Medvedev means “the bear,” and other things I don’t know about Russian politics

Day of the Oprichnik

by Vladimir Sorokin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

208pp / $23

The thing about the future is, it’s bound to disappoint. For decades now we’ve been fed images of the technological glories that await us: interplanetary travel, teleportation. Hoverboard skateboards — rumored to have been produced, released, then quickly recalled — dogged my childhood. And while the Internet is pretty damn cool, it hasn’t launched us into any new galaxies (yet). So far it’s been just the opposite. Last week while at the opera, sitting in the mezzanine I watched, at intermission, as one by one screens below me alighted, faces turned towards palms and slackened. No, the most advanced technology we have has turned us into zombies, insensible to our surroundings as we shuffle along, trying to walk and send e-mail at once.

Even though the future may be more sedentary than we first thought, novelists haven’t given up: Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death both feature plenty of jaunting through the space-time continuum. And then there’s Vladimir Sorokin, whose new novel, Day of the Oprichnik, reads more like a 1984 vision of the future than a U.S.S. Enterprise.

Sorokin doesn’t expend a lot of effort coming up with radical new toys, communication devices, or ways to get around. Cars are embedded with video phones, money disappears into glass walls instead of cash registers, but those cars’ tires still make contact with the road, and the on-board entertainment for flights is nothing more extensive than what you get on JetBlue. There are a few fantastic elements: tiny gold fish, for instance, that, when placed near a vein, enter the bloodstream to tremendous hallucinogenic effect. But more important than the things you can do in this world are the things you can’t, and who is policing you to ensure it.

The story takes place in a Russia roughly 17–18 years in the future that has reverted to a monarchy and revived the oprichnina, His Majesty’s official security force originally founded by Ivan the Terrible. The oprichnina uphold order by snuffing out dissidents (taking their wives in the meantime) and striking fear into every heart they pass. The title works in two ways: not only is the book literally a single (jam-packed) day in the life of one oprichnik, Komiaga, but it is also “their day” in that the oprichnina can do no wrong. Rape, extortion, holding up a plane to finish a meal in the terminal restaurant, no one dares question an oprichnik, and no one congratulates them more than each other.

And I suspect, though my weak knowledge of Russian history and politics cannot confirm this, that many other elements in the book are working on two levels as well. They have to be. Other than Komiaga’s actions, which are driven by sex, aggression, or a combination of the two, there’s little to hold onto within this short novel, each chapter bearing scant relation to the chapter that preceded or follows. One of the few threads begun in the book’s first half and resolved at the end is the identity of a poet whose lines lampoon a Count with a penchant for making love to women inside of burning buildings. In pursuit of his fetish, the Count sets fire to royal property in order to, in the guise of saving her, have his way with a beautiful woman trapped within. What’s distressing to his majesty is not the act, only that it’s public knowledge, reflecting badly on the state — a perfect situation for the oprichnina to address. Except that when the count finally appears Komiaga has done so many things in the intervening time — flown across the country to debate insurance fees with Chinese customs agents, experienced the aforementioned fish, witnessed a performance of treasonous songs, eaten dinner with Her Majesty and participated in a daisy-chain of sodomizing guardsman — that I’d almost forgotten who he was. The day has been so full of violence, corruption, political machinations and exploitation of the weak, the characters so bereft of moral center, with no narrative thrust, only pelvic ones, that I am left, as a reader, not with the memory of a finely-crafted story but with an uneasy feeling of heavy footsteps approaching to deliver a destiny I’m not sure I deserve.

Komiaga’s day is so exhausting that in the evening, laying down with a servant, he can’t remember that he learned from a clairvoyant she’s pregnant and hasn’t told him. Instead he falls into her embrace, thinking:

She did something to me, I’m sure of it … something not very nice. Something in secret … But what? Someone told me today. Where was I today? At Batya’s. At the Good Fellows. At Her Highness’s. Who else? I forgot.

I forgot, too, and I wish I could remember.

–Nora Fussner has an MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. She now teaches English at Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College, and is working on a novel.

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