Leonard Cohen, Keanu Reeves, and a Canadian Woodpecker Go to Russia…
Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy (Bro, Ice, 23,000) (trans. Jamey Gambrell) (2008)
In general I try to get to the Canadian content as quickly as possible, but in the case of this long and complex trilogy, there’s really no way to talk about specific elements of the book without first providing some context. Hence the first two, Canada-free sections.
Okay, strap yourself in.
Originally, there was nothing but 23,000 rays of celestial light. By vibrating in primordial harmony with one another, these 23,000 rays of light created the entire universe. But then they made a mistake: Earth. Or more specifically, they accidentally created water on the surface of the Earth. By reflecting the 23,000 rays of light, the water captured them; the rays of light became trapped in tiny organisms living in the water and could not escape. And so, as the process of evolution took place over millennia on Earth, the rays of light were constantly reincarnated in various life forms, until ultimately they ended up trapped in the bodies of 23,000 humans. But none of these humans was aware that they held within themselves one of the 23,000 rays of light that had created the universe.
Got it so far? Good.
In 1908, the Tunguska Event occurred – that’s a fact. But in this novel the Tungus meteorite, which exploded over Siberia, was sent from space because it contained a chunk of celestial ice, which was destined to reawaken the 23,000 rays of light and remind them of their true purpose.
The first to be awakened is Bro, a directionless student living in Moscow who joins a scientific expedition to try to find the Tungus meteorite and instead discovers a chunk of primordial ice largely buried in the permafrost; when he slips and falls, hitting his chest on the ice, his heart is awakened and he understands that he is one of the 23,000 rays of light, and that his purpose is to find all the other people who have rays of light trapped inside them and awaken the light so that all 23,000 of them, working together, can destroy the Earth, free themselves from their human bodies and return to space where they will vibrate harmoniously in eternal happiness.
He quickly finds a woman who also has one of the rays of light trapped inside her; he awakens her heart, and she becomes Sister Fer. Together, Fer and Bro found what becomes known as The Brotherhood of the Light, and devote their lives to finding and awakening the hearts of the 23,000.
At this point, as you can probably see for yourself, some logistical problems begin to arise. For starters, how does one identify the specific 23,000 people who currently have rays of celestial light trapped inside them? The good news is that all Brothers and Sisters of the Light have blonde (or at least light-coloured – some turn out to be redheads) hair and blue eyes, so that disqualifies a large segment of the earth’s population right off the bat.
Still, it leaves a lot of potential Brothers and Sisters.
And then, the process of awakening a sleeping heart is rather laborious: each blonde, blue-eyed person must be tied up, stripped to the waist, and then struck repeatedly in the centre of the chest with an ice hammer, which is a piece of wood with a chunk of celestial ice tied to it using the skin of an animal that died a natural death. If the heart of the person struck does contain a ray of celestial light, the heart will awaken and speak its true name; that person then joins the Brotherhood of the Light. If the person is just a normal human, they either fall into unconsciousness or die.
The other issue is one of time. Obviously, it takes a long time to track down the 23,000 true Brothers and Sisters using this chest-hammering technique. And while the rays of celestial light are themselves immortal, their human bodies are not: when a Brother or Sister dies, the celestial ray leaves them and becomes reincarnated in a newborn, who must then be found and hammered by the Brotherhood in order to awaken that particular ray again.
Really it’s exhausting just thinking about it.
Bro and Ice tell the story of the founding and growth of the Brotherhood; in 23,000, a new conflict begins to develop as some regular humans, and particularly blonde, blue-eyed people who have been hammered and found not to contain rays of celestial light (“empties,” as they are called) begin to try to figure out why they were attacked and start investigating the Brotherhood. 23,000 eventually turns into a “race against time” plot that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action film, as Olga and Bjorn, two “empties,” rush to try to stop the final Great Circle in which the Brotherhood will destroy the Earth and regain their true nature as celestial light. At one point, they even attempt to escape from a building using that incredibly trite action movie cliche, the convenient air duct system.
The books that make up the Ice Trilogy – Bro, Ice and 23,000 – were originally published separately in Russia, but this NYRB edition (pictured above) collects them all in one volume. The title character of the first novel, Bro, is born in Russia in 1908, on the day the Tungus meteorite explodes above Siberia, and he lives through much of Russia’s turbulent 20th century. This book on its own is a remarkable portrait of one person’s delusion gradually taking over his life and the lives of people around him – I say “delusion,” but within the context of the novel “enlightenment” would perhaps be a better word, since we are never given an outside perspective on the events of this book. Bro narrates it in the first person, and as the novel proceeds you become more and more enmeshed in his point of view. Bro is what we might call a “cult founder,” not that different from other charismatic lunatics who have managed to win themselves a group of fanatical followers. The fact that large parts of the novel take place during the era of Stalin and Hitler, and that one of the Brotherhood’s techniques is to infiltrate existing power structures, including the Nazi party and the Soviet bureaucracy, offer obvious possibilities for satirical readings, and certainly the way the Brotherhood develops in parallel with these other ideologies is significant.
