This Controversial Russian Novelist, Accused of Promoting Cannibalism and Pornography, Is a Literary Star

Baking and eating a girl on her birthday, a man roasting meat over a bonfire of burning books – these are just two provocative scenes written by Vladimir Sorokin. Haaretz sits down with the author and talks sex, food and terrorism

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Vladimir Sorokin: 'I have nothing against the refugees one sees in the streets. The problem is that at any moment one of them can become a terrorist'
Vladimir Sorokin: 'I have nothing against the refugees one sees in the streets. The problem is that at any moment one of them can become a terrorist'Credit: Maria Sorokin
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

We meet in a Berlin café. I’m very excited: It’s not every day that one gets to interview a classic writer who’s still living. Vladimir Sorokin is considered a pillar of postmodernism in Russian literature. For two decades his name has been one of the first that comes up in answer to the question, “What is contemporary Russian literature?” The term “classicist” is also frequently evoked by reviewers and others who write about him. A virtuoso juggler of the language, he’s also adept at maneuvering between genres, registers and styles. His works have been translated into dozens of languages, he was awarded the Andrei Bely Prize for outstanding contributions to Russian literature, and has been a candidate for both the Russian Booker Prize (twice) and the Man Booker International Prize.

In a certain sense, however, Sorokin’s work is also the complete opposite of classical Russian literature, with which he conducts a lively dialogue in most of his books. His fiction is generously spiced with filthy and vulgar terms, which until recently were an almost absolute taboo in Russian literature, along with naturalistic descriptions of sex and elaborate scenes of food and eating. He has written detailed descriptions of defecation and of eating of excrement, as well as scenes of sadism that stretch the reader’s endurance to the extreme. One of his early novels, “Four Stout Hearts” (1991), contains a description of “brain fucking,” in the literal sense. It’s an absurdist work, a veritable encyclopedia of sadistic violence, rape and the bizarre. In his latest work, “Manaraga,” world classics of literature are set aflame in order to roast gourmet food.

In the course of his long career, Sorokin, 63, has been accused of disseminating pornography (in the early 2000s a criminal investigation was launched against him at the initiative of Walking Together, an organization of pro-Kremlin young people, but it was terminated due to “lack of guilt”) and of propagandizing cannibalism (two years ago, activists “against extremism” demanded that the legality of his story “Nastia” be investigated). His books were flushed down a giant toilet in a demonstrative ceremony (also organized by Walking Together).

Sorokin started as a painter and illustrator in the 1970s, before switching to writing. Since the beginning of the 1980s he has published 11 novels, a number of them translated into English. A few years ago, he went back to painting, and last year had his first solo exhibition. Betwixt and between, Sorokin has written plays and film scripts, enhancing his fame. He even authored the libretto of a postmodern opera performed by the Bolshoi Theater. Members of parliament objected to the opera being staged by the Bolshoi, because of Sorokin’s public persona and his use of nonstandard language (though in this case, there were no curses or vulgarities). At first they demanded that the production be canceled altogether, then that it be moved to a different stage, but to no avail.

Baking a teenager

There’s a great distance between the scandal-ridden image of Sorokin the author and Sorokin the person. He has been happily married for many years, is the father of twin girls and has a grandson who lives in the United States. He’s known to be a cooking aficionado, and he is an elegant dresser with a penchant for fashion that matches his longish hair and tall, hefty body. He arrives in the café wearing jeans and a red T-shirt with a printed sticker depicting a rose, a raven and a skull. He orders Apfelschorle (apple juice with soda water) and turns down my suggestion that he eat something as well. Sorokin stutters, and his slow speech creates the impression that he’s constantly groping for words.

Vladimir Sorokin and Genia Chef perform at Palazzo Corfu, Venice, 2015.

As befits the tradition of great Russian literature, Sorokin lives in Berlin in the Charlottenburg quarter – a central area in the city for Russian expatriates during the first half of the 20th century (and effectively today, too) – where, among others, poet Marina Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Nabokov lived in exile. Sorokin shrugs off the inevitable comparison with his illustrious forebears. He does not define himself as an emigré, because he didn’t burn his bridges – “and I don’t intend to do so of my own initiative,” he adds. He spends about half of each year in Russia, in the village of Vnukovo, near Moscow.

“I don’t return to Moscow but to its surroundings, where I was born,” he says. “I think that if not for that place, I would rarely visit Moscow. It’s urban space… it’s hard to call it a city; it’s more of a huge terminal. Moscow itself was never a home for me. In the 1970s, you could still find alleys to go walking in, but now they’re completely different. They have chic, but there’s no warmth in them.”

