The Blizzard

Though a famous, prize-winning novelist by Russian standards, Vladimir Sorokin has, up to now, failed to make it as far as UK publication, with English translations of his work appearing only under US imprints. Penguin Modern Classics have changed all this by releasing two of these US translations in their livery (with, it has to be said, excellent covers): The Day of the Oprichnik (from 2006) and the more recent The Blizzard (2015), both translated by Jamey Gambrell.

The Blizzard tells the story of a doctor, Platon Ilich, who must get to the village of Dolgoye to deliver a vaccine through a snow storm:

“’You have to understand, I simply must keep going!’ Platon Ilich exclaimed angrily. ‘There are people waiting for me! They are sick. There’s an epidemic! Don’t you understand?!’”

The problem he faces (apart from the weather) is the lack of horses, until it is suggested he enlist the help of the ‘bread man’ Kozmo, or Crouper as he known (a nickname resulting from a bout of croup which kept everyone awake), who has his own ‘sledmobile’. Crouper’s slow, measured approach to life forms a perfect foil to Platon’s hysterical urgency and soon the two of them set off across the snow.

If the reader is expecting a traditional historical novel, however, they are soon surprised to discover that the fifty ‘horsepower’ of Crouper’s sledmobile is literally fifty tiny horses: “Each horse was no bigger than a partridge.” The probability of the horses may be in doubt, but Crouper’s love for them is not:

“He knew every single one of them and could tell you what its story was, where it was from and how he got it, how it worked, who its parents were, and describe its like and dislikes – its personality.”

Platon meanwhile, in typical Russian fashion (the novel seems to play on our expectations of Russian literature), takes then opportunity to philosophise:

“The larger the animal the more vulnerable it is to our vast expanses. And humans are the most vulnerable of all…”

Their journey is, of course, not as straightforward as they expect it to be (the doctor having suggested, “We’ll be in Dolgoye in about an hour and a half.”) First they split one of the sleds hitting a mysterious transparent pyramid buried in the snow. What follows will be the first of many battles between Crouper and Platon as the former suggests “we turn back ‘round the way we come,” while the latter is determined, “We can’t go back!” Eventually, using the doctor’s equipment, they glue the sled together with ointment and wrap it in bandages so they can continue. This is only the first of many setbacks and stopovers, which include an overnight stay at the miller’s and a further interlude with a band of Vitaminders. The miller, like the horse, is tiny – “He wasn’t any bigger than the shiny new samovar” – which doesn’t stop him abusing all and sundry:

“Crouper! Just a bum, that scum.”

The Vitaminders make a living selling out of body experiences – the pyramid which damaged the sled turns out to be their latest product, which Platon is invited to try. On both occasions it is Platon who holds up their journey, sleeping in after sleeping with the miller’s wife and experiencing a vivid dream after inhaling the vaporized pyramid, which, despite seeming rather gloomy, leaves him filled with a zest for life:

“’What a miracle is life!’ he thought, peering into the blizzard as though seeing it for the first time… ‘We can live here, in this world, just live, we enter it like a new home, specially built for us… This is truly a miracle! Indeed, this is the proof of God’s existence!’”

The Blizzard, as you may have guessed, is more about the journey than the destination. A riff on Russian literature, it would be unfair to call it a pastiche as it has an emotional heart beneath its frantic and often humorous exterior, and real pathos in its conclusion. Its Swiftian touches, which, far from shrinking everything, also include a drunken giant who has died from exposure, keep the reader on their toes, and the unlikely pairing of Platon and Crouper are as entertaining as any buddy movie. It’s a wild and desperate ride, but one I was sorry to see end.

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8 Responses to “The Blizzard”

  1. BookerTalk Says:

    That’s certainly a striking cover….

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I haven’t really read enough Russian literature over the years, only some Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Teffi and Gaito Gazdanov. Oh, and Anna Karenina, of course! This sounds as if it could be a good way back in…

    I agree with you about the trend in Penguin covers over recent months – they’re proving to be pretty irresistible.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It sounds excellent Grant. Despite my love of Russian lit I don’t always read enough modern authors, and Sorokin is one I’ve missed. Would this be a good place to start, do you think?

  4. Blogbummel Dezember/Januar 2019 – buchpost Says:

    […] Meisterkochs  von Vladimir Sorokin. Ein weiteres Werk von ihm wird auf dem englischsprachigen 1streading’s Blog […]

  5. Books of the Year 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I […]

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