Vladimir Sorokin’s ‘Telluria’ is a dystopian novel for our dangerous times
Shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February, liberal institutions began banning Russian musicians, writers, artists and other cultural symbols considered too close to the regime. In this turbulent climate, the role of a dissident writer – member of a belligerent nation but not complicit in its crimes – took on renewed geopolitical importance on the European continent. In this context, the Russian writer and author of fifteen novels, as well as several plays and short stories, Vladimir Sorokin, made a name for himself as a critic both of Soviet bureaucratic authoritarianism and of the return to what he interpreted as neo-tsarism under Vladimir Putin.
During the optimistic periods of rapid economic growth in Putin’s early years, Sorokin published the novel Oprichnik Day (2006). He imagines (or prefigures) an isolationist Russia, hidden behind a militarized wall and governed by tsarist absolutism. Within this regime, state-sponsored thugs beat intellectuals and commit atrocities. The hardening of authoritarian expression in Russia in recent years has transformed the irreverent Sorokin into something of a prophet and cultural icon, celebrated as a fierce critic of his country’s worst tendencies.
Sorokin’s latest offer will be translated into English, Telluria, consolidates this reputation as a prescient messenger of the dystopia to come. In it, he turns his attention not just to Russia, but to Western Europe, embroiled in endless cycles of warfare and spiritually sick to the core. Sorokin’s prose is not for the faint of heart; Telluria is no exception. Obscenities, pedophile references, scatological digressions, convoluted and often unexplained lore, and fantasy characters are the norm. These are the ingredients for a typical Sorokin feast.
Telluria is a genre-blending work of speculative fiction set in the aftermath of a near-global civil war in which European strongholds triumphed over the “Wahhabis”. To feed this violent hangover, people resort to a rare and coveted substance, tellurium, a VIP drug that induces happiness – or death.
Each of the book’s 50 chapters explores a different point of view. Geographical or situational continuity occurs, but we often approach chapters through singular vignettes that sketch an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic snapshot of this warped, dystopian world. In doing so, Sorokin deploys a literary dexterity moving from epistolary correspondence, intimate prayer, war memo, multi-character scenes, etc., with a demanding and frenetic sense of urgency.
For example, in chapter 16, a third-class operator of the Russian Orthodox smelter asks for money and permission to take tellurium and “visit” his late brother, accused of stealing and hiding liquid cutters in a workshop. “Meeting with my deceased brother will help our workshop and factory a lot, and will also help our family to restore the reputation of my brother Nikolai,” writes SI Ivanov, not without first blessing this initiative by a man of faith. . We find here in this microcosm a set of Sorokin’s obsessions: the farce of bureaucracies, the alienation of a productivist ethos, and the ineradicability of religious irrationality.
The book introduces a new lexicon for this terrifying world of equal parts postmodernism and feudalism. We come across “brass knuckles,” described by one character as “demons possessed by Socialist-Revolutionary propaganda that take to the streets and destroy all of our painstaking work in one fell swoop.” “Carpenters” help administer tellurium (to others, never to themselves), a process of driving a nail or wedge into a shaved head, a risky endeavor. “Bosorogos” indicates when a nail is successfully inserted into a client’s brain, as opposed to an unsuccessful “tornado”, which may require the use of an “argada” or special helmet to hold the head of a customer in an emergency. That tellurium is “tested” implies a lingering sense of uncertainty regarding its properties and the potential results of its use. But these are risks that Sorokin’s characters are too depraved or desperate to care about.
In chapter 15, we meet Ariel, a fourteen-year-old “comandante” from Almería, Spain. He visits a carpenter, well prepared with his own tellurium nail and his money in hand. Unfortunately for Ariel, her fingerprint betrays her age – even carpenters selling tellurium to miners crosses a line. Diplomatically, Ariel seeks to dissuade the dealer from his blocks: “I am an adult,” he tells them. Why? “Because I killed nine Wahhabis, four seriously injured and eighteen slightly injured,” he adds. Unmoved by the boy’s plea, the carpenters send poor Ariel away and he is forced to turn to a “riveter”. They are lower level carpenters, more shady, less exercised by the deadly risks of tellurium, which in their hands increase to 68%.