As for Berlin, whose western section he visited for the first time in 1988, a year before the fall of the wall and when it was still rare for Soviet citizens to pass through the Iron Curtain, he says, “It’s pleasant to live here. This city doesn’t force anything on you, doesn’t want anything from you, and I appreciate that.”

I’m meeting with Sorokin to mark the publication of his second book in Hebrew translation. The Hebrew version of the dystopian novel “Day of the Oprichnik” (published in its original Russian in 2006, and in English five years later) was published in 2010. The new book, “Horse Soup,” consists of four stories from the 13 that appeared originally in 2001 in the short-story collection “The Feast,” devoted entirely to food.

The stories, fluently translated into Hebrew by Polina Brukman, who also selected them, constitute a kind of exhibition of styles and genres that Sorokin juggles. The title story, for example, has a linear plot centering around a bizarre agreement between a young woman and a youth, in which the male will watch the female eating as he grunts, groans and emits weird cries. “Nastia,” written in the spirit of late 19th-early 20th-century Russian literature, describes a ceremony in which a girl is baked and eaten on her 16th birthday by her parents and their friends – typical representatives of the Russian intelligentsia. (About two years ago, the director Konstantin Bogomolov announced that he was starting to work on a film version of the story, leading to requests to the police to ban the circulation of the story.)

“My Meal” combines an inner monologue of the narrator (who is called “Vladimir Sorokin”) with detailed documentation of the foods he devours a few days after New Year’s, and fragments of his conversations, thoughts and physiological functions. And “Festive Repast” is largely a compilation of recipes for such dishes as “toothbrush soufflé” and “stuffed cushion embellished with dust from the summer house.” So it was only natural for our conversation to start with the subject of food.

In the course of his long career, Sorokin has been accused of disseminating pornography and of propagandizing cannibalism.Credit: Nikolai Ignatiev / Alamy Stock P

It’s apparent that your books are written by a person who loves to eat and knows how to eat, but the food also seems to arouse many other feelings, one of which is guilt.

“The truth is that I hadn’t thought of that. But it’s like in one of the James Bond movies. They’re on a train and his girlfriend says to him, ‘How’s the roast?’ And he says, ‘Fine, but I pity the sheep.’ [The actual quote, from the 2006 “Casino Royale”: “‘How was your lamb?’ ‘Skewered. One sympathizes.’”] Obviously the guilt would be greater if the restaurants were situated in abattoirs. That could have been powerful, but even then people would go on eating.”

Do you eat meat?

“I try to eat less meat. There was a period in which my wife and I didn’t eat meat for four years, but then we started again. I don’t even remember what happened. Food is almost erotica. In Orthodox Christianity, there’s a sin called ‘madness of the throat.’ It’s not gluttony [one of the seven deadly sins], but explicitly taking pleasure in food. So I sin in that.”

You know, it’s often said that among the young generation, food has become a genuine rite and that many prefer food to sex.

“The truth is, that’s terrible. I think these two enjoyments are complementary. I don’t see competition between them.”

Food can be a substitute for sex in certain situations. I don’t know if the opposite is also true.

“It’s never happened to me.”

It almost happens in the story “Horse Soup.”

“It’s not exactly sex, more the ritual. But if to speak in general terms, I saw a cartoon in which two people are having sex and each of them is staring at his gadget. So it’s possible that really… In the past 10 years, restaurant culture has developed a pretense to aestheticism. The variety is so great, and people’s demands are so high, that it really might be equal in power to erotica. But I am apparently a very old-fashioned person.”

Sorokin denies having consciously chosen to go deeply into the subject of food, sex and defecation (“True creation happens unconsciously,” he says), but admits that until not long ago there were two lacunae in literature: sex and food.

“It’s considered the low physical sphere,” he observes. “It’s accepted that to describe it in detail is bad taste. We don’t know, and never will know, what Nastasia Filippovna [in Dostoevsky’s “Idiot”] ate, or the posture in which she surrendered to Rogozhin. The same goes for Natasha Rostova [in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”]. At the same time, Tolstoy and Turgenev touched on food lightly. In ‘Anna Karenina,’ there’s a description of Stiva Oblonsky and Levin eating oysters and root soup, as Stiva calls it. But those who dealt with it (at length) were the French – Rabelais, de Sade and afterward Balzac. For them the low physical sphere connected with the high intellectual and emotional sphere. And with the Russians, it is nevertheless a literature of high ideas. What food? What sex?”

