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Russian escapism: Telluria, by Vladimir Sorokin, reviewed

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

Telluria Vladimir Sorokin

NYRB, pp.336, 15.99

Vladimir Sorokin, old enough to have been banned in the Soviet Union, flourished in the post-Gorbachev spring, and he fled to Berlin several days before Russia attacked Ukraine. He writes phantasmagorias, as so many Russians do, because Russia is a nation that has never allowed its writers to examine society directly. Solzhenitsyn said: ‘Russian literature gives a poor notion of Russia, because after 1917 all truth was suppressed.’ But even in the so-called Golden Age, the Tsar’s censorship was brutal. Voinovich said: ‘Depicting reality as it is, it’s very alien to Russians.’ Gogol provided one way out – satire – but he escaped to Rome. Later writers escaped into the historic past, romantic passivity, surrealism. I think Anna Karenina is Russia’s only realist novel contemporary with the society it was published in.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of these fundamentals in order to understand why reading Telluria is such a dismal experience, and why that is the most important thing about it. It was published in Russia in 2013, by which time Sorokin and all other intelligent people were aware that, after the unprecedented freedoms of the 1990s, the dark vortex was spinning inside Russia once again, a society not only remurdering itself but also unhinged from the very idea that published language can have a relationship to actuality.

So Telluria is about escapism, 50 episodes looking at a future in which nations have collapsed into Tolkienesque warfare, with sci-fi trimmings, in which the only chance for happiness is to take the psychedelic drug ‘tellurium’ via a nail in the back of the skull. The blurb says this dystopia covers ‘the world’, but that is not true. Sorokin’s fantasy dossier excludes, despite a few references, the Anglosphere and Latin America and Africa. His area is Eurasia. Nuclear armageddon doesn’t figure either, unless I missed it.

The number of episodes is arbitrary, as is their content, because there is no inner dynamic between them, no overall structure. Since censorship equals infantilisation, the writing is boyish, the ambience that of video games, without intellectual or psychological bite. Attempts at Gogolian comedy flounder. The cleverness is not clever. His heart isn’t in it. Every single page screams that Sorokin is not writing what he wants to write. I wonder if he was aware of this at the time. Perhaps he is now.

Into the morass of nonsense he every so often inserts what’s really on his mind – which is the ghastliness of the situation in Russia. ‘The bricks were plundered… the grand idea of reviving the Russian Empire fell apart because of bricks.’ And ‘Farewell, cruel Moscow.’ There is a nod to Allen Ginsberg at the opening of episode 49: ‘I saw the worst minds of my generation torn out of black madness by tellurium.’ And the book ends with classic Tolstoyan sentimentality about peasant life: ‘Seemed like my hands’d been longin’ for carpenters’ work.’

Now in exile, will Sorokin – like Solzhenitsyn – feel safe enough to write the books he needs to write? Surely it is time for Russian writers to get real.

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