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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Vladimir Sorokin

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Ice

Title: Ice
Author: Vladimir Sorokin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 321 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: in the Ice Trilogy - US
in the Ice Trilogy - UK
in the Ice Trilogy - Canada
Ice - India
La glace - France
Ljod - Deutschland
Ghiaccio - Italia
El hielo - España
  • Russian title: Лёд
  • Translated by Jamey Gambrell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : oddly compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 19/1/2007 Troy Patterson
FAZ . 14/8/2002 Kerstin Holm
FAZ . 7/10/2003 Richard Kämmerlings
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 7/10/2003 Karl-Markus Gauß
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/9/2007 Christian Caryl
The NY Sun D 31/1/2007 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/4/2007 Ken Kalfus
The Southern Review . Spring/2007 Todd Shy
Die Welt . 9/8/2003 Guido Graf
World Lit. Today . 10-12/2003 Tatiana Nazarenko
Die Zeit . 16/10/2003 Jochen Jung

  Review Consensus:

  Very mixed opinions.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sorokin's inventively sliced plot doesn't make room for a proper climax, but the particulars of his pulp allegory are eerie enough to chill." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Unter den gegenwärtigen kapitalistischen Verhältnissen hungert auch die himmlische Substanz nach Investitionen und wird in eine Aktiengesellschaft mit westlicher Beteiligung umgewandelt. Die Frucht der friedlich kommerziellen Erschließung ist ein eisbetriebener Erlebnisapparat, der ohne gesundheitliche Risiken die Erfahrungen von Allmitleid, Allverbundenheit und Erleuchtung den normalen Menschen zugänglich macht." - Kerstin Holm, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Diese Geschichte, die einerseits die Wurzeln aus den gewalttätigen Utopien des letzten Jahrhunderts zieht, andererseits die in Rußland populären Heilslehren und Verschwörungstheorien zu persiflieren scheint, wird von Sorokin ganz ernst und unironisch erzählt, ohne den bekannten Griff ins Register des grotesken Slapsticks." - Richard Kämmerlings, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Those readers (and reviewers) who turn to literature for consolation, or moral enlightenment, or lessons in self-esteem, are well advised to look elsewhere. But Sorokin's novel does exercise a monstrous fascination, in ways not unlike those described in his essay on the pinnacle of Stalinist cinematic art. In the last two sections of Ice, which are much shorter than the previous ones, Sorokin pulls the carpet out from under us again. (…) (F)or all its twists and provocations (….) almost hypnotically readable" - Christian Caryl, The New York Review of Books

  • "Although beautifully published with a muted Gerhard Richter iceberg on its cover, the novel within runs like a cheap action movie. (…) Mr. Sorokin's terse -- icy -- prose will carry the reader a long way, though the immediate action of the novel discourages. (…) Advertised as a major novel from Russia, Ice seems either lame or impenetrable" - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "The cosmology behind this novel is absurd, of course, but Ice lacks some of the elements that we associate with absurdist writing: humor, non sequiturs, a correlation with reality that reveals the real world’s ludicrous particulars. The glib thing would be to declare Ice a spoof of Russia’s recent totalitarian past, or of totalitarianism or ideology or religion in general, but Sorokin’s ice cult hardly resonates with anything historical. Ice is much less a satire than a single monstrous vision: human beings are no more than "meat machines," a race unable to communicate on a truly intimate scale and unworthy of continued existence. Purity lies in a universe without thought or language. In his frigid antihumanism, Sorokin parts company with Russian satirists like Gogol, Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha and, more recently, Viktor Pelevin. (...) But even with help from a sensitive translator, American readers taking a whack at the novel with their own ice hammers may have trouble finding its heart, and even more trouble getting it to speak." - Ken Kalfus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Throughout the long first section of the novel, Sorokin's lumbering style reinforces the ice devotees' critique of a world without heart. The writing itself is wooden and fragmented. (...) The obvious irony that sustains the book is that ice functions for the cult as a medium of vitality. The novel itself, though, is cool and detached, and ultimately our sympathy has nowhere to rest. The absurdity grows tiresome, even if the story reminds us that Utopias always do." - Todd Shy, The Southern Review

  • "Wo das Irrationale, so böse und gewalttätig es auch sein mag, marktkonform geworden ist wie in der russischen Gesellschaft dieses Romans, musste Sorokin nicht mehr über Totalitarismus schreiben." - Guido Graf, Die Welt

  • "Although Sorokin's text is free from nauseating descriptions and incongruous bloody episodes, it still contains the blunt graphic scenes and coarse language of his earlier work. (…) What makes Sorokin's text more than just a successful thriller is its sophisticated and skilful deconstruction of a utopian project of human transformation, one of the most central, consecrating, and all-exculpatory mythologemes in the canons of socialist realism. (…) Reconstructing the fundamentals of the mythmaking process, Sorokin parodies the technique. The writer employs various narrative techniques and language stylizations that question the validity of the constructed mythologeme and undermine it from within. (…) This is an important novel, which should be translated into English so that readers unfamiliar with the Russian language can appreciate Sorokin's skilful intrigue, plot structure, and challenging discourse." - Tatiana Nazarenko, World Literature Today

