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Vladimir Sorokin: Теллурия (Telluria)

One of Vladimir Sorokin’s stocks in trade is inventing a not too distant future and using that to criticise and satirise the contemporary situation, particularly, though not necessarily only, in Russia. A good example of this is his День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik), set in a Russia of the future which has reverted to having a tsar, clearly a mockery of Putin.

This one is somewhat different, in that there is no running plot except for the tellurium theme. The story is told in a series of fifty vignettes, set in Russia and elsewhere, each one illustrating some aspect of where Russia and the world are now and how they got there

Some seem to be set in the or, at least, a past though this is because some have reverted to the past or, at least the past as they see it, so we now have, for example, princes(ses) and counts, surrounded by people who are virtually serfs. Indeed Sorokin is definitely channelling El Cid/Le Chanson de Roland/The Crusades as we have not only, in some chapters, the full medieval thing but also the wars of Christians versus Muslims.

The Taliban had moved in to Germany, occupying North Rhine-Westphalia, which has now been liberated thanks in part to General Kazimir von Lutzov (based on the historical General von Lützow?) and we get other references to crusade-type wars of liberation. One character comments, however, that the crusaders were worse than the Muslims, as they would steal whatever they wanted, while the Muslims at least paid for it.

Some people have changed size so there are biguns and littluns, though this is not explained. There are also zoomorphs, i.e, looking like animals, and also robots.

Clearly Russia (and other European states) has splintered into microstates. We learn of a host of Russian microstates, including Moscow , but also microstates elsewhere in Europe such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Languedoc. And there is even a USSR – a small state called the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic, where Stalin is worshipped. We get a tour of this state. Scots and Catalans may be disappointed to learn that there is no indication of their independence.

The key is tellurium. It is rare here (as it is in our world) and eagerly sought. We get a detailed description of its use as a drug in one scene, where a group of people buy a tellurium nail, which is how it is sold.They draw lots and a character called Bedbug wins (to the annoyance of the others). To use it the back of the head needs to shaved and the nail driven into the head by a hammer, preferably wielded, as happens in this case, by an expert (called carpenter in this book), as, if it is not done properly (which happens, as we see later) the nail could kill the recipient. The nail cannot be reused (due to its interaction with fatty acids in the brain, tellurium loses its purity and becomes a salt). Throughout the book, people are eagerly trying to get hold of tellurium nails and we get various stories of how it is obtained by various people and how it is used. For example, one man wants to use it to get in contact with his late brother.

Tellurium (in this book) comes from Telluria, a microstate in the Altai mountains, which is ruled by a Frenchman who is interested in collecting rare coins, winter sports and sex. (Why a Frenchman rules a Russian microstate is explained.) Its capital is wittily called Ohlala. Telluria is the only country where tellurium nails are legal but, as with heroin/cocaine in our world, they have little difficulty in marketing their product. However for those who cannot afford tellurium nails, alcohol still abounds.

It is not all tellurium and the Middle Ages. As this is set in a future, we get some futuristic elements as we did in День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik). Many people have what is called a smartypants. This is clearly an update on the smart phone as it is entirely foldable and pliable and take on any shape, and you can use it to call up a hologram. One couple even have phone sex with it. Apple is no doubt working on one.

However, progress is not always positive. In Moscow the oil-based petrol we use is only for the very rich, with most people using a potato-based petrol and, in many cases, still using horses, with complaints, echoing the Victorian era, that streets no longer smell of oil but manure.

Putin does get a mention by name, although only once and but also a fairly oblique reference. In the second chapter, an Englishman is visiting Moscow (for sex with an underage girl, of course) and writes back to his friend/lover, giving a potted history of Russia, naming Stalin and referring to this toiler of the fall talked constantly about the revival of empire, while doing everything he could to make the corpse [of Stalin] land successfully.

Racism is also to be found with various states criticising others. Lord, how unbearable these Moscovians are… How they shy away from everything sincere, honest, and unmediated. They have nothing but tellurium on their minds… and How backwards everything is here among the Ryazanians, the count thought. Their brains are overgrown with old moss. You can’t even break through it with a tellurium nail…

what makes this book so interesting, besides Sorokin’s take on what a future Russia and Europe might look like, is the way he writes his vignettes. Some are stories about the various characters as they get together and talk/fight/drink/debauch. Others outline events such as those mentioned above. Some tell of more courtly proceedings while others talk of romance. Some are obviously satirical. They are all relatively short and you never know what you are going to get. Language is key as some speak posh Russian and some a far more colloquial and some an archaic Russian, which translator Max Lawton has superbly conveyed in the translation.

This is great fun to read and as it jumps from one vignette to another, you never get bored, but gradually build up a picture of a world that has balkanised (which may be good), is moving away from fossil fuels (also good) but where drugs still matter.

Other links

Interview with translator Max Lawton on the book

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Izdatel’stvo AST
First English publication in 2022 by New York Review of Books
Translated by Max Lawton