Fingernail croquettes. Shoelaces à la carbonara. Cotton buds in madeira. Women’ gloves in aspic.
This isn’t the menu for right this moment’s Lunch with the FT, however a number of dishes from “The Banquet”, a brief story by Vladimir Sorokin, one among Russia’s main modern novelists. He offers me the German translation as we sit all the way down to eat.
I’d arrived at Il Calice in west Berlin with a wholesome urge for food. That evaporates as quickly as I flip by way of his reward (condom ice cream, anybody?). I ask if folks have tried out the recipes. “Somebody made the women’ sneakers in chocolate,” he says. It’s unclear if it was a hit.
“The Banquet” throbs with Sorokin’s beautiful model and signature surreal humour. It’s there, too, within the garments he’s carrying right this moment — a T-shirt adorned with a big magpie, a sly reference to his surname (the Russian phrase for magpie is “soroka”).
The black of his shirt setting off his lengthy, shaggy locks of white hair, Sorokin appears relaxed and untroubled — which is unusual contemplating that for the previous three months he has been residing in self-imposed exile. He and his spouse Irina left Russia two days earlier than President Vladimir Putin despatched his troops into Ukraine, and he has no plans to return.
“I underestimated the ability of Putin’s insanity,” he says.
Sorokin, who’s 66, has lengthy been on dangerous phrases with the Kremlin. As early as 2002, a pro-Putin youth group threw copies of his books into an enormous mock bathroom exterior the Bolshoi Theatre. Days later, police opened a case towards him for pornography (the article of their ire was the graphic intercourse scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev in his novel Blue Lard).
But these had been simply minor irritants in contrast with the struggle in Ukraine, which has prompted him to lastly sever ties. I ask if his exile is everlasting. He hints he received’t return whereas Putin is in energy. “I actually hope the forces of darkness retreat to the underworld,” he says.
It’s a surprisingly ethical line for a playful, experimental author who was by no means a basic dissident. Not like didactic Russian novelists equivalent to Tolstoy, he’s an aesthete who delights in disorienting and disturbing the reader with scenes of weird intercourse and stomach-churning violence. In 1991, livid staff at a Russian printing home refused to publish his collected brief tales in protest at its stunning content material. Then, as now, Sorokin took the outrage with a pinch of salt. “We simply discovered one other printer,” he says.
Sorokin is at an attention-grabbing juncture in his profession. Admired in continental Europe, he has struggled to interrupt by way of within the UK and US. That could be about to vary, due to an excellent younger translator, Max Lawton, who’s tackling eight of his books. Two of them, Telluria and Their 4 Hearts, come out in English this yr: six extra, together with Blue Lard, can be revealed over the following three years.
Sorokin has additionally gained consideration overseas in current months along with his outspoken assaults on Putin, all of which crackle along with his exemplary ghoulishness. In an article revealed within the Guardian 4 days after the beginning of the Ukraine struggle, he mentioned the president had lapped up hatred of the west “within the black milk he drank from the KGB’s teat”.
Sorokin is a part of an exodus of liberal-minded intellectuals, artists and creatives from Russia that started roughly when Putin returned as president in 2012 and have become a stampede when struggle broke out. Not like most of them, he was lucky to have a second residence in Europe to withdraw to — a flat within the genteel Berlin neighbourhood of Charlottenburg that he has owned since 2011. Il Calice is a 10-minute stroll away.
The restaurant is on a nook of Walter-Benjamin-Platz, a neoclassical, colonnaded sq. that could be a landmark of the capital, and it displays the cool, minimalist aesthetic of its environment. There may be wooden panelling on the partitions and rows of similar milky-white lamps shedding unobtrusive gentle.
It’s asparagus season in Germany, so the starter is a no brainer — zuppa di asparagi bianchi. Sorokin goes for the roast beef from Friesian cows, with bell pepper, rosemary potato mash and salsa verde, and orders a glass of Nebbiolo. I select the home-made tagliatelle with white veal ragout, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from South Tyrol.
Il Calice is, says Sorokin, one among his favorite Berlin eateries. “They’ve a really inventive strategy to meals,” he says. Judging by the recipes for “house-dust tartlets” and “toothbrush soufflé” in “The Banquet”, you would say the identical about Sorokin.
He’s finest identified within the west for Day of the Oprichnik, a satire set in 2028 Moscow with uncanny parallels to the current day. In a Russia that has slid again to tsarist autocracy, a band of secret policemen, a revamp of Ivan the Horrible’s feared “oprichniki” bodyguard, flog intellectuals, burn down noblemen’s homes and gang-rape their wives.
