I knew I had to read The Queue. Vladimir Sorokin’s first work, published in Russian in 1983 and finally issued last year by NYRB in a fine English translation by Sally Laird, is an ode to that quaint Soviet phenomenon, the line for rare consumer goods. Even today, lines in Russia take on strange shapes and a life of their own; in Soviet times, as Sorokin suggests in a fascinating essay, when waiting in lines for bread, sausage, clothing, and other necessities could easily take up a third of one’s day (or more, should some particularly desirable Western goods arrive), the line had an ordering effect on the mindset of every Soviet citizen. It also provided a forum for the airing of grievances, the creation of temporary friendships (even romances, in Sorokin’s imagination), and finally, for a sense of gratitude for the small but predictable ration allotted to anyone willing to wait in line. My own acquaintances don’t seem to remember these lines so fondly, but members of the older generation–those who were born in Stalin’s time, or shortly thereafter–can look on these lines, and the sense of comforting sameness they provided, with nostalgia.
If the idea of a book premised on waiting in line seems uncompelling, then Sorokin’s accomplishment is all the more impressive. The book’s level of interest is inversely proportional to any fascination its topic may provide. Relying only on dialogue with no narrative markers, Sorokin deftly steers us through the line. His mastery of voice always makes clear the fading in and out of various conversations; he devises long gaps of blank pages to indicate sleep and the passage of time. Unlike reality, Sorokin’s line is always interesting. The clashes of various personalities, vivid humor, and the desire to do whatever it takes to get to the head of the line make the book brisk, and truly enjoyable, reading. Another nice review from Three Percent.
For me, the book is also valuable as a rare (for English-speaking audiences, at least) document of Soviet life seen from the inside. True, the book is a work of fiction, but one that represents a fascinating glimpse of daily life in the Soviet Union. The more I have learned about the daily lives of ordinary people in the USSR, the less American foreign policy towards it makes any sense, the more the Cold War seems a long string of unwarranted absurdities. That we legitimized Stalin–perhaps the one politician who could truly be considered part of an “evil empire”–and heated up our rhetoric, decrying said evil empire exactly when it was already collapsing in on itself, shows just how little pragmatism and basic knowledge American leaders really possessed.
The disconnect between Soviet realities and American political rhetoric is something that has also occurred to me as I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zacharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death). Unfortunately, the book was never translated into English, although I’m told that portions of it will be used in one of Ms. Alexievich’s upcoming projects. Alexievich is one of the most interesting writers in Russia today; she has covered epoch-making events in the Soviet Union (WWII, Chernobyl) with her unique brand of what I call “documentary writing.” Her works read like fiction–they are very artfully put together–yet they are compiled from Alexievich’s first-hand interviews of witnesses of some of Russian history’s most important events.
The subject of Enchanted by Death is the fall of the Soviet Union, and the crisis it engendered for everyone invested in the Soviet system, but particularly the elderly. In the West, we tend to consider its fall a victory, the winning of a war. Regardless of one’s political convictions, however, in the USSR, the Fall meant the end of life as they knew it. Social markers of stability like pensions and real estate holdings were disrupted and often redistributed by extremely corrupt means; unemployment and poverty were widespread; and the predictability, if lack of choice, of life that we spoke of before was shattered forever. Of course, many young liberals viewed this as an opportunity, and their ranks make up today’s elite oligarchs and politicians. But for elderly people who had invested their entire lives in the system–whether they wanted to or not–the Fall was an unbelievably tragic event.
Enchanted chronicles the suicides of people who felt they had no other choice after the Fall. It occasionally becomes uncomfortably histrionic, which comes with the territory, but it provides a strong antidote to the political propaganda pumped out so continually in this country in the ’80s and ’90s–that the Fall meant “freedom,” “opportunity,” “prosperity.” Of course, these words only became reality with the rise of Putin, a familiar pattern… Though Alexievich’s books have been published in English and many other European languages, this particular message apparently wasn’t one American publishers wanted to hear.
Works of fiction in translation from countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba–any country that is or has been marked as “enemy” by our government–is all the more deserving for our critical attention. Words Without Borders seized on just this idea for their ingenious anthology Literature from the “Axis of Evil” (New Press, 2006). Interlink Books (Clockroot’s parent company) has also devoted a great deal of energy to bringing international fiction, and especially fiction from Arabic-speaking and Middle Eastern countries, to English-speaking audiences, in the hopes of creating a greater context for mutual understanding in this country (shameless plug–please buy our books!). All too often, governments are confused with their people; the aims of self-interested governments are confused with the ordinary hopes and ambitions of people like ourselves. If we were more cautious with ideology, perhaps we could develop more pragmatic approaches in our foreign politics.
On that note, I’m cautiously awaiting a thaw in US-Russian relations. And the closing of Guantanamo and secret prisons. And the end of the war(s). We’ll see.
P.S. (Forgive me, I know this is already long–) On the subject of Soviet phenomenology of the Fall, I would also highly recommend Nina Gorlanova’s story “Confessional days: in anticipation of the end of the world” in Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women (Cleis Press, 1995), which masterfully plays off Bunin’s account of the Revolution of 1917. This is a subject I really wish Americans would find interesting, and understand more deeply…