Sorokin has a knack for showing that if you scratch even slightly below the surface of hedonistic or self-destructive desire, there is often a core of something spiritual and vulnerable. Rich in tellurium, Ariel pays for the services of a sex worker, but is unable to climax, her thoughts are elsewhere. As she straddles the boy’s prone body, her mind drifts, in an almost biblical passage, to the battlefield:
And Ariel found herself in the city of battle. And people were killing each other in this town. And many people laying dead on the ground, but many were also living. And fury fills the hearts of the living. And they killed the opponents of their faith.
Telluria plays with the story by creating a sense of disorientation that mirrors the effect of tellurium. In Sorokin’s world, medieval and futuristic motifs rub shoulders awkwardly: confused travelers consult disembodied hologram assistants for advice; a party is campaigning on the slogan “Glory to the Cosmos!” » ; and a nonsensical prayer thanks “the Stakhanovite National Nanotechnology Initiative of the Holy Spirit”; and a council of carpenters in Switzerland act as postmodern Freemasons.
Halfway through the book, we finally discover Ohlàlà, the capital of Telluria, an opulent republic in the Altai mountains founded in 2028 and led by Jean-François Trocard. The Democratic Republic of Telluria is a narco-state, the only place where the precious substance is decriminalized, and for this reason other countries have considered the republic a pariah state.
Through a vast and dizzying array of people and places, Sorokin gives body and voice to a post-apocalyptic world not too dissimilar to our own. In addition to Russia, a familiar object of contemplation and criticism for Sorokin, in his past novels we are transported to Sweden, Spain, Germany and elsewhere. Basically, Sorokin’s world is divided between a stagnant and declining West and a dominant East, the latter made up of Wahhabis and Salafists, but also Asians and especially Chinese. Between the Old World and the East, Russia exists and presents the pathologies of both – a project to build a Great Wall of Russia has been abandoned (“the bricks have been looted”, laments one character).
Moving from Sorokin’s usual focus on Russia (Soviet and post-Soviet), Telluria turns its attention to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The atrophy he had previously observed in his past novels is in Telluria generalized. What we are facing is a cold autopsy of a decline that has been brewing for a long time. Its symptoms are dissolved identities and political disintegration. Within this world, collective nihilism drives those lucky enough to escape war to the comfort of tellurium, the new opium of the people.
Born in 1955, Sorokin’s voice is characterized by a playful disenchantment with both the Soviet experience and the capitalist disaster that followed its collapse. In an essay published by the Guardian shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine, Sorokin – who now lives in Germany after leaving his native country a few days before the outbreak of war – sketches a genealogy of Russian imperial ambitions, from Ivan the Terrible to Putin.
Sorokin’s unshakeable belief in the impossibility of redemption or reformation for his homeland shapes a worldview that carries over to literature. For him, Russia is trapped in a cycle unable to break through into modernity: “I saw signs of change in Russian society that smelt of the Middle Ages”, he declared in a recent New York Times profile. This daily “medieval scent” will continue to haunt him, permeating his fiction. However, the danger of adopting such a posture is that it can easily turn into self-caricature, transforming the dissident artist into a mere provocateur.
In an interview with Not translatedMax Lawton, the translator of Telluria as well as several other works by the Russian writer, fondly spoke of “Sorokinian-what-the-fuckness”. Sorokin’s writings made him something of an outcast in his homeland, despised by reactionaries resentful of even modest criticism of their country’s authoritarianism.
But provocation is, of course, always a relative concept. Outside his home country, claims like the one he makes in his Guardian article, that “the principle of Russian power has not even changed in the past five centuries” risks ironing out the complexities of a nation that Westerners are already inclined to paint with a broad brush. The dilemma is that it is precisely these raw, blurry images that give Sorokin’s work such vibrancy. The question is what use will they be in a world that is increasingly losing its ability to find pleasure in the absurd?
Farah Abdessamad is a New York-based critic and essayist.
Featured image: Russian author Vladimir Sorokin in 2006. (Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published on Jacobin.