A similar pattern plays out in the later books: in Ice, which takes place mainly in the 1990s, the Brotherhood seems to have reorganized itself into a mafia-like organization; by the third book, it has become a corporation that manufactures video games, among other things. The rise of the Brotherhood to a position of power and influence in society, and its utter ruthlessness in pursuing its own goals, could be read as a commentary on any ideology or philosophy that uses ends to justify means.
The style of the books also seems to change, in keeping with the time period in which they are set. Bro is told in a very lyrical, elegant style, particularly in the first half or so. As Bro drifts further from humanity, the style becomes stranger, but also weirdly hypnotic: when he starts referring to regular humans as “meat machines,” for example, the initial reaction is one of alienation from his viewpoint; but as he repeats the term “meat machine” over and over, and starts to describe basic human behaviour in terms that would suit a visitor from another solar system, it all becomes weirdly compelling, and you start to feel as if you really are nothing more than a machine made out of meat.
The style of Ice is much choppier, using short declarative sentences and little imagery, and in 23,000 the style shifts again, towards something almost genre-based – by the end it reads like an outline for an action movie. No doubt read in Russian these differences would be more obvious, and perhaps recall particular eras and styles of Russian literature.
At Last, Canada
There are no references to Canada in Bro, but there are several in Ice. The opening sections of this novel follow three characters as they are kidnapped, Ice-hammered and then released by the Brotherhood, and the changes that take place in their lives as they at first try to deny the idea that they are members of the elect, but gradually come to accept it as their destiny. These first three references are not actually to Canada as a country, but rather to Canadian cultural figures.
Borenboim is a Moscow businessman; this scene describes how he is accosted as he comes home, just before he gets Ice-hammered:
Borenboim didn’t move. The butt of a silencer was pressed against his cheek. It smelled of gun oil.
“You didn’t get it? I’ll count to one.”
Borenboim pushed the door with his hand. He entered the dark foyer.
A hand in a brown glove extracted the key from the door. The man followed Borenboim in, immediately closing the door behind them.
“Turn on the light,” he ordered.
Borenboim groped for the wide button of the switch. He pressed it. The lights in the whole five-room apartment lit up at once. Music could be heard: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
“On your knees,” said the man, poking the gun between Borenboim’s shoulder blades. (285-6)
And when Borenboim comes home several days later, after he is released from the Brotherhood clinic that treats people when their hearts have first been awoken by the Ice Hammer:
Borenboim unlocked the door of his apartment. He entered and turned on the light.
The music started up: Leonard Cohen as usual. (309)
So clearly an appreciation for Leonard Cohen has reached Russia – which isn’t really surprising, as he is probably one of our better-known musicians, and one of the few who has a truly global reputation.
Another character, Lapin, is a young student living in Moscow. After he gets Ice-hammered, he turns to sex and drugs to try to escape the power of the realizations that his awakening heart is forcing on him. In this scene he is at the apartment of a friend who supplies him with heroin, and we find a reference to another Canadian cultural figure, though perhaps not someone we would automatically expect to be popular in Russia:
Lapin and Ilona lay naked in the overfilled tub. Ilona was sitting on Lapin and smoking. His penis was in her vagina. She moved slowly. In a state of semi-oblivion, Lapin opened and closed his eyes.
“But the main thing…is, I mean…He doesn’t understand anything about craft…the actor’s craft…” Ilona mumbled rapidly through dry lips. “Keanu Reeves is fabulous, too, I get off on him because he can do a love scene honestly, but he seems so hot and cool and all…and I really, you know…well I just don’t believe him…not even a smidgen…and I mean what the fuck should I pay money for if I don’t believe the actor, I mean, if there’s no belief…Oy, your balls are so hard!”
She moved sharply. Water splashed over the edge of the bathtub. (336)
Yes, the reputation of Keanu Reeves extends at least as far as Moscow. I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this, as both Leonard Cohen and Keanu Reeves have reached their global audiences through the American record industry and through Hollywood movies, respectively; they really represent the global reach of American entertainment, and there’s no reason to think their popularity is in any way connected to their being Canadian. The characters in the novel – and Sorokin himself – may not even be aware that they are Canadian.
