Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin (5/5)

First published: 1983
Original title:
Ochered'

Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Sally Laird
Page count: 263


The back says: Over the last twenty-five years Vladimir Sorokin has established himself as a provocative and unignorable presence in contemporary Russian literature, and The Queue, his first novel, is now recognized as a modern classic. Sorokin’s brilliance – his formal daring, his keen eye and ear for the absurdities of life and language, his unequalled playfulness – is manifest in this sly comedy set during the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for... nobody knows quite what, but the rumours are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter – if something’s for sale, it’s time to queue up. The endless line of expectant, irritable, inquisitive, bored but never less than determined people has a life and a will of its own and Sorokin, in a tour de force, conveys that life entirely through the ebb and flow of conversation. We get to know his characters as they joke and curse, flirt, fight over position in line, make love or break up, slurp down ice cream and vodka, run errands, fill out crossword puzzles, fall asleep and stand attention again when morning comes around and the queue – which may be as long as a life and as wide as the world – exercises its hypnotic hold.
I say: I found out about this perfection of a novel when reading Russian Postmodernist Fiction by Nina Kolesnikoff (which is brilliant, but since I don’t review academic literature on this blog, just take my word for it) while writing an essay, and promptly decided to order it, because a novel constructed by only dialogue must be explored.

And this was amazing.
The synopsis above sums it all up nicely and there isn’t that much to add to it; people standing in a queue for something and talk to each other during the wait while getting up to all sorts or random madness. At first we have no idea who is who, but slowly we start to recognise their different voices – and in some cases, even their names – and when that realisation hits it brings the novel to a higher level. It’s also the unpredictability of the plot that I loved about this, because prior to reading I was asking myself how much could really happen while standing in a queue.

Of course, I was disregarding the fact that this was a queue in Russia.
More than just the humour and absurdity of the plot, the reason I think this is a masterpiece is due to the social commentary of the entire novel; not just what the characters are saying (which, in itself, is very critical) but more specifically the way that the government treats the citizens. They’re queuing for something, but don’t know what, and as time goes by they leave the main queue to queue up for food, drinks, and what have you. Constantly certain that they’re close to the goods they’re not even sure they want, other people are bussed in and allowed to get serviced before them – foreigners, perhaps Swedish – and while the police tell them to keep quiet and stop fussing.

It’s all very disheartening.
But that’s where the humour comes in. As a fan of terse wit, this was such a delight I was laughing out loud a lot. Sometimes because someone told an actual joke or said something funny, but mostly because it was all so bizarre I just couldn’t help but laugh.

The one thing I have an issue with (and others with me, I have come to understand) is the translator’s usage of British English slang. Now, I do prefer my English British, but some of the wording, like “here's our cuppa” and “don't fancy that” was just illogical and I do hope someone removes that for future readers.

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