Walter-Benjamin-Platz 4, 10629 Berlin
White asparagus soup x2 €28
Roast beef from Friesian cows, with bell pepper, rosemary potato mash and salsa verde €30
Tagliatelle with white veal ragout €19
Glass of Nebbiolo x2 €20
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc €7.50
Bottle of San Pellegrino €8
Complete (inc tip) €120
Oprichnik was written in 2006, a time of relative optimism in Russia. I ask him how he was so certain issues would take the malevolent flip they did. “There’s a tune by The Who — ‘I Can’t Clarify’,” he says, all of a sudden switching from Russian to English.
Then he tries to. Patriots had been claiming on the time that Russia ought to isolate itself from the west “and I made a decision to write down a fantasy about what [it] could be like if that occurred. And now it’s really occurring.”
The response of the Russian studying public was dismissive. “Individuals initially reacted with humour,” he says. “However then they stopped smiling.”
Although it’s typically grotesque and fantastical, Oprichnik incorporates some prospers that now appear amazingly prescient. Within the novel, Russia has constructed a wall to seal itself off from the west: now, 16 years later, Russia and Europe are decoupling, amid a flurry of swingeing sanctions and vitality embargoes. I ask, jokingly, if Putin will ever construct an actual wall. Sorokin shakes his head. “Half the bricks would get stolen,” he says.
The waiter returns with our soup, which each of us take pleasure in (“Sehr intestine,” is Sorokin’s verdict). I ask him in regards to the enchantment he signed with various different Russian writers, journalists and movie administrators in February demanding a right away finish to the struggle — fairly a courageous gesture, on condition that Putin has condemned critics of his “particular navy operation” as “traitors” and “scumbags”. What was the response in his homeland?
“Wise folks appreciated it,” he says. However the pro-Putinites “mentioned we’re cultural traitors who help the enemy”. One Russian MP has already known as for the books of struggle critics to be banned.
He appears genuinely horrified by what has occurred to his compatriots. “These are individuals who’ve been became zombies during the last 20 years by state TV,” he says. “Now they’ve bought on to tanks and gone off to combat for a trigger that solely Putin can perceive.”
I quote his current declare that Russians themselves are responsible for the struggle. Is that truthful, I ask. In spite of everything, you would argue Putin took the entire nation hostage, step by step turning a makeshift democracy right into a dictatorship. Aren’t you blaming the victims?
“Intelligent folks have had 20 years to determine who Putin is,” he says. In the course of the early years of his presidency, oil costs rose, residing requirements improved and other people turned a blind eye to his autocratic excesses. “They wallowed in luxurious,” Sorokin says. “They traded their conscience for materials wellbeing. And now they’re reaping the reward.”
Our second course arrives. My pasta seems — and tastes — scrumptious, however I eye Sorokin’s beef with envy. It seems succulent and superbly cooked, and he appears happy (“It’s a masterpiece,” he says, with relish).
The meals is beautiful, however the service patchy. Ordering one other glass of Nebbiolo proves a problem, regardless that we’re Il Calice’s solely clients. The more and more determined whoops Sorokin and I emit to summon a waiter make us sound just like the heroes of one among his novels.
With reference to Putin, a person he describes because the “nice destroyer”, Sorokin is now actually hitting his stride. “He has ruined every thing he’s touched,” he says — not solely Russia’s free press and democratic parliament however its financial system and even its military. “He claims he’s lifted Russia from its knees, however actually he’s simply destroyed it,” he says.
Sorokin has some extent in the case of the military: western specialists have been shocked by its poor efficiency in Ukraine. However he himself by no means had any illusions. In a single brief story, “Purple Swans”, Russia is plunged into an existential disaster after all of the uranium in its nuclear warheads turns to sugar. The implication: Russian energy is only a Potemkin village.
Perhaps, Sorokin suggests, Putin doesn’t even aspire to victory in Ukraine. He repeats Salvador Dalí’s well-known line about Hitler unleashing the second world struggle “to not win, as most individuals suppose, however to lose”.
“Precisely as in Wagner’s operas, it has to finish for him, the hero, as tragically as potential,” Dalí’ wrote in 1944. “I feel Putin’s the identical,” Sorokin says.
Sorokin was born in 1955 in a village exterior Moscow. His literary reward got here to the fore at an early age: an erotic brief story he wrote when he was 14 turned an enormous hit amongst his college buddies. The story was known as “Apples” — “as a result of the lovers met in a queue for apples”.
It’s a theme that he explored in one among his earliest mature works, The Queue, a novel made up fully of scraps of dialogue, exclamations and profanities uttered by a bunch of Soviet residents standing in line, which was revealed in France in 1985 and distributed in his homeland in “samizdat” kind.