A Canadian Woodpecker
By the end of Ice, the Brotherhood has transformed itself into The ICE Corporation. Among other things, they manufacture what seems to be a virtual reality/video game device: users strap it onto their bare chests and put on a helmet, and then a little hammer strikes them repeatedly with a small chunk of ice. An entire section of the novel is devoted to testimonials from users of this device, along the lines of what one might find in an advertising brochure. Essentially, as the hammering goes on, each user remembers a powerful dream from their childhood, begins to cry, and then is overwhelmed by a vision of spreading light.
This is from one of the testimonials:
I remembered how, in my childhood, when I lived in the provinces, a huge woodpecker inhabited a grove near us. No one had ever seen such an enormous woodpecker – neither Father nor the neighbours. Big and black, with white fuzzy claws and a white head. Everyone went to the grove to look at the huge woodpecker. Finally someone said that it was a Canadian woodpecker, that it wasn’t native to any part of Russia. Apparently the bird had flown out of the zoo or someone bought it and didn’t take care of it. He worked like clockwork, tapping incessantly. And so loudly, so resoundingly! I would wake up from his tapping. And I’d run out to watch him. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, he was busy with his own affairs. We got so used to the black woodpecker that we started calling him Stakhanov. And then one of the delinquents from the next street over killed the woodpecker with a stone. And hung him upside down from a tree. I cried so hard. Perhaps it was that very day that I became “green”… And suddenly, remembering the dead woodpecker and staring into the dark, I began to cry. (459)
What is remarkable about this Canadian woodpecker is, first of all, its size, and the fact that people come to look at it, and that it becomes a sort of neighbourhood celebrity with its own name, seems to suggest that it is much larger than any Russian woodpecker. The idea that Canada is a large country is one we have come across before, so the association of large size with a Canadian bird is not particularly unexpected; it does seem a little strange in Russia, however, which is also a geographically large country.
The second remarkable aspect of this woodpecker is how loud it is: we are told it taps constantly, and loudly enough to wake people up, and perhaps we are meant to infer that its violent death (at the hands of “delinquents”) is the result of people who are fed up with being unable to sleep due to its incessant pecking. In this the woodpecker seems rather un-Canadian: our reputation for politeness suggests that we are a quiet people who would not want to disturb others, so this offensively loud Canadian woodpecker is a bit of an outlier.
A Random Canadian Empty
There is one further reference to Canada, this time in the final novel, 23,000. Much of this book centres on Olga and Bjorn, two “empties” who, having survived the hammering, have begun to investigate the ICE Corporation to try to find out why they were attacked. They go to China to meet with a man who claims to have information about the ICE Corporation, but they are captured by the Brotherhood and taken to an underground prison factory. Here, “empties” who have come too close to discovering the secrets of the Brotherhood are kept in captivity, butchering the dead dogs whose skin will be used to make the ice hammers. (I don’t make it up, I just report it.)
This reference is to an unnamed Canadian who is among the prisoners with illnesses serious enough that they are taken out of the factory and executed:
Yesterday there had been an obligatory monthly medical checkup, the goal of which was to detect the seriously ill. As a rule, their fate was decided quickly – a few days later the guards would lead them away forever. In the bunker slang this was called “the ascension.” Olga had witnessed three such “ascensions”: an Irishman who had gone mad, a Hungarian woman who had slashed her veins open, and a Canadian with a serious form of asthma. (652)
This unnamed Canadian is what we might call an “ornamental Canadian.” The idea behind the whole novel is that the 23,000 Brothers and Sisters of the Light are scattered all over the world, but in fact the narrative takes place almost entirely in Russia, with some parts in Germany and China and a little bit in New York. So the reference to the Canadian here is of a piece with the other nationalities referenced in this passage and a few mentions of people in other countries scattered throughout the novel: it is essentially lip service to the idea that Brothers and Sisters can be found anywhere, though in fact almost all the characters are Russian. The Canadian here is cosmetic in the sense that he or she is not an actual character, but is just named by nationality as if to check off a box: yes, the Brotherhood has searched for Brothers and Sisters in Canada as well.
And yet it seems essential that a book titled Ice Trilogy must at least mention of Canada, doesn’t it? I would have been offended if it hadn’t.
And Now, Some Music
Although “Suzanne” is the Leonard Cohen song that’s mentioned in the book, it seems almost trite, somehow, to post it here, since pretty much everyone in the world already knows it. I’ll post a favourite of mine instead, from the same album as “Suzanne”:
And just in case you’re up for a slightly bizarre Leonard Cohen experience, here’s Beck’s Record Club doing a sort of hip-hop-influenced version of “Master Song”:
Here’s the original for comparison:
And since it seems slightly less cliche, here’s a live version of “Suzanne” by Nina Simone – it takes a couple of minutes to really get going, but it’s worth sticking around:
Oh, fine, here’s the original “Suzanne” as well; this is presumably what plays when Borenboim turns on the lights in his apartment:
And that’s enough.