The Oprichniks were Ivan the Terrible's thugs, a decadent team of raping and torturing servicemen charged with policing interior threats, especially those posed by the nobility.
Vladimir Sorokin has resurrected them in Day of the Oprichnik. As Solzhenitsyn chronicled a day in the life of Gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich, Sorokin's novel follows Komiaga, a high-ranking Oprichnik, through his day-to-day routine in a near-future Russia, where Oprichniks serve a deified emperor.
The Oprichniks are a charming bunch. They wear golden bell-shaped earrings, smoke Motherland cigarettes, have special seals implanted in their arms for stamping official documents - the seal can only be taken from them by taking the arm. From those seeking their help and influence, they extort small golden fish, which swim through their bloodstreams and into their brains, causing euphoric collective hallucinations.
Every day they mount new dogs' heads on the hoods of their red Mercedovs. Komiaga's attendant presents him the pick of the day in question - "a shaggy wolfhound, eyes rolled back, tongue touched with hoarfrost, strong yellow teeth" - for his approval. And it will do.
Early on, the Oprichniks take down a nobleman and then commence the obligatory gang rape of his wife. As Komiaga takes his turn, justifying and celebrating the rape, Sorokin effects a literary orgasm: "Without this work, a raid is like a stallion without a rider … without reins … a white stallion, white knight, white stallion … beautiful … brilliant … bewitched stallion … a tender stallion-galleon … a sugar-sweet stallion with no rider … no reins …" and on and on until, satiated, he declares: "How sweet to leave one's own seed in the womb of the wife of an enemy of the state. Sweeter than cutting off the heads of the enemies themselves."
Sorokin has fun with this stuff. Maybe that's his strength and his weakness.
Certainly, it's made him the enfant terrible of contemporary Russian literature. He most notoriously had fun with a scene from his novel Blue Lard, in which a clone of Khrushchev buggers a clone of Stalin, and which led to his being charged with distributing pornography.
During that period, one of the favourite pastimes of several pro-Kremlin youth groups was the burning of books by Sorokin and fellow literary raconteur Victor Pelevin.
Maybe it comes as no surprise, then, that one of the primary techniques of the Oprichniks, in their quest "to keep order and exterminate rebellion," is the policing of literary works.
And like many book-burners, Komiaga fancies himself a capable critic and poet all in one: "I disagree in principle with the cynic [Russian poet Osip] Mandelstam - the authorities are in no way 'repellent, like the hands of a beard-cutter.' They're lovely and appealing, like the womb of a virgin needleworker embroidering gold-threaded fancywork."
Defending himself against pornography charges in 2002, Sorokin explained, "The pornographer aims to help the reader achieve an erection but the writer's task is to provide the reader with aesthetic pleasure." There is plenty of aesthetic pleasure here - and womb references! - to go around.
What's alluring about it all is the fondness Sorokin seems to have for Komiaga as a savage dimwit, and the endless ridicule to which he subjects him. Komiaga personally enacts all the evils inherent in the political leadership of modern-day Russia, from the big (suppressing the media and the opposition) to the small (calling ahead to a traffic cop on his mobilov to clear one of the notorious Moscow traffic jams so that the powerful can slip through).
In the penultimate scene, in which the Oprichniks attach themselves to one another in a hierarchical caterpillar chain of anal sex, the book gives way to gratuitous farce. Sorokin is not one for nuance. It's so much fun it's laughable.
Jeff Parker is the author of The Taste of Penny and co-editor of Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.