Sunday, 10 August 2008

ice [w. vladimir sorokin]

Ice is composed of four sections. The first tells the story of three Russians living in contemporary Moscow who are kidnapped, brutally assaulted, and then discover that something remarkable has happened to them, the full details of which are not disclosed. The second part is the story of a young woman in the second world war, who is indicted into the secret cult of the ICE, later returning to Russia to find other suitable converts. The third and fourth parts are negligible, throwaway addendums.

The cult that the individuals find themselves belonging to is one which is shaped by some kind of alien force; which leads people towards their rediscovered hearts. The way of unearthing which people are suitable to join the cult is to smash an ice-hammer against their breastbones, then listen to see whether their hearts 'talk' in response to the assault. (The ice of the ice hammer is made from a meteorite which has landed in Siberia, although it takes a while to realise this.) Once they have joined the cult, the neophytes learn how to speak with their hearts, discovering a purity which the rest of humanity has forgotten it ever possessed. The cult's mission will end, as is the way of cults, in the annihilation of humanity when the cult members are absorbed by the LIGHT, a kind of nirvanic bliss which supersedes materialism.

Sorokin uses a lot of capitals, which have the effect of stressing the child-like glee of the cult devotees, as they speak to one another with their enthusiastic, re-discovered hearts. The writing is laced with a populist trashiness, crudely described sex scenes sitting alongside moments of brash violence. The notes on the flyleaf reference Houllebecq, and Ice possesses a similar blend of high-falutin' ideas married to an almost anti-intellectual prose style.

What it all means, or perhaps that should be, 'signifies', is something I'm not altogether sure of. The second section, describing Khram's (the woman's 'heart-name') mission to establish the community of Ice in the post-war USSR allows Sorokin to do a breezy run-through of late Soviet history, linking it up to the present day. From Beria to Yeltsin, he describes how the Soviet Union functioned, before mutating into Russia. Khram's narrative makes a theoretical, fantastical sense out of a history which is still being carved out, above and beyond the obvious ideological shifts. The members of the sect don't care about politics, all that matters to them is the Ice, and in order to achieve their ends, they will always rise to the top of society.

In that sense Sorokin's book has elements of David Icke's Lizards or conspiracies such as the Bildenberg society. Certainly there appears to be a neo-fascist element to the sect, which has been nurtured in Nazi Austria, and only recruits the blond and blue-eyed. It may well be that there's a clear and apparent satire which any Russian would recognise at work in these pages. The thing that makes the book curious, however, is that the nirvanic ideas which the cult ferments possess a near-mystical beauty. The notion that we no longer listen to our hearts, and that though that deafness we have lost touch with the potentially angelic simplicity of being human, is beguiling. As Russia crashes through the glass ceiling into the sordid world of capitalism, what happens to the messianic drive which is latent in much of its literature as well as its political history? It is not hard to envision Dostoyevsky's visionary misfits being attracted to a society of the heart, where the purity of love supersedes the materialistic drive.

In some ways, Ice is a frustrating book, which throws its narrative(s) away all too readily, and appears to want to introduce significant ideas without taking them all that seriously. However, (and this is one of those occasions when the reader's ignorance should be mentioned as a disclaimer), it's probably to a book's credit when you come away from it going - what the hell was that? Was it rubbish? Did it really have flashes of brilliance? Did it mean anything at all? Sorokin's book comes across as a provocation. A provocation as to what, remains far from clear, but better to be provoked and frustrated than mollycoddled.

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