Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sorokin's Queue

The Queue / Vladimir Sorokin; translated by Sally Laird
New York: NYRB, c2008
263 p.

As the final book in my Russian Reading Challenge, I picked up this book when it came into the library. Why? Just look at it; the cover is wonderful. And, it is a modern Russian novel with a twist -- it is told entirely in dialogue. Perhaps the fact that Sorokin has written plays and opera librettos helps him here, because despite my concern that the idea of the characters talking while in the queue would be gimmicky, I was quickly proven wrong. It works wonderfully! He somehow captures the desultory exchanges between strangers accustomed to waiting, waiting, waiting. And in parts his writing becomes simply brilliant, a list of words with amazing energy which carries you along with it. Near the beginning we get to know Vadim who becomes the main character we follow through the book. He meets a young woman in line and chats her up; the line is hours long so they have lots of time to talk. They end up sleeping in the park, not wanting to leave their position in line, and as Vadim falls asleep, the dialogue trails off, and then... the next page is blank. And the next. Six blank pages as Vadim sleeps, and somehow, it truly expresses the silence of Vadim's being out of commission.

Later, the officials in charge of whatever it is that is for sale up front, make their way down the line, calling a roll call -- giving people numbers as placeholders in line. There are three or four pages where a voice is calling out last names, with responses of "Yes!" and a few non-responding absentees. Astonishingly, it is not dull, rather I felt the rush of people pressing in to make sure they maintained their place in the queue. In the notes it mentions the tour-de-force creativity Sorokin draws upon to come up with such an extensive list of names, some Russian, some Ukrainian, some Lithuanian, some of Jewish origin, and so on. To a Russian reader I am sure this would be much more evident, but I was at least able to recognize that some of the names were Ukrainian which tipped me off to what he was doing. It really does feel that you're seeing a cross section of Soviet life.

The whole book doesn't take place in line, however. The populace is so accustomed to spending their days in line that they have protocols in place, wherein the people in front or behind will guard the place while the individual goes off to use the phone, to eat or to find some facilities. Thus Vadim and his lady friend wander off to a cafeteria to have lunch (where she meets someone more interesting). When it rains, they all scatter to doorways in the courtyards nearby, knowing they will all restablish the line as it was before, once it is dry. Still, seeing as it is Soviet Russia, there is evidence of corruption; people selling their queue numbers to others further back, workers being bussed in and pushing in at the front, the sellers taking a break and letting people stew for hours. Despite the story having no descriptive narration, and no plot besides getting to the front of the line, it is full of interest. It feels like it teems with action and local colour and cleverness.

The translation is British so some lines come across a bit oddly, but it really doesn't affect the flow and is easily understood. It's also a quick read, due to the single line conversations and blank pages! Seriously, it was a great choice for another Russian read and one I would certainly recommend.


  1. Wow! Great review. If I cross paths with a copy of this book, I'll be sure to pick it up. I like out-of-the-ordinary books.

  2. I was glad to read your review of this book... I'd seen mentions of it in articles about Sorokin, and it sounded interesting. I may have to look for it!

  3. LazyDaisy - it is unusual! And fun.

    Lisa - thanks for stopping by. I popped over to your blog to take a look and you are amazing! I'm going to have a ton of Russian books on the TBR now.

  4. Russia -- a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Never quite sure whether it wants to be part of East or West. A vast and formidable nation with a long and fascinating history. Gave us both Stalin (well, technically he was from Georgia) and the humanitarian Tolstoy.

    I have a whole shelf of Russian books. I'll pick a really cold, snowy winter night to read a good one.

  5. Eastcoastdweller - thanks for stopping in. Russian books are the best for cold snowy nights, aren't they? ;)


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