Thursday, 11 February 2010

'Comrades, who's last in the queue?'

The Queue
by Vladimir Sorokin

I was reading this as another of my preparatory reads. Olga Grushin, whose debut novel The Dream Life Of Sukhanov I absolutely loved will be following that with a novel called The Concert Ticket which taps into a cultural phenomenon peculiar to Soviet Russia: the queue. Sorokin's own debut novel originally published in 1983 and translated into English in 1988 looks at the same thing. Sorokin is now one of Russia's most popular novelists but it wasn't always that way. Under Soviet rule his writing was banned and it was only due to emigre dissident Andrei Sinyavski that The Queue was initially published in France. With the end of Soviet rule came the publication of Sorokin's Collected Stories and a nomination for the Russian Booker. It seems that he aims to retain his underground credentials however with his writing regularly including sex, violence, rape, incest, cannibalism and coprophilia. He even managed to spark public demonstrations with his novel Blue Lard and its sex scene between clones of Stalin and Kruschev. With all of that, The Queue feels rather quaint. For all its post-modern structure, with the entire text presented in non-attributed speech, it is a novel which is almost affectionate about its setting and even includes a happy ending for its hero. But we'll get there in a moment.

In his informative Afterword Sorokin traces the history and significance of the queue through Russian history, even connecting it with the birth of the 'collective body' that would eventually build in the rising towards revolution. In the late 70's, the Soviet 'years of stagnation', the queue was all about getting your hands on whatever was available. As booths sprang up, the queues would form and from those long lines Sorokin provides a soundscape of voices, indistinct at first, but slowly becoming more recognisable, articulating the opinions and concerns of the people. I mentioned a quaintness, which is a bit unfair, Sorokin merely allows his characters enough rope to hang themselves with classic examples of rose-tinted remeniscence about even the most brutal of times.

-Those days, I remember, come the first of April, everything'd be cheaper reduction in prices, see.
-Nowadays it's the other way round - things get dearer all the time.
-That's it. Yet everyone complains about Stalin.
-That's all they know how to do in this country - complain.
-And yet he won the war, strengthened the country. And everything was cheaper. Meat was cheap. Vodka - three roubles. Even less.
-And there was order then.
-'Course there was. You'd be brought to court if you were twenty minutes late.
-Fifteen it was, I think.
-Twenty minutes. Once in the Urals, in springtime it was, my late wife ran
to work over the mountains, through the ice, so's not to be late for the factory. The bus had broken down, and she set off running. There you have it. Who'd go running to work these days?
-Funny to think of it, really.

The major concern for the queue is the queue itself of course. Who's last in line, who's pushing in, what's at the end of it, will there be any left? Amazingly, it takes days (one overnight section of sleep represented by 11 blank pages), with some people dropping out, monitors allocating numbers and taking roll calls to keep everything fair. In one section, where it is discovered that a woman has a barrel of kvass in a sidestreet the queue hatches an ingenious plan to sate their collective thirst.

-Off they run, and we just get to stand here. No, really. Everyone keeps going off, and we stand here like stumps.
-You're right. Why don't we go first, then you.
-You're young, you can hold on for a bit.
-That's not the point...
-Listen, maybe we can all go somehow?
-How d'you mean?
-Go in a big group.
-Then the people at the back'll start yelling...
-And won't let us back in...
-Come off it, sure they will. Still, it's a bit awkward...
-Look, comrades, how about shifting the whole queue over there?
-What d'you mean?
-Just shift it! It's just round the corner! If we bend the queue everyone can have a drink. That way ther's no fuss and we stay in the right order.
-Great idea! Here's somebody with a head on his shoulders! Comrades, let's move!

And so the entire line bends and shifts into a scene of revelry and optimism. Amongst the myriad voices there is a hero of sorts, young Vadim, a failed journalist who suffers setback after setback before meeting the alluring Lyuda and the happy finish I mentioned earlier. I mean that literally with Sorokin answering that age old question of how to represent a vigorous sex session with only speech.

An entertaining look at a now defunct feature of Russian life, I suspect that Sorokin's debut lacks the real bite of his later work but his queue shows clearly a people at the mercy of other forces beyond their control, whilst hinting at the potential within them for subversion and action.


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