Victor Pelevin – Faber & Faber, 2008
Towards the end of the film The Lives of Others, the dissident writer Georg Dreyman, who has out-lasted the Stasi and its state to find a comfortable perch in the new Germany, happens across his one-time persecutor from the DDR hierarchy. The impotent apparatchik can’t resist taunting Dreyman – he may now have the freedom to write whatever he likes, but is there anything left to write about?
However it may be for the Federal Republic, it’s unlikely that such a complaint would be made about post-Soviet Russia. Its people might well be longing for an era of political somnolence and economic prosperity that could offer little by way of material to Russia’s creative artists. But they have been fated to continue living in interesting times, and the least those artists can be expected to do is grant some minimal recompense by making full use of the bizarre and sinister vista which the imploded super-power now presents.
The new society at least has a better record than its predecessor when it comes to the persecution of novelists and poets (practitioners of journalism have found it to be an altogether more hazardous environment). Unfortunately, that tolerant attitude may simply betray a profound indifference – why lock them up when nobody reads what they write anyway? George Steiner once remarked that ‘Marxist-Leninism and the political regimes enacted in its name take literature seriously, indeed desperately so … in a communist society the poet is regarded as a figure central to the health of the body politic. Such regard is manifest in the very urgency with which the heretical artist is silenced or hounded to destruction.’ There is little such urgency in contemporary Russia – the ‘heretical artist’ is more likely to be hounded to starvation if her work has no impact on the literary market-place.
Victor Pelevin has previously described the harsh commercial imperatives bearing down on the once-pampered literary intelligentsia in his earlier work Babylon – its main character is a poet who is forced to earn his crust working for an advertising agency, bending his talent to the most artless of tasks. It’s pleasant to report that the writer himself is subject to no such exigencies: his novels have topped the Russian best-seller charts, suggesting that Pelevin’s caustically satirical view of post-Soviet reality finds favour with a broad audience.
He would doubtless be exasperated by the last sentence, with its casual assumption that any of us can know what reality is. The lengthy expositions of Buddhist philosophy to be found in this book (a recurring feature of Pelevin’s work) are intended to shatter that assumption. But the job is done just as well by the narrator A Hu-Li’s passing comment that one of the meanings assigned to the word ‘real’ by modern Russian vernacular is ‘having a dollar equivalent’. We are immediately told that ‘nowadays the dollar is an occult, mystical unit based entirely on the belief that tomorrow will be like today.’
With that metaphysical caveat in mind, the reader will soon discover that The Sacred Book of the Werewolf derides the optimistic view of Russia’s transition from Communism. At an early stage we are offered the reflections of Pavel Ivanovich, an elderly academic who has abandoned his faith in liberal capitalism and now pays A Hu-Li to thrash him: ‘He had assumed personal responsibility for all the woes of the motherland. In order to soothe his soul, he had to take a flogging once or twice a week from Young Russia, which he had condemned to poverty by forcing it to earn a living flogging old perverts instead of studying in university.’ A Hu-Li asks him to explain the difference between two terms she had considered synonyms – ‘intelligentsia’ and ‘intellectuals’. He is only too ready to oblige with an allegorical lesson:
‘When you were still very little, there were a hundred thousand people living in this city who were paid for kissing the ass of a loathsome red dragon … those hundred thousand people hated the dragon, and they dreamed of being ruled by the green toad who fought against the dragon. So, anyway, they came to an arrangement with the toad, poisoned the dragon with lipstick that they got from the CIA and started living a new life … at first they thought that under the toad they would be doing exactly the same as before, only they’d get ten times as much money for it. But it turned out that instead of a hundred thousand ass-kissers there was only a demand for three professionals working in three eight-hour shifts to give the toad a never-ending royal blowjob.’
The hundred thousand people, he concludes, were called the intelligentsia; the three residual fellators are called intellectuals.
It would be a mistake to attribute Pavel Ivanovich’s view to Pelevin with undue haste: quite apart from his sexual predilections, the scholar is a tiresome bore whose snobbery offends A Hu-Li almost as much as his crass misinterpretation of Nabokov. There is little quarter given to nostalgia for the ancien régime in these pages (at one point, a grim lavatory reminds our narrator of a Cheka detention centre in the Ukraine where ‘they used to hold people’s heads down over a toilet bowl like that when they executed them – to avoid getting blood on the floor’).
