Some in Russia have campaigned against the violence and obscenity in his work. The government even tried to prosecute him for it. Did that aspect of his writing bother you?
Not all of his books are quite like that, but the majority are. If I hadn’t already known him, in a general social context among artists, I might not have agreed to it, but he’s so unlike his books. He’s a very soft-spoken and mild-mannered individual. Otherwise, it would have been scary to translate them. Even something like “A Month in Dachau”—after a while it was a matter of what to do with the language, because the language was torture, too. It’s like Verlaine said about what he wanted to do with the French language: “Take eloquence and wring its neck”—break the language, which is particularly pertinent in French, because French is so pretty. Tsvetaeva wrote about some of Rilke’s last poems that French is the most ungrateful of languages for a poet, meaning that the language—its sounds, its nature—overwhelms in poetry. It’s a force, in and of itself, that the poet probably has little traction against. I really think she was right; it’s very overwhelming.
Russian, on the other hand, isn’t. Like English, it’s very difficult to find something that distorts or changes. It’s very difficult to shock in English with language. Not that that was Sorokin’s intention, just to shock. If you look at him in a sense as an abstract painter, where the paint on the canvas is what the painting is about—how the paint is applied, how the strokes are used—there’s no message in a way. Painting is about painting. Words on a page are about words on a page. I think that dehumanizing, really extreme violence that takes place in some of the novels is partly an attempt to do the same thing. At a certain point the brotherhood of the twenty-three thousand stop being able to read letters on a page; it just becomes black ink moving around, and words don’t have any meaning. They also can’t see faces; there’s no individuality. So I think, in an American context, you might call him a modernist, plain and simple.