And afterward, in the Soviet Union, it was blocked even more.

“Taboo, absolute taboo. It interested me to move into that realm, which hadn’t yet been depicted, alongside other realms, such as violence. In short, as one of Chekhov’s protagonists said: Man cannot exist without nourishment.”

Molecular literature

Sorokin’s latest novel, “Manaraga,” which was published in Russia last year and will appear in Hebrew translation in 2019, is part of the dystopian world he began constructing in “Day of the Oprichnik” and continued developing in his next-to-last work, “Telluria.” The story unfolds in post-World War III Europe, after Christendom has successfully overcome Muslim invaders but at a steep price: States broke apart again into kingdoms, and the Continent has sunk into a “New Middle Ages.” Monarchist or feudal regimes exist against a background of technological riches of the information post-revolution. Smart personal ticks, which have long since replaced smartphones, are implanted directly into the brain and update their owners with all the information they need at any given moment and are responsible for regulating their mood.

The protagonist is a chef who engages in a profitable but dangerous occupation: grilling gourmet foods over a fire fed by rare and historical editions of classic books. The style of cooking isn’t legal and entails daring thefts from museums in which paper books are stored. But for Sorokin, every culinary encounter with clients who like book’n’grill isn’t only an opportunity to enjoy a precise description of the technology of grilling and book burning in which the protagonist is skilled. It’s also an option to present to readers his famous talent: launching fireworks in different literary styles, from Babel to Bulgakov.

Does humanity’s emerging transition from paper books to reading in digital formats worry Sorokin? Not really. Paper books, he predicts, will become an expensive retro commodity – “handmade work,” like expensive shoes that are manufactured in old styles today.

“I think that it’s not about the paper books, but about the shrinking of the space of literature. Literature no longer plays the role it did 50 years ago. As a writer,” Sorokin explains, “I’m sorry that our era is one of brazen journalists and vulgar columnists. They’re capable of thinking three moves ahead, whereas a master can think 20 moves ahead. That’s very clear in the quality of the game. Literature is, after all, a high form of game. I’m not sorry about the paper that’s burnt, but about the contracting literary space and the stripping down of the population.”

At the same time, he himself isn’t afraid of losing readers and is also not worried about the future of the Russian classics, of which he refuses to let go in his own works: “The classic authors are read, and Russian literature is a world label. I was in Mexico, in Guadalajara. There’s a small airfield there, I was waiting for a connection to a bigger city, and in a small lounge there, among newspapers, magazines and detective novels, I suddenly see a Russian set: ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ It’s like Russian vodka. The label already exists, and it might possibly be the only thing that will remain of Russia.”

Recently, after many years in which government-sponsored critics and advocates of traditionalism hurled allegations at Sorokin for his exaggerated and crude occupation with low themes and his absurdist style, following the publication of “Manaraga,” he was accused of having become traditionalist himself.

The author and literary critic Lev Danilkin wrote that Sorokin, in his later books, has mutated from being a writer “who is not to be appeased,” to one “with whom agreement can be reached.” According to Danilkin, “The question of the books is not an aesthetic one but a political one.” He went on to assail Sorokin for safeguarding too strictly the traditional literary canon and of being unwilling to introduce into it the “infected” post-Soviet literature.

Sorokin indirectly admits guilt. As I’m about to ask him about the difference between food as a democratic realm and hierarchical literature or culture, he says immediately that there are elitist foods, too – those that are not accessible to every palate, and not only because of the price. “Have you been to the restaurant that serves molecular food? You get served a few stones, which look like marble. You slice them and discover that they are baked potatoes. I can imagine a man-in-the-street diner saying, ‘Why me? It’s expensive and also not clear why. Better to bake potatoes and that’s it.’ So that there is a resemblance between food and literature.”

Russian to desperation

Some of Sorokin’s books contain explicitly political assertions, but in contrast to other leading contemporary Russian authors, such as Boris Akunin or Zakhar Prilepin, and despite the fierce opposition to his work on the part of the government’s advocates – he has never taken an active part in the political dialogue in the country and has never been spotted at a protest demonstration. In an extensive television interview six years ago, he demonstratively refrained from taking a stand or from identifying with the liberal forces in Russia. I ask him why, and whether he has changed his mind.

“I guess I don’t believe in Russian democracy.”

So it’s a stance in the style of “Why go to vote – in any case we’ll get the same result?”