After learning engineering at an oil and gasoline institute in Moscow, Sorokin turned a e-book illustrator and designer and joined the capital’s nonconformist creative underground. He blended with a bunch of artists often known as the Conceptualists, who famously adopted the tropes of socialist realism to reveal its vacancy.
In 1975 Sorokin discovered himself within the studio of Erik Bulatov, one of many group’s most well-known proponents, famend for his large blue skies plastered over with empty communist slogans. It was a breakthrough for him. “It was like ozone — my head began spinning,” he says.
One other necessary affect was Ilya Kabakov, whose witty, absurdist installations about Soviet life (equivalent to “The Man Who Flew into Area from His Residence” from 1985) later introduced him enormous fame within the west. Sorokin says that visiting Kabakov’s studio “was like a drug journey”.
Sorokin started writing, and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 increasingly of his work started to be revealed in his homeland. However for eight years within the Nineteen Nineties, a time of financial disaster, social collapse and political upheaval, he revealed no new novels in any respect.
“You realise that literature simply lags behind the age you’re residing in, you may’t sustain with it,” he says. “It’s like making an attempt to write down a novel a few struggle whilst you’re residing in that struggle.”
Then in 1999 got here Blue Lard, which sealed his repute as one among Russia’s most wildly authentic novelists. The titular substance is excreted by clones of well-known Russian writers equivalent to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pasternak. Their writings — hilarious parodies of the unique authors — function prominently within the textual content.
The experiments in model continued with Oprichnik, which describes a high-tech future fused with feudal barbarity, written in a weird archaic language with hypermodern inflections. The e-book could be satirical, however its message is lethal severe: Russia’s persistent tendency to embrace autocratic rule.
“Everybody’s speaking in regards to the barbarities [Russia is committing in Ukraine], these medieval strategies of struggle,” Sorokin says. “It’s all as a result of the Russian state hasn’t actually modified because the Center Ages, the time of Ivan the Horrible.”
I carry up an thought he lately expressed, that Russia had made a deadly mistake by failing to bury the corpse of empire after the USSR collapsed, and it had now returned as a zombie. The present state of affairs, he says, is even worse: “Now we’ll need to bury the remainder too, the brand new Russian empire in addition to the Soviet one.”
As our plates are cleared, Sorokin checks his watch: he has a studying at Berlin’s Literaturhaus in a couple of hours and should put together.
In our remaining minutes, I carry up an interview a couple of years in the past through which he mentioned the Russia of now reminded him of the USSR in 1983, a time of stagnation and despair. Eight years later, the nation collapsed. Does that imply, I ask, that Russia faces related cataclysms?
Sorokin makes a daring prediction: Russia will lose the struggle with Ukraine, triggering “irreversible processes” that can in the end carry down the Putin regime. Consultants are already predicting the “worst financial disaster of the post-Soviet interval . . . We face hectic instances,” he says. “Something may occur.”
In the end, he says, the top may come as rapidly and dramatically because it did in 1917, the yr of the Bolshevik revolution. Sorokin quotes the illustrious Russian thinker Vasily Rozanov, who famous that in 1917, “Russia pale away in two days — three on the most”.
“There was no tsardom left, no church, no military, no working class,” Rozanov wrote. “What remained? Surprisingly, nothing in any respect. Simply the vile folks.”
Sorokin as soon as divided his time between his home close to Moscow and his flat in Berlin, saying he wanted to steadiness out the “order” of Germany with the “dysfunction” of Russia, and to expertise Moscow’s winter snow — “important” for a Russian author. I ask him if it is going to be painful to be lower off from his homeland.
“In fact it is going to be onerous — I’m related to Russia, not solely on the extent of language,” he says. However there’s a precedent for his exile, he says, name-checking the numerous Russians who ended up in Berlin within the Twenties, fleeing from or expelled by the Bolsheviks — the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Semyon Frank.
And as I settle our invoice, I’ve one final query for him. Russia’s struggle on Ukraine has prompted a name for a boycott of Russian artists. I ask if he’s nervous that he may change into collateral harm within the new tradition wars.
Sorokin turns into considerate. “It’s pure that tradition must pay for this carnage,” he says. The Germans, too, paid a worth after the second world struggle — “Plenty of folks mentioned they’d by no means learn Goethe once more.” However then time handed and so did anti-German sentiment.
“I feel Russian tradition will endure,” he says, as we shake arms and half. “It’s already a part of the world’s cultural heritage — it’s onerous to do with out it.”
Man Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
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