Almost half a century ago, in 1966, a book was published unofficially via samizdat in the Soviet Russia. A book that both terrified and dazzled the literary establishment. This was Yuri Mamleev’s novel, Shatuny.
If comparisons could be drawn in terms of its shocking value, Shatuny is a Russian equivalent of A Clock Work Orange, only darker and more insane, full of philosophy, esotericism and spiritualism.
Over the years, the novel became a cult classic, and Russia produced Mamleev’s literary followers like Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin who continued exploring the limits of mankind and the dark side of humanity.
Only a few extracts were published in the West in the 80s and the critics were overwhelmed with its power and darkness. At the time it was suggested that mankind wasn’t ready for such a book and it’s only now that the first complete translation ever has appeared thanks to the Haute Culture Books edition.
Soon you will all be able to make your own opinion about this astonishing, dark and unforgettable book. For now, I will share with you my very subjective view of the novel.
In The Sublimes our world is a realm of death. The story is set in the 60s in the Soviet Union. The characters are trying to grasp the big questions of ‘being’, existence, of human nature and human soul, through death, to reach the higher ‘metaphysical’ status, to defy mortality.
The main character, Sonnov (in Russian his name means sleepy, dreamy) perceives the world around himself as an illusion. He kills strangers for a particular reason, unclear to anyone including himself: it is something to do with death and its connection to reality and his soul. Many conversations in this book are attempts to explain or perhaps even rationalize Sonnov’s reasons and view of the world.
He has philosophical conversations with his dead victims as a bona fide psychopath. He is not educated and his quest comes from his inner irrational urges, which he can’t explain, it is not a result of a thought-through personal doctrine.
His ’educated’ twin in the story is called Anatoly Padov (in Russian his surname means ‘falling’). Padov and his other ’metaphysical’ friends from Moscow uses evil, act or thought, as a mean to overcome human limits. Padov is fascinated with Sonnov and goes to meet him to find out whether Sonnov kills people ’metaphysically’ or physically (in reality).
The novel presents the lore of such monstrous characters indulging in the extreme sexual perversions, violence and never-ending intellectual quest into the higher metaphysical state.
The educated ‘I-meta-physicists’ and simple people like Sonnov are united by their fascination with death. To me, it’s their way to escape from meaninglessness of life.
Mamleev writes in The Sublimes, ’Life is, in itself, a retribution.’
Sonnov finds that he won’t get anywhere by killing commoners, who are just ‘the living dead’ anyway. So he decides to target the ‘I-meta-physicists.’ As if their death could be the way to extract a new metaphysical knowledge, a higher meaning…
There is so much evil and madness in the book, that one has to shut down one’s emotions to grasp the story and scrutinize Mamleev’s themes. The total freedom the characters in the book mean to reach through evil and death is terrifying. And to me it’s not freedom, because one can never be free from oneself and from all that information that goes through our minds. To me, it’s just a different state of mind, however twisted it may be considered. And there is no reason to think that it can allow for more understanding of our world and us.
The Sublimes is about to find its daring and fearless English-speaking reader. This book will change your perception of the human nature. This is literature in its boldest, art in its pure sense, – uncompromising and limitless.
Further reading: In this blog post I’ve only touched the tip of this literary iceberg. Here‘s another recent blog post about this fascinating book. Also you may find curious the analysis of The Sublimes in Alexander Etkind’s essay. Finally, there is an intriguing article on Mamleev’s writing by Evgeni Gorny.