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Shaggy Horse Story: Vladimir Sorokin’s “The Blizzard”

The journey at the heart of Vladimir Sorokin’s satirical novel, The Blizzard, is replete with obstacles and impediments that typify the motif in hundreds, if not thousands, of narratives, from The Odyssey, through Heart of Darkness, and The Adventures of Augie March. It’s impossible to consider the genre passé, finished. If nothing else, in the best of these works we always have a good story, full of surprises and unexpected events. Certainly, that is true of Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin’s novel—and then some. The “and then some” are often whoppers, impossible to take literally, but that’s true of most such narratives, beginning with Homer’s masterpieces. The genre itself assumes some suspension of reality on the part of the reader—or, as a person dear to me has called them, “remarkable literary journeys.”

Ostensibly, The Blizzard relates the story of a doctor, named Platon Ilich Garin, who has been charged by the authorities with getting a vaccine to the people of Dolgoye, who are dying from a mysterious plague. This, in the midst of a snowstorm, a terrible blizzard. The initial problem is how he’s going to get to Dolgoye, who is going to take him there. The stationmaster’s horses are all in service. Garin has to rely on a man, named Crouper, who normally delivers bread. He owns a sleigh and fifty horses, little horses, five rows of ten each. Crouper thinks that it will take them an hour and a half to get to the village, where the doctor will quickly complete his work, and then the next day they’ll be back home.

Obviously, that isn’t exactly what happens. Almost immediately, the sleigh hits something that splits one of the runners. There’s nothing to repair the runner other than the doctor’s bandages. Think for a moment about how blizzardillogical that is. The snow has already made the road almost impossible to identify. The sleigh keeps veering off the road (or what is assumed to be it), getting stuck in ditches or hanging precariously over cliffs. But the little horses mostly do their magic and whisk the good doctor and his driver on towards what might be called oblivion.

The first night they are so exhausted that they need to stop for sleep at the house of a miller, where the miller isn’t that much bigger than the little horses. However, his wife is a voluptuous Amazonian. The doctor seduces her, or she seduces him, while her little husband sleeps one off. The next morning the road has virtually disappeared. Crouper has to guess where it might be. The snow is so blinding that they keep bumping into unforeseen obstacles, including the felt hut of some rather sleazy drug pushers, referred to as “vitaminders,” who provide Dr. Garin with some kind of hallucinogen (for a small fee). In the stream-of-consciousness passage that follows, while the doctor hallucinates, he becomes frightened, then giddy, and finally sentimental. There’s one moment of revealed truth about the doctor’s past recorded here: “He tells them about the time he didn’t go to see a patient and the patient died. He lied a great deal in his lifetime. He gossiped and said spiteful things about friends and colleagues. He said nasty things about the woman he lived with. He sometimes begrudged giving his parents money. He didn’t really want to have children. He wanted to live unencumbered, to enjoy life. It was largely because of this that he and his wife separated.” He’s not the most admirable of men, or the best doctor. In truth, he’s a bit of a jerk.

Whenever the sleigh gets lost, Garin berates the driver, cursing him repeatedly, even though the horses are exhausted and they need to rest. There’s a rather strange incident when one of the sleigh’s runners hits another obstacle, which turns out to be the frozen body of a giant, ramming into the nostril with such impact that the runner has to be cut out with an axe, revealing that the giant had sinusitis which possibly killed him. Then there’s another crazy scene when the little horses (presumably all fifty of them) are tossed into a bag and carried away.

So we’ve got miniature Russian horses, which according to a Google search are typically about the size of a large dog—although Sorokin describes them on one occasion as no larger than partridges—giants, and little people, hallucinogens, plus (I almost forgot) rubbing alcohol which the doctor drinks when he gets cold, and a village suffering from Bolivian plague as the objective of Sorokin’s hilarious narrative.

Are all these the charade for depicting contemporary Russia? That sounds like an ethnocentric Western interpretation, since the book was written for Russian readers, yet those of us who read it in Jamey Gambrell’s remarkable translation might just as well say that the wool has been pulled over our eyes. Or at least a blizzard.

Vladimir Sorokin: The Blizzard

Trans. By Jamey Gambrell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 181 pp., $23

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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