Friday, May 13, 2005

Sorokin's Blue Lard

Imagine a novel in which a clone of FDR roughly tops a clone of John F. Kennedy. Or maybe a Teddy Roosevelt clone has his way with the well-tanned, horsebroken backside of a Ronald Raygun double.* (Okay, maybe not!) Each scenario could, however, serve as an analogy of one of the most notorious scenes in Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin's (pictured at right) Goluboe Salo** (Blue Lard or Blue Bacon Fat or Gay Lard, etc.), a 1999 obscene, satirical novel that provoked a recent public protest by Moving (or Walking) Together, a pro-Putin youth cult.

These young patriots, reacting in particular to a scene in which a clone of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin sodomizes a clone of post-war Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, labeled the novel "pornography," and destroyed copies of it in front of the Bolshoi Theater, which they were striking against because it was planning to perform a work using one of Sorokin's librettos. The Moving Togetherites promptly filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Prosecutor. Officials then began legal proceedings based on Article 242 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, criminalizing pornography, which in turn led to a police investigation of Sorokin.

Unlike during the Soviet era, however, the majority of the public did not side immediately with the authorities. In fact, Sorokin's supporters argued on behalf of his freedom of speech, a new and tenuous right in democratic (or should I type "democratic"?) Russia, and snapped up the Blue Lard, making it a bestseller. (A 2002 article by Ilya Milstein in Novoye Vremya implied a more cynical reason for the support; Sorokin's commercial success outside Russia led his fellow writers to defend him.) The brouhaha in any case embarrassed the Kremlin, which eventually cleared Sorokin, who was facing a two-year prison sentence.

He has continued to publish works full of obscenities and scatology, and wrote the libretto for composer Leonid Desyantnikov's "Rosenthal's Children," which deals with, what else, clones, this time of famous European classical composers, sex, and degeneracy. Moving Together (pictured below, Dennis Sinyakov/AFP), has duly protested for several years now outside the Bolshoi, where the opera premiered this past March to packed crowds. (Naturally, a member of Russia's parliament, based on a TV report (!), initiated an investigation of this newest work by the author of "dirty poetry"; he claimed the popular opera's "sexual intimacy...[made] it not good for [the Russian] public." A ban is pending.)

At least one of Sorokin's books, his 1983 debut The Queue (Ochered in Russian), has been translated into English, though it's currently out of print. That book is reputedly more conventional and less "post-modern" in many ways than Blue Lard, and lacks the outright catalogue of perversions that so exorcised the critics of the later book. One Amazon reader compares The Queue favorably to Sorokin's later work, with its "excessive exploitation of sex/drug/alcohol abuse scenes." Which of course makes it sound appropriate to contemporary post-Soviet Russia--and the USA, especially the bizarro-America we are living in today. (This thought took me back to the final section of Peter Ho Davies's recent NU talk, with its emphasis on fantastic work that would be appropriate for the current political and social climate.) And it really makes me want to read Goluboe Salo.

Vladimir Sorokin
Because, truth be told, I've never read the novel, but I am dying to. But I cannot read Russian. I cannot speak Russian either. I do know about 10 phrases, some of which proved functional enough to startle my former Russian students at NYU. I learned them from my college friend Paull H; I'd taught myself the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet years before. (Digression: Russian actually has a consonant that fascinates me to no end, "shch," not found in English or most Western European languages, which always evokes the image of a coal-powered train pulling out of an icy station.) Paull H was studying Russian in the last years of the Cold War, not long before the Soviet Union began its process of disintegration, and student interest in the language, history, politics, society, and culture of the U.S.'s greatest Enemy, as it was then constructed, was still high. Condoleezza Rice, now play-acting as Secretary of State, apparently had the same jones only a decade earlier. But I neither had the time nor interest then in mastering Russian, which is highly inflected, a fact that makes its literature, especially the poetry, difficult to translate into English. That several famous Russians, Nabokov and Brodsky, actually moved from writing fluently in Russian to writing fluently (or at least more so than most native speakers) in English has always been testimony, in my opinion, to their genius. But I had no genius for Russian. So I've always had to rely on translations.

And no English translation of Blue Lard (pictured at right) exists. Yet. I know this because not far from the university, where one of the best independent bookstores in Evanston once stood, a Russian-Slavic bookseller now holds court. I've popped in his joint several times to ask about translations of Blue Lard, but each time, he or another knowledgeable member of the staff tells me that no, the book has not been translated into English. In fact, they don't have the book in stock. Nor does the university's library. And even if either the bookshop or the library did have Blue Lard, I unfortunately know no one who translates Russian. (I don't think I know even one of the Slavicists at the university, nor can I recall ever having attended or been invited to any event hosted by that department.)

So this is a call: does anyone out there know if anyone is translating Blue Lard? It sounds like the kind of book Grove Press would have published years ago, before they became respectable. But it also sounds like it might be bursting with too much transgressiveness to be taken up either by many of the larger, conglomerated US presses, most of the university presses, or many of the distinguished smaller, independent ones. I think it would probably sell well, given the tensions that now exist between Putin's backsliding Russia and our own US, the Christian-Republican Empire of W Bush. Oh, and then there's the graphic sex/drug abuse, etc. Michel Houellebecq's extremely graphic, philosophically grim gems are now on American bookshelves, but their outlook is quasi-right wing, quasi-libertarian, and intermittently racist, so maybe they aren't the best model. Perhaps a small and daring press like Akashic or Soft Skull will publish it. But first they'd have to find a (good) translator. As many Russian-English speakers are there are in the US, there's got to be one. And when s/he translates Blue Lard, this reader will definitely check it out.
*There is J. G. Ballard's (in)famous short story, "I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," which appears in his non-sequential limit-text, The Atrocity Exhibition. When he learned of the pending publication of the collection (which also was later circulated at a Republican convention), publisher Nelson Doubleday supposedly grew so upset that he pulped the entire press run. Grove later published it, and Re/Search has reissued it in a terrific illustrated format, with commentary by Ballard, a sort of textual DVD.
**Also transliterated as Goluboye or Goloboye Salo.


  1. interesting article john i was alittle familiar with Vincente and the like..can't comment that much since i'm at an internet cafe and i have to pay for my time..yuck.

    hope all is well..did you get all of your student essays graded?

  2. If you're still interested in Sorokin's Blue Lard, I and a fellow translator are working on a paper on the challenges it presents to translators. Would love to investigate the possibility of translating it but have too many projects going at the moment. If you're interested in the paper I'd be glad to email you the final version.

  3. Dear Deborah Hoffman,

    I am interested in seeing a copy of the paper, so please do send it to me, either via email or my Northwestern address in the English department. Or let me know your email address! Thanks so much!

  4. Hi Jstheater!
    I'm writing my thesis on "The Blue Lard" (in Russian), so I'd like to have that paper by Deborah Hoffman - if she did send it to you and if you still have it.

    If not, could you please give me her contacts?


  5. Hi Marie,

    If you send me an email to my university account (j-keene[AT]northwestern[DOT]edu, I'll forward Dr. Hoffman's email on to you. Her remarks were really insightful to me. BTW, where are you studying, and is your thesis solely on Blue Lard or on Sorokin's work more generally? Have you read Ice?