  • "Vladimir Sorokin ist ja ein guter Handwerker, und das mit den verschiedensten Mitteln zu zeigen war ihm schon immer ein Vergnügen. Wie alle Handwerker aber neigt er, um Charakter in seinen Text zu bringen, zu enervierenden Übertreibungen. Die Sprache ist immer geliehen, nie eigen, was sich auch nicht ändern würde, wenn man es als Absicht erklärte." - Jochen Jung, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ice is a strange four-part novel. The central premise involves a group of blue-eyed and fair-haired chosen people; the way to determine whether someone is a member of the tribe is by smashing them on the chest with a sort of sledgehammer which has a piece of ice for its head: the chosen ones' hearts will 'speak' when this is done, revealing their true names (meanwhile regular mortals will painfully expire under the repeated blows ...).
       The book begins with several cases of people who get 'awakened' in this way in modern Russia, from the terrifying and confusing initial assault to the after-effects, as they find themselves well taken care of (and with a new-found ability to hear or feel -- and 'speak' -- with their hearts). Despite the welcoming embrace of the tribe once they've found their true names, most initiates find themselves overwhelmed -- and bolt. "Why do they all run away at first ?" one man asks -- but admits: "I did too." The crying jags probably don't help them feel much better about what's happened to them either, at least at first, as they all experience the "weeping of the heart", crying themselves (and all their sins) out.
       What feels at first like a crime novel shifts into a fantasy about what sounds like some bizarre cult. For half the book -- the long first part -- Sorokin slowly teases out information, describing the experiences of a variety of characters but still shrouding much of it in mystery. The relentless beating on chests and listening for the hearts to speak can get to be a bit much -- especially since it sounds like such a nutty idea. But in the second part Sorokin goes back in time and provides more history and background.
       It's a radical and, at first, disorienting jump. The narrative becomes a first-person account, and begins at the start of World War II in a small Russian village. Varya is twelve when the war begins, and her town is soon occupied by the Germans. The Germans also take her and many others with them as they retreat. Varya doesn't understand what is happening, but -- blue-eyed and fair-haired -- she is mustered out and, eventually, subjected to the ice-blows. She is, of course, also one of the chosen ones -- Khram is the name her heart reveals -- and it turns out she is special, even as far as the chosen ones go.
       As a fellow chosen one explains to her:

"(W)e aren't like everyone else. We know how to speak not only with our mouths but with our hearts. Other humans speak only with the mouth. Their hearts will never speak."
     "Why ?"
     "Because they are living corpses. The absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead. They are born dead, they marry dead, they give birth to the dead, and die; their dead children give birth birth to new dead -- and so on, from century to century. That is the circle of their dead lives. There is no way out. But we are alive, we are the chosen. We know what the language of the heart is, the language we have already spoken to you. And we know what love is. Genuine Diving Love."
       Yes, like all religions, it's a phenomenally silly idea, suggesting that there is only one truth -- and, naturally, that these select few are onto it. No doubt this summary dismissal of everyone else on earth as already dead -- i.e. worthless and negligible, even though they constitute the vast majority of mankind -- means readers are supposed to take these nuts as some sort of stand-in for some organised form of power, making the book a commentary on the misguided absolutism of the Soviet Communists or Pol Pot or the Catholic Church (all of which had, at one time or another, their own tests for the true believers that were similarly arbitrary and absurd as the ice-hammer concept is -- think Inquisition, etc.) or whatever.
       With their blue-eyed and fair-haired mandate (and all the historical weight that brings with it ...) many don't even meet the minimum requirements and can be dismissed out of hand. Still, that leaves the problem of recognising who the chosen ones are, and the technique of kidnapping every likely candidates and bashing their chest in also has its limitations. But Sorokin has some fun in describing how people are found (and, occasionally lost -- though conveniently the demise of a chosen one just means his or her ... chosenness gets transferred elsewhere) and in setting much of it in the Soviet Union gets to mix in local politics as well.
       The magic potion that helps determine who is okay, the divining rod, is also something special: not ice, but ICE, and though there's an adequate supply there are some issues regarding getting at it, as well as getting it to all the places where people need to be tested. Sorokin introduces what might be considered a science-fiction element into the novel with this explanation of what the ICE is and where it comes from and its supposedly special properties, but it's not far removed from weeping Madonna-statues and visions of the Virgin Mary. Yes, the true believers are convinced, and make a proper show of it -- but ultimately it's just a fancy variation on being born again or seeing the light or similar nonsense.
       Going around smashing people on the chest only gets you so far, and given that there are only 23,000 of them ("No more and no fewer" -- yes, it's a special club with limited membership ...), scattered around the globe, it's hard to find them all with this technique. In the short third part of the novel Sorokin masters that too, in an amusing chapter showing how they get around that, and the reactions to their ingenious solution (which involves essentially a home-testing kit that people are tricked into using, as ICE also becomes commercialised). The final, shortest part of the novel doesn't tie things together, but offers one final, different variation on the themes.
       What to make of the novel ? Is it pure allegory ? A political or religious statement ? A science fiction entertainment ? Who knows. Ice remains mystifying and often frustrating. Yet despite that, and despite the numbing repetitiveness of the ice-experiments, and despite the ridiculous premise there's much that is compelling here. In varying styles and approaches Sorokin paints some vivid scenes, tells some good stories, and presents some engaging characters (especially in their reactions to being 'awakened'). It doesn't really seem to fit together -- Sorokin's canvas seems both too broad and too narrow -- but it somehow works. More or less.
       Ice threatens occasionally to become dulling, but Sorokin always turns it around and throws something new at the reader. It doesn't add up to quite enough, but even as it remains puzzling it's intriguing and appealing enough.

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Ice: Reviews: Vladimir Sorokin: Other books by Vladimir Sorokin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Vladimir Sorokin (Владимир Сорокин) was born in 1955.

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© 2007-2022 the complete review

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