The works of Vladimir Sorokin, born in Russia in 1955, have been banned by the USSR and later honored for their contributions to the country’s literature. Sorokin has written 15 novels since 1983 and has won both the People’s Booker Prize and the Andrei Bely Prize. His latest work is an avant-garde satire of Vladimir Putin’s Russia told in existential and psychological strokes. Coming to the story without much understanding of the country’s current sociopolitical state, as this reviewer did, makes reading novel a bit like hearing an inside joke explained; one can understand why it’s funny, but one can’t really laugh at it.

District doctor Garin has been assigned to the rural town of Dolgoye. He possesses the antidote to an epidemic that has turned the townspeople into zombies. Blocked by a severe winter storm that only seems to increase in intensity whenever he threatens to make any progress in his task, the doctor, aided by his rented sled driver, makes his way through the blizzard to bring salvation to a village of the dead.

As the doctor’s path is constantly blocked by storms, the character’s hesitation moves the story forward. This inversion of plot progress is a tip of the hat to other absurdist writers like Beckett and Ionesco; the story gains its momentum by making its characters wait. The distractions that keep the doctor away from his mission become compelling, like an interlude at the home of a Tom Thumb-like baker and his sturdy wife.

With only a cursory understanding of Russian politics, one must rely on broad strokes to understand the novel’s message. Some of this comes through in commentary on the abuse of power and on attitudes among different social classes, but without cultural context, the reader can only latch on to the book’s surrealist elements. For instance, Garin’s sled is pulled by a fleet of pigeon-sized birds, and the runners of his vehicle are broken by a mysterious pyramid which befuddles both passenger and rider. The object is revealed to be a drug to which the doctor is addicted, and under its influence he undergoes a nightmarish dream, only to wake up laughing.

American audiences may see this as essentially a zombie story, but anyone looking for a Walking Dead fix will be disappointed. The novel has more in common with Waiting for Godot (or a certain Simpson joke) than it does with any work indebted to George Romero. Context may not be necessary to appreciate The Blizzard. But without that context, the novel stands only as a curious and somewhat tedious story of a man trying and failing to do his job, in a world that is only vaguely like the present one.

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