Vladimir Sorokin’s new novel is a feast of self-repetitions, which might work better for those who haven’t read the Russian author’s previous works. Here we find all his major preoccupations, idiosyncrasies and quirks most of which date back to his early major novel Norm (Норма). Telluria is, in fact, a collection of disparate vignettes set in the already well-know Sorokinian future lavishly re-infused with archaic political and cultural elements. The writer continues playing with the absurd idea of Russians in the future speaking a language full of outdated words and turns of the phrase now mostly found in 18th and 19th-century classics, the device already methodically exploited on the pages of Day of the Oprichnik. The dystopian vision, however, in this novel goes beyond the borders of Russia to engulf whole Europe. Sorokin provides a glimpse into a sort of neo-medieval future society, fragmented and obsessed with its own version of the Holy Grail and Prester John’s Kingdom.
Most of the characters are after the psychedelic experience provided by the rare silvery metalloid tellurium (52Te). The intake of the drug is effected by driving a telluric nail into the shaved head of the user. Despite the odds of the lethal outcome, dwellers of this perverted brave new world are ready to risk their lives for the visions and revelations granted by the interaction of neurons and the atoms of tellurium. Just to mention one example: in a touristy dwarf country called the Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic (SSSR), a telluric trip allows the visitors to travel back in time to the Soviet Union of the 1930s and meet the leader face to face.
The Telluria of the title is a republic peacefully snuggled in the Altai Mountains, which possesses large deposits of tellurium. Regarded by some as a mythical kingdom of sorts, it is in fact a pragmatic merchant-state on the verge of increasing its export of telluric nails to the eastern consumers as far as Vietnam. This country with its three official languages (French, Altai and Kazakh) is a typical hybrid on the territory of the transmogrified Eurasia imagined by Sorokin. In these new Middle Ages, the European states as we know them have disappeared. What we see instead are a number of small principalities and kingdoms on the point of shrugging off an Islamic occupation, with a massive crusade against Istanbul being led by the Nights Templar mounted on flying robots. Russia is similarly divided into smaller entities such as Moscovia, Ryazan, the Republic of Ural, etc. The fifty chapters of the novel are basically a vertiginous tour of this skewed geography populated by the creatures to rival the monsters of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: midgets and giants, clones, zoomorphs, centaurs, talking (and running) penises.
With respect to the numerous nods at the present-day Russian political and cultural life, what stands out perhaps are the satirical jabs at Vladimir Putin and, of all people, another Russian writer Victor Pelevin. The latter appears as a tailed Buddhism-professing creature soaring over Bolotnaya Square; the massive protests that used to shake it not so long ago are woven into a pun that might cause the potential translator more than a day of head-scratching.
The novel is definitely a fun ride. This is vintage Sorokin, and for those who don’t expect from him a quantum leap into some uncharted territory and are still benevolent towards his staple hi-jinks, Telluria will make for a pleasant reading experience. I think it’s much better than the poorly-written Ice Trilogy whose inclusion in the NYRBC series is a mystery to me. The main problem with the trilogy is Sorokin’s attempt to write it completely in his own voice. The result is a ridiculous plot wrapped in bland, bloodless prose. Sorokin thrives on the imitation of styles, and his obsession with the antiquated form of the language found in Russian classical literature has been apparent in most of his oeuvre. No matter what atrocities are committed to the grand tradition on the pages of his books (including the wholesale slaughter of a village representing the universe of the Russian classical novel in Roman (Роман)), Sorokin, it seems, will always cling to the replication of its tropes. It is exactly his playing fast and loose with various styles which made Sorokin’s earlier works popular in the first place, besides the trademark surrealist violence.
Although well-worth reading, Telluria is likely to remain just another curious addition to the Russian writer’s gradually expanding dystopian mythology that still holds fascination for its creator. We’ll see how long the reader will go on sharing it.
Update: The German translation of the novel, which has received considerable coverage in the German media, is now available.