“If it were possible to go to a demonstration and change the brain of the post-Soviet individual, I would go, of course. But brains don’t change so fast. And for myself, I don’t see the point.”

'Food is almost erotica. In Orthodox Christianity, there’s a sin called madness of the throat. I sin in that.'Credit: Barbara Zanon / Getty Images IL

That’s quite a pretense: Either the brain of the Soviet individual is changed, or nothing.

“Yes, in this sense I am a Russian person to the point of desperation. But if you want to talk about opinions, I have them. I support European democracy, I am against tyranny. I have no sympathy at all for the Soviet past, and I also feel very little sympathy for Russia’s imperial past.”

As a person who gives expression to his views, do you feel the pressures of the government, even if you don’t go to the town square?

“In the meantime, they don’t bother me. I earn my bread with the sweat of my brow. Writers are like deer who are nourished by the pasture they happen upon.”

But there are political-ethical-moral expectations of writers in general and of Russian writers in particular, right?

“Yes, but I try to suppress them within myself. Because more than one generation has gotten old amid all these despair-ridden Russian discussions, held in the kitchen over vodka. Better to engage in practical work.”

A recurrent theme in Sorokin’s oeuvre is the issue of the nation. In most of his major novels, as in some of his stories, the Jewish theme also crops up. In “Day of the Oprichnik” a few paragraphs are devoted to Jews, including thin ridicule of covert and overt Russian anti-Semitism. Finally, the reader is told, the czar took “all the smart Jews” under his wing, while the dumb ones “scattered.” A Jewish theme is prominent in “Managra,” in part through a grotesque Jewish family that is cruising in mid-ocean aboard a ship that can’t return to land because of the illegal deeds of the old “grandfather.”

The Jewish subject is secondary in your work, but appears regularly. And overall, it’s clear that you are not indifferent to issues of nationality. Why?

“I’m like those insects that lay eggs in rotten meat. Afterward the larvae eat that putrid meat. I’m interested in the rotten places in the culture, in the society, where there is a murkiness of concepts that hasn’t been exposed. It interests me to work with a taboo subject or repressed intimate fears, collective mistakes. For example, I wrote a play that dealt with Russian-Jewish-German complexes, called ‘Hochzeitsreise’ [“The Honeymoon”], which was staged here in Berlin in the Volksbuhne [People’s Theater]. It’s about a love story between the emigrée Masha Rubinshtein and Gunther von Nebeldorf, whose father was in the SS and whose mother was in the KGB.”

Your latest stories show that you are concerned about Islam.

“Like every European, I am concerned about radical Islam. It possesses an aggressive vector in relation to European civilization, and that’s a given.”

Maybe it’s a fact. But ISIS was defeated and the Taliban aren’t really in sight. What Europeans see is the refugees and the immigrants who come to Berlin and to other cities. In your work, the Muslim invasion and the war in which Christendom ultimately triumphs, but at a tremendous price, are a significant part of the dystopia.

“I think that both ‘Managara’ and ‘Telluria’ are more about the European fears of Islam. That’s what those books are about.”

But as a person living in Berlin, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, do you feel that fear? Do you sense any sort of threat? Or is it all theoretical?

“I can say that our world is changing, in part because of the Muslim migrants. No one will dispute that. That worries me, of course.”

What exactly worries you?

“The fact that Europe is changing and there is more chaos here and less ability to predict the future.”

Those are generalities. I’d like to understand what it is, precisely.

“I have nothing against the refugees one sees in the streets. The problem is that at any moment one of them can become a terrorist.”

In one of his past interviews, Sorokin said that he doesn’t like “realists who are occupied with describing themselves.” He counterpoised them to writers who create new worlds imaginatively.

You affiliate yourself with writers who conjure up worlds through fantasies, but in works by more realistic writers, like Jonathan Franzen and Elena Ferrante, there is a human warmth that is lacking in your books.

“All right, I’m sorry. What else can one say here? Nabokov would say, ‘I am a frozen strawberry in cellophane.’ [The poet Bella Akhmadulina, who met Nabokov three months before he died, quoted him as referring to his Russian – the Russian of a migrant who had lived for many years outside Russia – as a “frozen strawberry.”] Warmth in literature – I think that’s something very subjective. For me warmth, first of all, is the talent. Rabelais or Joyce or Kafka – that’s boiling, not just warm. I’m not versed in this question of where there is warmth and where it’s not. I write cold things.

“But literature in the end is letters on paper. The warmth is – here [he touches my hand]. And all the rest is paper; our concepts about what warmth is.”