A friend of mine, a journalist who may have spent too long living in and being obsessed with Russia, holds Vladimir Putin responsible for many atrocities, including the death of Russian satire. In a country with the world's greatest gift for this noble form (I was going to write "arguably the greatest," but there really is no argument), the crisis of faith has grown so strong that, confronted with a satirical article about a prominent figure, the first response is to wonder who paid for the article and why. Thank God, then, for Vladimir Sorokin, whose "Ice" is in the exalted tradition of Gogolian satire -- unblinking, pitch-black, directed at ideas and tendencies rather than at people, and reliant on the kind of humor that makes you laugh wearily while holding a razor blade to your wrist.
Sorokin can, if he wishes, lay claim to the poisoned title of most important fiction writer in post-Soviet Russia. Born in 1955 and trained as an engineer, he came of age during the stagnant Soviet '70s. He had the good fortune to spend the early part of his career underground and has since flourished in Russia, receiving a nomination for the first Russian Booker Prize in 1992 and winning the Andrei Biely Award for contributions to Russian literature in 2001.
In 2002, the pro-Kremlin nationalist youth group Moving Together sued Sorokin for distributing pornography: A scene in his book "Blue Lard" depicted clones of Khrushchev and Stalin having sex ("blue" is Russian slang for gay). Three years later, the same group staged a protest outside the Bolshoi Theatre's premiere of "The Children of Rosental," an opera for which Sorokin wrote the libretto. Demonstrators called him a "pornographer" and a "feces-eater," and threw copies of his books into a giant cardboard toilet. Being on the receiving end of such protests has only boosted his popularity: After the public flushing, sales of "Blue Lard" increased sevenfold.
His new novel, "Ice," though dark and violent, has inspired no such protests; it provides a head-scratching pleasure and deceptive quickness similar to that found in the novels of Haruki Murakami. The ice of the title is no metaphor. It refers to a huge chunk of interstellar ice fallen to Earth in Siberia that somehow "awakens" the hearts of a few select people -- who all happen to be blond and blue-eyed -- and then sends them in search of their brothers and sisters around the world. In the first of the book's three sections, we witness the elect trying to awaken fair-haired souls around contemporary Moscow. At every opportunity, they kidnap towheads and batter their chests with an ax whose head is hewn from the Siberian ice; then, they listen for their victims' hearts to reveal their "true" name. Unfortunately, nobody, not even the awakened, can tell the difference between a "heart speaker" and an ordinary person until they batter him or her with the ax. Those who are awakened join the elect; those who aren't die from the trauma.
"Ice" opens with a trio of the awakened beating two potential subjects, only one of whom is awakened. When one of the trio wonders "how many of them empty gas bags" they've encountered recently, and another casually refers to "a bad streak," it takes a moment to realize they're talking about beating people to death. The book's second section then flashes back to the World War II experiences of one of the oldest of the awakened souls, and here both the satire and the writing grow sharper. Utopia, the world then learned from the Nazis, required the death of many human beings, and blue-eyed blonds tried to lead us there. A high-ranking Nazi, in fact, discovers an awakened soul in one of the labor camps and takes her on a horrific freight-train ride near the end of the war from rural Russia into Germany. In Germany she escapes to an idyllic rural group home where the elect live and teach her their precepts -- they are gods, they eat only raw foods, the world is a great cosmological error -- many of which vary only in the smallest detail from beliefs held by any number of sects, cults and faiths in the real world.
Just as the appearance of the elect comments on German racial fetishism, the notion of a small, elite group that wreaks unimaginable havoc and death for higher reasons echoes the terrors of Stalinism. The novel's awakened are inspired to kill innocent people by space beings who transmit their messages through ice; Stalin's elite were inspired by the pseudoscientific scribblings of a German thinker interpreted by a bald, goateed Russian and then implemented by a Georgian peasant. Which is more comprehensible? All commit unspeakable atrocities without a shred of guilt because they believe their mission frees them from moral restraints. People -- whether they're called untermenschen, counterrevolutionaries or meat puppets -- in their multifarious ontological unruliness are an impediment to utopia.