2021 Book Reviews VI
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
Having read a handful of Russian classics, then a couple of Russian novels from the 70s, I decided I ought to try and read some contemporary Russian literature, and Day of the Oprichnik was an obvious choice. It was a good one too - this book was insane.
In terms of its premise, it was in many ways similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, the book I’d read previously, with both featuring familiar societies being replaced by religious authoritarianism where unspeakable atrocities are carried out by agents of the government “for the greater good”. The atrocities in Day of the Oprichnik really are unspeakable, and deeply upsetting, which I’m sure is their intended purpose. Much like Atwood’s novel, Sorokin’s serves as a clear warning; while his imagined cyberpunk version of Moscow in 2028 might be purely fictional, there are a paths that society could walk down that would bring the book’s events to bear.
While a lot of what Sorokin is warning against could be applied to most modern societies, it is also pretty clearly focused on Russia specifically, and as such I felt I lacked some important context for the book, both in terms of Russian sociopolitics and prior influences. Upon reading the lengthy analysis offered by its Wikipedia page, I felt like I would have “got it” a fair bit more had I previously read both One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and especially Behind the Thistle by Pyotr Krasnov. Futhermore, I am rather surprised this book wasn’t banned (especially given historical censorship of Russian literature), as even to my naive foreign sensibilities, the satirised Tsar bore plenty of resemblances to Putin - not to mention the all-male orgy that transpires.
I didn’t entirely feel like I was the intended audience for this novel, and it won’t go down as one of my favourite gems of Russian literature, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
This isn’t the kind of book I would normally by drawn to, but it was recommended to me by a friend and I’m grateful for that. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is thoroughly British, and I felt a certain amount of kinship with the titular protagonist, perhaps arrogantly. The book is excellently written and the Britishness of the whole thing felt soothing and comfortable to me, meaning I devoured it pretty quickly.
This book made me remember just how awful school was. Like really, truly, comedically awful, but for some reason a pre-university education is some kind of rite of passage that we all have to go through. It made me incredibly grateful that not only will I ever have to experience that as a whole again, but also that I will never repeat the majority of the bizarre rituals that comprised my schooling on their own either. It also made me think about death a lot, appropriately not that long after I wrote about it, and reminded me that I hadn’t thought about the idea of a noble, graceful, dignified death in a long time. While it’s hard to construe the book as not being an advert for euthanasia, it does go some way to examining the moral quandaries involved therein, particularly when euthanasia is illegal in whatever country you might happen to be in. I don’t know if I necessarily came to any conclusions about that before the story ended, but then again I suppose that is the point; it is not the kind of topic one can mull over for an afternoon before drawing a firm conclusion on.
All in all, a moving, funny, compassionate book which I adored.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A lot is made of Kurt Vonnegut’s contributions to the literary canon in The Universe Versus Alex Woods, so upon finishing it I decided it was high time to finally get round to actually reading some of Vonnegut’s work. For some reason I couldn’t find a Kindle version of Cat’s Cradle, leaving Slaughterhouse-Five as the obvious choice to myself, the novice Vonnegut reader.
It is difficult to know what to say about this book. In part it is always difficult to know what to say about books as popular as this one, as so much has already been said, and I’m acutely aware that I have neither any kind of original burning insight nor hot takes to offer. It is also difficult to know what to say about this book due to its nature. I could label it “depressing” or “brutal” or “bleak” or any number of similarly brutalist adjectives, but I can’t think of any that would adequately describe me feelings about Slaughtherhouse-Five. I read the whole thing in a single sitting, and for the book to have captured so much, with such brevity, is incredible.
This book is indeed depressing and brutal and bleak. It is eye-opening, thought-provoking, upsetting and deeply, deeply uncomfortable. It is also unquestionably a masterpiece.