The Ice Trilogy

Tony Wood writes:

By the late 1990s, then, there had been two Sorokins: first a Conceptual artist who worked in prose, and then a literary figure with increasing public recognition who actually concentrated on film and theatre; or as Ryklin puts it, ‘first a non-writer, creating very well-structured literature, and then a writer, striving to create non-literature’. The split was not simply a matter of personal preference. Ryklin argues that the realities of Russian life in the 1990s presented Sorokin with a dilemma: having worked in a Soviet system that imposed a variety of prohibitions, he now faced the opposite situation – a bewildering, chaotic freedom in which existing frames of reference had disintegrated. All the violence and repressed sexuality he had sought to drag to the surface was now out in the open, as crime, sex, death and drugs began to occupy the streets and public discourse. The dark obverse of collective speech had become the new norm, and real people had begun to behave more and more like Sorokin characters. At the end of the 1990s what might be called a third Sorokin appeared, searching for ways out of the impasse with which post-Soviet reality confronted him. He has done this by returning to prose fiction and seeking to address the larger questions of Russian historical experience. One of his strategies has been to reread the past through the distorting lens of mythology. The Ice Trilogy is devoted to the fortunes of an apocalyptic Brotherhood whose members believe they are bodily incarnations of a primordial light. But they are only made aware of their true identity by being ‘awakened’, in a process that involves being bashed in the chest with a hammer made of ice – and not ordinary ice but ice from the Tunguska meteorite that supposedly landed in eastern Siberia in 1908. Blows from these ice hammers make the hearts of each brother or sister sing out their primordial names – Bro! Fer! Uf! Khram! All the brethren happen to be blond and blue-eyed, but Sorokin takes pains to dispel suspicions of Aryan supremacism: one of the early initiates is an itinerant fiddler called Zeitlin. The Brotherhood’s goal is for all its members to return to their incorporeal state, which will also coincidentally destroy the world – a cosmic error they are destined to correct. But they can only do this once they have located and ‘awakened’ 23,000 brothers and sisters, and united them for a final, cataclysmic ritual.

(LRB 30 June 2011)