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Vladimir Sorokin: Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts)

Vladimir Sorokin wrote this book as the Soviet Union was collapsing and did not write another book for ten years. Allegedly the printers refused to work on it and, if you read it, you will see why.

Transgressive fiction has a long history. De Sade and Rabelais were producing it in France many years ago. However, it only really became a key feature of literature in the late twentieth century, with writers such as William Burroughs, J G Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis. Obviously transgressive literature was not allowed in the Soviet Union though, going further back, The Brothers Karamazov could certainly be considered transgressive. It was only post-Soviet Union that transgressive literature started to appear in Russia and this book was one of if not the first and what an impact it made.

In order to get us acclimatised, translator Max Lawton recommended three books. apparently Sorokin’s favourites and all somewhat transgressive: Bret Easton Ellis‘s Glamorama, Christian Kracht‘s 1979, which has been translated into fifteen languages but not English, and Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). I have read Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) but not the other two. (Please don’t tell Max.)

So onto the book. I am wondering, without any evidence whatsoever, whether Sorokin took his title and subject from this film. The film, as you can see from the link, is a wholesome 1941 Soviet film which is a light-hearted satire of manners and morals , according to IMDB. This book is the complete antithesis of wholesome and light-hearted. It takes the same trope as the film – four standard Soviet people – but instead of showing them as wholesome and light-hearted, it depicts them as nasty, vicious, cruel and completely unlike what the Soviet Union portrayed as its model citizens. For Sorokin, the four protagonists of this book are a more accurate depiction of what Soviet people are like, albeit considerably exaggerated.

The four are: Viktor Valentinovich Rebrov, who apparently was a Stakhanovite worker and the leader of the four; Olga Vladimirovna Popov, a formerSoviet Olympic skier; Henry Ivanych Shtaube, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, who has a prosthetic leg and whose main pleasure seems to be performing fellatio on pubescent boys; and Seryozha, a teenage boy.

The four form a group, living and working together. Their main activity consists of various strange rituals and killing, torturing and mutilating as well as being humiliated and degraded by others. To gve you an example, the first operation sees them perform is called Pre-Operation No. 1. They all undress. Shtaube, without his prosthetic leg is put into a plywood cube which is nailed shut. With the aid of straps, Rebrov carries the cube and he and then Olga proceed to recite a series of numbers, names of colours, musical notes and seemingly nonsense syllables, while Seryozha lies down on top of Olga, back-to-back. And that is it. What is the point? We do not learn though they will perform other similar acts, often more dangerous and violent.

After that, they proceed to Seryozha’s parents’ house. He had run away and been absent for three months. His parents are overjoyed to see him but they are soon brutally murdered and mutilated, Rebrov’s mother will later meet the same fate.

It is not only to others that they are cruel. Shtaube is branded for propositioning a young boy. They seemingly deliberately go into situations where they will be hurt and/or degraded. On more than one occasion they wear official uniforms (military/police) and either work with the authorities (who seem to know them under different names) or attack them. The death toll in this book is high.

And it is not just in Moscow. They set out for Siberia by train, which they will blow up and engage in an open gunfight with supposed allies, including Olga’s husband. Indeed, it is interesting that Olga does most of the shooting.

It is Shtaube who sums up the Soviet Union: You have to understand these people too. “Imagine, they earned an honest living, they exceeded their normal quotas, lived in a constant state of hunger, defended their Motherland, and then they’re told: you’re a joke, your life was just a big mistake, you weren’t building a glorious future, but a shitty lil’ concentration camp run by fucking Stalin called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics! And for that, you motherfuckers, your children and grandchildren warmly congratulate you!

Rebrov has different view: In terms of the spiritual rebirth and national revival of Russia, Stalin did more than all of the leaders before him combined. As a Christian and a healthy-minded individual, I welcome Stalin’s reforms. As an economist and a geopolitician, I also welcome them. But, as a Russian intellectual, I can’t help but condemn these reforms. Shtaube’s retort re Stalin is the shithead! the fucking shithead.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. It is brutal and cruel, often very brutal and cruel and, as mentioned above, you can see why the printers were not impressed. Some of the time I had no idea what was going on or why but, presumably, that is also the point. The Soviets did odd things. However, Sorokin’s clear aim is to subvert the Soviet Union official model and, in doing so, he is not going to take any half-measures nor is he going to use more conventional satire as he did, for example, in День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik). He comes charging in, all guns blazing, knocking down with extreme violence all Soviet shibboleths. And you can see why Putin, today’s Stalin, is not a Sorokin fan

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Конец Века
First English publication in 2022 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Max Lawton