But A Hu-Li herself is every bit as scathing as the recipient of her brutal ministrations about the post-Communist system. In a letter to a friend, she explains that the Russian elite is now divided into two sections, ‘which are called ‘the oligarchy (derived from the words ‘oil’ and ‘gargle’) and ‘the apparat’ (from the phrase ‘upper rat’).’ The two fractions enjoy a symbiotic relationship: ‘The former allow the latter to steal because the latter allow the former to thieve … at the same time, there are no clear boundaries between these two branches of power – one merges smoothly into the other, forming a single immense, fat rat trying to swallow itself.’
You may be wondering how a woman old enough to have witnessed the Cheka in its hey-day could still make a living as a prostitute. But A Hu-Li is not a woman at all, strictly speaking: as we are soon informed, she is a were-fox, who may look like a seventeen-year-old girl but has really been on the go for thousands of years (she can’t remember exactly how long she has been alive, but we learn that the life expectancy for were-foxes is approximately forty thousand years).
Were-foxes, who are exclusively female, appear identical to women in almost every regard, except that they have a bushy red tail. The tail is not there for aesthetic effect: it allows the were-fox to induce the most refined hallucinations in human minds. A Hu-Li cannot describe the mechanics of this power for us with any precision:
‘Can a person who isn’t a scientist explain how he sees? Or hears? Or thinks? He sees with his eyes, hears with his ears and thinks with his head, and that’s all. Likewise we create illusions with our tails. It feels just as simple and clear to us as the other examples.’
When a large number of were-foxes put their tails to work simultaneously, the potency of the hallucination increases dramatically (the Battle of Waterloo is cited as an example). But usually an individual fox will concentrate her efforts on a single human male, extracting a little chunk of life-force from the latter every time while he imagines himself to be in ecstatic union with a beautiful and compliant woman. Foxes often target English aristocrats for such attentions, out of solidarity with their less exalted cousins.
Pelevin likes to place grand philosophical speculations in the mouths of his characters, and he has sometimes struggled to find a plausible reason to do so (a scene in The Clay Machine Gun where Russian mobsters discuss Nietzche springs to mind). From that perspective, A Hu-Li must be a perfect outlet for him, as her spectacular life-span makes the vast knowledge of literature and philosophy on which her narration draws eminently credible. A Hu-Li’s erudition is not based exclusively on book-learning – she casually mentions a sexual encounter with Dostoevsky when his work becomes a topic of conversation.
Although she has been dwelling in Russia for many generations, A Hu-Li remains anchored mentally in the China where she spent her formative years. This loyalty to ancient Chinese culture endures despite the trouble it has inadvertently caused her: her name, which pre-dates the Russian language, is now an obscene phrase in that tongue. Translator Andrew Bromfield has to give English-speaking readers a sense of the embarrassment this causes, suggesting that it is ‘something like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.’
The appearance of mythical creatures in an otherwise realistic portrait of Russian society will remind some of Mikhail Bulgakov. But the difference soon becomes apparent: in The Master and Margarita, Satan’s mischievous cat Behemoth picks a fight with the NKVD and runs rings around them. A Hu-Li finds herself entangled with the NKVD’s successor, the FSB, and expects that her tail will allow her to do the same. She is stunned to discover that the secret police has its own supernatural beasts on the pay-roll. And so begins her passionate affair with Alexander Sery, who is a patriot, an FSB officer and a were-wolf.
While A Hu-Li tends to contemplate the passions of the Russian people with detachment, Alexander is fully engaged with the motherland. He manifests a dour, post-Soviet patriotism that seems a perfect fit for Putin’s Russia. Hearing that a post-modern artist from Belarus has exhibited the hay-stack in which he spent four years hiding from his local police inspector, he accuses the man of plagiarism, recalling that Lenin famously concealed himself in the same manner on the eve of the Revolution. Alexander is even a partisan of the Orthodox Church, while recognising that its theology has him irredeemably ear-marked for damnation.
Even though she has spent thousands of years creating illusions of love and sex for the benefit of her human conquests, A Hu-Li has never experienced the real deal herself, and falls energetically in love with Alexander after their first, appropriately bestial encounter. Alexander is delighted to have found what appears to be a soul-mate, while A Hu-Li considers it prudent to maintain discretion about her real age lest she give the poor fellow a heart attack.
