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Sorokin, Vladimir (trans. Jamey Gambrell). The Blizzard, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016 (181pp. $23)

Bouts of spastic lust, dramatic descents into despondence followed by petulant ascents towards mania, simple bad humor, and a frequent taste for intoxicants like homemade vodka (and even rubbing alcohol) or exotic hallucinogens, each punctuate and interrupt Doctor Platon Ilich Garin’s blizzard-plagued “sledmobile” journey to relieve the people of Dolgoye from a virus-caused plague of zombies by delivering a vaccine in time to cease the outbreak. Garin, divorced, self-absorbed, falsely well-intentioned (like much of Russia’s intelligentsia), hops off a lumbering train only to find that horses are hard to come by, finally engaging a willing peasant nicknamed “Crouper” (because he himself is plagued by croupe) whose fifty tiny (the size of partridges) ponies are available for hire. Together this anti-Quixote and anti-Sancho Panza set off through a steady, blinding snowfall on their Russian Odyssey.

Readers of nineteenth century Russian literature will recognize the surreal topography of the countryside and its weirdly transcendent inhabitants–roads, villages, birch forests, ravines, rivers, gullies and meadows, all recognizable both in the realism of Turgenev’s “Sportsman’s Sketches” and the hyperventilating sub—realism of Gogol’s “Inspector General”, not to mention Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” and the poetry of Alexander Blok. In “The Blizzard”, readers are trapped in an arcane literary landscape reminiscent of Russian’s failed political and technological future, as well as its absurdly cruel past. The “fifty horsepower” sledmobile, for example, satirizes Russian’s bad roads and poor workmanship.   In Sorokin’s countryside, the people of Russian’s future are back to using oil lamps and “watching” radios that project holographic images of news and current events. Even Garin’s medical kit is pleasingly nineteenth century, an ode to future Russia’s poor health care system.

As Garin and Crouper soldier on, the blizzard waxes and wanes, though their joint struggles never abate. Our two semi-heroes take shelter at a mill where a miller the size of a samovar sleeps on the breast of his wife and drinks vodka from a sewing thimble (naturally, Garin beds the miller’s wife and gets drunk), crash the sledmobile into the nostril of a buried “Giant”, encounter a nomadic band of Asian “Vitaminders” who manufacture and peddle hallucinogenic drugs (of course, Garin partakes), and the obverse of their own tiny horses in the figure of a stallion six stories tall. At the end of the journey is failure in the form of bondage to a cadre of Chinese vagabonds. We can only assume that the plague of zombies continues to rage in Dolgoye.

Sorokin is rather famous in Russia for his satirical novels of social dysfunction, phantasmagorical political malfeasance and cultural dislocation. Of his eleven novels and numerous short stories, plays and essays, only “The Oprichnik” has been published before in English. Sadly, “The Blizzard” has a remote awkwardness hard to access by English-speaking readers and its characters, scenes, situations and dramatic thrust are blunted by dissociation and torpor. Perhaps some of this lies with the difficulty of translating a vernacular intended to satirize itself. For example, Crouper speaks in something American’s would never want to read in a serious novel: “Lord a’mighty, tarnation! Yur’opnor!” Crouper shouts. At another point, Garin, frustrated, strikes Crouper. As translated it reads: “Then he hit Crouper upside the head.” Upside the head!! Or, when the tiny horses won’t move, Crouper announces: “They gotta get over the willies.” These uncomfortable locutions are signs of deep “translation distress”, a signal that something is going on in the “original” that can’t be captured in a foreign language.

For one thing, these language problems along with the strangely un-dynamic plot and shallow characters, produce a novel bereft of passion. For another, so many Russians (Gogol foremost among them) have described a fantastic Russia so much better. For example, Gogol’s (and Dostoyevsky’s) not quite real nineteenth century Petersburg with its yellowish snowfalls and bilious fogs, its Grand Avenues down which pranced nobles and paupers alike (on different sides of the street, of course), that had been built upon the bones of slaves now buried in the bogs, the flooding Neva taking its mythical revenge on the city’s many “petty officials”, burgeoning factory class, and clods like Gogol whose own “perverse perseverance” left him walking on the wrong side of the street, wearing his right shoe on his left foot and emitting barnyard sounds in the middle of the night. According to Nabokov, Petersburg’s “mumbling pedestrians” telescoped into Akaky Akakyevich of “The Overcoat”, in which the symbolic mutterings of the literate but poor man in an opulent crowd revealed secret longings forbidden for the most part by the “Bronze Tsar”, the wilderness of streets, the official literature and its hegemonic critics, and of course, the ever-present “weather” Nabokov so vividly describes (from personal experience)—“an eerie medley of objects put to the wrong use, things going backwards the faster they moved forward, pale gray nights instead of ordinary black ones and black days—the black day of a down-to-heel clerk.”

“The Blizzard” fails to ignite Gogol’s surreal passions or involve the reader in a deeper level of reality as, for example, Dostoyevsky does in his mysterious “The Double.” And, if we’re to believe Nabokov, the real Russia is beyond satire in the first place, having become, like Marquez’s Colombia, a realm of tortured dream and circular time.