remained a masterful strategist, who wouldn’t gamble everything on such a quixotic adventure.

So, it may well be that my initial contention concerning the relationship between a nation’s literature and its politics is flatly incorrect – at least if you’re in search of soothsaying. But the sort of understanding literature engenders isn’t prescience but empathy, understood as the comprehension of others’ feelings. Novelists aim above all to render individual life-worlds with accuracy, and it’s this individual sensibility that’s always the first casualty of war.

Sorokin has himself called for all Russian writers to now bear witness to the truth about Putin’s lies – there can be no better way for us in the Anglosphere to bear witness as well, than by reading Max Lawton’s fine, funny, deeply inventive translations of his novels.

Their Four Hearts was published last month by the Dalkey Archive. Telluria will be published by NYRB Classics in August

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