Russian Escape: Telluria, by Vladimir Sorokin, review

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Vladimir Sorokin, old enough to have been banished to the Soviet Union, thrived in the post-Gorbachev spring and fled to Berlin days before Russia attacked Ukraine. He writes fantasies, 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 bad idea 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: “Describing reality as it is is very alien to Russians.” Gogol provided a way out – satire – but he escaped to Rome. Later writers escaped into the historical past, romantic passivity, surrealism. I think Anna Karenina is the only contemporary Russian realistic novel of the society in which it was published.

It is necessary to recall these fundamentals to understand why reading Telluria is such a dismal experience, and why that’s the most important thing about it. It was released in Russia in 2013, by which time Sorokin and all other smart people knew that after the unprecedented freedoms of the 1990s, the dark vortex was spinning again inside Russia, a society not only in recovering but also unbalanced by the very idea that published language can have a relationship with current events.

So Telluria is about escapism, 50 episodes about a future in which nations have collapsed in a Tolkian war, with sci-fi trimmings, in which the only chance for happiness is taking the psychedelic drug ‘tellurium’ via a nail the back of the skull. The blurb says this dystopia spans “the world”, but that’s not true. Sorokin’s fantastic record excludes, despite some references, the Anglosphere and Latin America and Africa. Its domain is Eurasia. Nuclear armageddon is not listed either, unless I missed it.

The number of episodes is arbitrary, as is their content, because there is no internal dynamic between them, no overall structure. Since censorship is tantamount to infantilization, the writing is boyish, the atmosphere that of video games, without intellectual or psychological bite. Attempts at Gogolian comedy fail. Intelligence is not intelligent. His heart is not there. Every page screams that Sorokin doesn’t write what he wants to write. I wonder if he was aware of that at the time. Maybe he is now.

Into the quagmire of absurdities he occasionally inserts what he really has in mind – namely the horror of the situation in Russia. “The bricks were looted…the great idea of ​​reviving the Russian Empire collapsed because of the bricks.” And “Farewell, cruel Moscow”. A nod to Allen Ginsberg at the start of episode 49: “I’ve seen the worst minds of my generation torn from black madness by tellurium”. And the book ends with the classic Tolstoyan sentimentality of peasant life: “My hands felt like a carpenter’s job.

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

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