Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2014

The Queue, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Sally Laird

I discovered The Queue last year in 2012 when it was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.   It took my attention straight away because I had recently read The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin, and it explores the same phenomenon: the Soviet-era queue for consumer goods.

The Queue however, is more innovative and challenging in style than The Concert Ticket. Sorokin’s novel consists entirely of fragments of conversation.  There is no narrator, and it is up to the reader to find out for herself that the setting is somewhere in the suburbs of Moscow in the 1970s (dated by pop music references, i.e. the Beatles and the Stones).  Even more confusing is that the reader has to work out who the characters are from dialogue like this:

– Volodya, do you want a tomato?
– It’s warm, Mum …
– What’s wrong, didn’t you have enough to drink?
– Yes, Mum, can I go over there and play?
– Where?  There are cars there.
– No, over there.
– Alright, off you go, only not too far!
– You’ve got pretty hair …
– Leave off!
– Seriously.  Flaxen hair.  Debussy wrote a prelude, you know.  That’s what it’s called.  The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.
It wasn’t about me.
– It was about you … about you … so soft …
– Vadim … what are you up to … really, not here …
– Should we sit over there a while?
– Okay.
– We’re just going off for a moment, is that alright?
– Go ahead.
– You don’t have the time, do you?
– Quarter to five.
– How time flies.
– Always toing and froing.  They can’t stand still.
– There we are – he barks for a while and off he goes.  Doesn’t do much to keep order.
– There’s another pair up at the counter.
– Who the hell let that lot in?  We should’ve all said no and had done with them.
– Easier said than done.
– Right. I was after you.            (p. 26-7)

As Sally Laird says in her introduction, at first these endless fragments seem like ‘noise’, but after a while the reader picks up the threads.   Volodya is a small boy exasperating his mother; and Vadim is a would-be journalist trying to chat up Lena (who has no time for his line about Debussy).  There are intrusions pushing into the queue from people with contacts, and ineffectual attempts to keep order – which contrast remarkably with the roll call which runs from page 123 to page 156, with the supervisor calling out names and removing those who’ve given up and gone home.  (He has earlier walked up and down the line assigning numbers and recording their names).

– Danilina!
– Yes!
– Makhotkin!
– Yes!
– Dostigaeva! … crossed off …
– I’m here, I’m here!
– Well why don’t you listen then! Just like kids … Averchenko! Yes! (p. 154)

I was most interested to read the Afterword by Sorokin himself, in which he explains more about the phenomenon of the queue.  Writing after the fall of Communism, he says that the queue wasn’t just the intolerable manifestation of Soviet incompetence that we in the West assume it was.  The ordeal of the free market turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag because of the collapse of all the old Soviet securities: free education and medical care, the absence of unemployment, the irrelevance of money, and finally, an entire system of distribution. (p. 254) The queue was transformed into the crowd, and the end of the ritual that rewarded patience and obedience with food and goods signalled the end of the power of the collective.   Everybody knew the rules with the queue: they may not have known what they were queuing for nor how long it might take, but they knew their number in the queue (because it was usually written on the hand); order was periodically restored with roll calls and elimination of anyone who abandoned the quest; the hierarchy was fair (those behind obeyed those in front because they got there first) and the quantity of goods eventually received was decided collectively (as we see when the queue supports a girl who wants to buy more than the regulated amount.  Sorokin, BTW, is not a nostalgic Communist: he was a dissident during the Soviet era, and while he was a cult figure in the underground, his books were banned.

According to Laird, The Queue (Sorokin’s debut novel) is an exception to his usual dark themes: his post-Soviet writing juxtaposes entrapment in a society steeped in violence, brutality, hypocrisy, and sham … with … a search for salvation.  But The Queue has a happy ending.  Vadim has more luck with another young lady, and *no spoilers* may perhaps make his purchase too.  The tone is generally light-hearted and although there is cynicism, a sleazebag bragging about his conquests, and drunkenness, there is also good humour, cooperation and trust.

I really like contemporary Russian literature.  Their tumultuous history forms a fascinating background for western readers and the Russian authors that I have read seem to have such a firm grip on the things that really matter in life.

PS The NYRB edition is horrible.  Okay, it’s great that they publish books like this in translation, but the quality of the cover is awful.  It feels slippery in the hand, and it curls alarmingly without any provocation.  It feels cheap and nasty, which is not what a book like this deserves.

Author: Vladimir Sorokin
Title: The Queue
Translated by Sally Laird
Publisher: New York Review of Books, 2008, first published 1983
ISBN: 9781590172742
Source: Personal library

Availability
Fishpond: The Queue


Responses

  1. […] which often ran out before the queue did.  (See my review of Vladimir Sorokin’s sly satire The Queue, published  in 1985 as Gorbachev came to power).  But what Alexievich does is to put a human face […]


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