Vladimir Sorokin published underground samizdat fiction in the last years of the U.S.S.R., and in the post-Soviet era he has made a name for himself as a purveyor of dark, mordant fantasias that take potshots at the Putin regime. Gradually, and gratifyingly, we are seeing more of his work translated into English. Following the dystopian nightmare of “Day of the Oprichnik” and the epic, genre-bending Ice Trilogy comes “The Blizzard,” a more accessible but no less imaginative novel encompassing a familiar Russian vista with splashy avant-garde flourishes.
A strange epidemic is turning the inhabitants of the village of Dolgoye into raving zombies. Garin, a provincial doctor, has the vaccine that will halt the spread of the “black sickness,” but he lacks a means of transport. Help is found in the form of Crouper, the “bread man,” and his “sledmobile.” Both men set off on a journey that should take an hour and a half. However, as snowfall worsens into an immense snowstorm, day turns into night, and their mercy mission becomes an agonizing quest fraught with hazards and bizarre encounters.
The novel’s 19th-century setting and its succinct and literal title put us in mind of Chekhov. But when Sorokin unleashes his fantastical elements we recognize his acknowledgment of that great Russian surrealist tradition that includes past masters such as Bulgakov and Bely (Sorokin has won the Andrei Bely Prize) and modern practitioners such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Garin and his sidekick navigate the very real dangers of treacherous ravines and hollows, face hungry wolves and suffer breakdowns, exhaustion, lost bearings and plunging temperatures. Their sledmobile is towed by 50 miniature horses, each one “no bigger than a partridge,” and at one point their progress is thwarted by the road-blocking frozen corpse of a giant.
Sorokin’s heroes have just as many absurdities to contend with during pit stops. Their first break is at the home of a drunk, foul-mouthed, Tom Thumb-sized miller who drinks vodka from a thimble and watches holograms transmitted from a radio. Their second is with a group of tent-dwelling “Vitaminders” called Drowsy, Slumber and Lull Abai. Some writers serve up oddness for oddness’ sake, but Sorokin employs it at specific intervals to shake us from our complacency and stoke our confusion.
Jamey Gambrell has translated Sorokin before, but she deserves special mention here for her skillful rendering of the book’s many voices, from a stationmaster’s drawl (“I don’t got horses and ain’t gonna have none till tomorrow!”) to Crouper’s crossbred Irish-Cockney patois: “Yur the only hope now, you good-fer-nothins.” The colorful language, whether out-loud repartee or inner thoughts, together with several vibrant daydreams and psychedelic hallucinations, provide a neat contrast to the all-engulfing whiteness of the blizzard.
That intensifying blizzard becomes a perfect metaphor, for the deeper we get into the novel, the more lost we are. But Sorokin’s storytelling is so mesmeric and so richly inventive that being snow-blinded is half the fun.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.