I love this book. It is deeply strange and funny and tragic.
You start off thinking you're reading something old-timey, à la Bulgakov. It's charming, but affected — of another era. But it's so not that.
Platon Ilich Garin is a doctor on a mission to carry a vaccine to a remote village, where an epidemic is wreaking havoc (and it's not the sort of epidemic you might expect). Garin's trying to negotiate fresh horses with the stationmaster but there are none he may be stuck there, till someone remembers Crouper, who didn't do the bread delivery so he might be available. And he has a sled, with fifty horses under the hood; the hood basically a tarp, and the horses are miniature, the size of partridges. (Other technology gets mentioned that jars you out of the mistaken belief that this is ninetennth-century Russia; this is not the world that you know.)
So the doctor and the sled driver set out.
And they encounter delay after obstacle after obstacle after delay. The blizzard itself has them moving slow, cold, blind, often in circles. There are literal obstacles, buried under the snow, like the mysterious transparent pyramid, the size of a hat, hard as steel.
"I said, where's the village?!" the doctor shouted in a voice filled with hatred, for the storm, the cemetery, and that idiot birdbrain Crouper who had led him who knows where. He was angry at his wet toes freezing in his boots; at his heavy, fur-lined, snow-covered coat; at the ridiculous painted sled with its idiotic midget horses inside that idiotic plywood hood; at the blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia, which no decent Russian person had any need for at all; at that scientific, pontificating crook Zilberstein, who cared only about his own career and had left earlier on the mail horses without a thought for his colleague, Dr. Garin; at the endless road surrounded by drowsy snowdrifts; at the snakelike, snowy wind whipping ominously above them; at the hopeless gray sky, tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman, which kept sowing, sowing, and sowing these accursed snowflakes.There are Vitaminders. They have a Mongolian-wise-man feel about them, but more than likely they are merely corporate pharmaceutical kingpins, of the crooked variety, whatever they might be doing in the middle of nowhere.
There's a fantastic 8-page drug trip, where Garin understands everything but retains nothing; he's reduced to tears and a state of infancy (but not innocence). I mean, fucking Vitaminders. With product! It's weird.
Garin's nose — the size and the colour of it — is a recurring image; I wonder if this isn't meant to reference Gogol, though I'm not sufficiently well-read to explain the significance of it.
Tragically, Garin himself is often the reason for the delay, and he never takes responsibility for that. He'd hoped to make it by nightfall, but days go by. And sadly, the novel ends before he reaches his destination, so we never learn how that epidemic turns out.
New York Times review (a bit spoilery).
[I'm thinking it's nigh time I return to Sorokin's Ice Trilogy.]