His nature can sometimes ruin the most intimate moments: a brief whiff of A Hu-Li’s second-hand blouse is enough to tell the werewolf that ‘before you, it was worn by a middle-aged woman who used home-made eau-de-cologne made from Egyptian lotus extract … she diluted the extract with fake vodka. There’s a lot of fusel oil.’ The same highly developed sense of smell has prevented Alexander from adopting the cocaine habit that would otherwise seem de rigueur for a man of his position, as ‘from the first line I can tell how many hours the mule was carrying it up his ass on his way from Colombo to Minsk.’
As their relationship progresses, Alexander prompts our narrator to spend more and more time considering a theme that was already weighing on her mind: the ancient prophecy of the ‘super-werewolf’. A Hu-Li herself is not inclined to take this myth at face value: in a letter to a fellow were-fox, E Hu-Li, she sternly insists that ‘no messiah will ever come to us were-creatures. But each of us can change ourselves by exceeding our own limits. That is the meaning of the expression ‘super-werewolf’ – one who has passed beyond his own boundaries, exceeded himself. The super-werewolf does not come from the East or from the West, he appears from within.’ (E Hu-Li’s interest in the topic has been prompted by her husband, a certain Lord Cricket who combines a strong interest in occult matters with militancy on behalf of the Countryside Alliance. Another fox wearily reflects that ‘the members of the exploiting classes often resort to occultism in the attempt to find a justification for their own parasitic existence’.)
But A Hu-Li begins to wonder if Alexander reads the legend with all the literal-mindedness that he displays when considering other matters. Staying in his apartment for the first time, she spots an art book with a striking picture of Fenrir, the giant wolf who is scheduled to kill Odin and eat the sun when the Norse end-times commence. Her anxiety is expressed in a passage that nicely illustrates Pelevin’s fondness for juxtaposing ancient mythology and modern pop culture:
‘I wanted to believe that Alexander didn’t identify too closely with this creature, that the yellow-eyed monster was simply an unattainable aesthetic ideal, something like a photo of Schwarzenegger hanging on the wall in a novice bodybuilder’s room.’
Despite the exhaustive knowledge of Western films and music which Pelevin clearly has at his command, it’s not clear if he is familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Assuming that Joss Wheedon’s creation has not made the journey east, Pelevin has happened across the same discovery made by Wheedon: namely, that the most hackneyed romantic subjects appear refreshingly novel when at least one of the doe-eyed lovers is not altogether human (Buffy‘s cast also included a were-wolf, a teenage musician called Oz whose girlfriend dutifully guarded his cage every full moon brandishing a rifle loaded with tranquiliser darts). It only works, though, as long as we’re not offered a novelty freak-show display, and Pelevin sticks faithfully to that rule.
Alexander is determined to use his powers to further the glory of Russia, with an earnest dedication that A Hu-Li can only find baffling. He brings her to the Arctic north (A Hu-Li is impressed by the sight of a Calvin Klein boutique, ‘probably the most northerly outpost of lesser Calvinism in the world’) so she can watch him perform the incantations necessary to maintain Russia’s oil supply. After all, if the dollar itself is a mystical unit of exchange, why should it be surprising that the Russian economy demands occult intervention to generate export earnings? Later, when A Hu-Li finds Alexander’s deputy quoting from Why Globalisation Works by Martin Wolf, she can’t help wondering if the FT columnist and the World Bank apparatchiks James Wolfensohn and Paul Wolfowitz are part of the same tribe as the FSB’s lupine crew (he gives an enigmatic response, and it’s best that Pelevin leaves the gag hanging and quickly moves on).
The relationship between Alexander and A Hu-Li struggles to bear the strain of their contrasting world-views: his desire to serve cannot be reconciled with her longing for transcendence, although they help each other to achieve their goals along the way. As The Sacred Book of the Werewolf draws to a close, Pelevin takes a turn that will be familiar to readers of his work by now, shifting from political to philosophical concerns. This change of pace may not be entirely welcome for those enjoying the gleeful satire, but it is worth it for the climactic moment that blends Buddhist philosophy with Spielbergan melodrama. Pelevin manages the rare feat of delivering a touching finale with his tongue firmly in cheek.
Some of the critical notices Pelevin has received in the western press have saddled him with expectations barely less onerous than those of the super-werewolf: he has been acclaimed as ‘the saviour of the Russian novel’, not to mention ‘the future of the Russian novel’, and if his talent doesn’t fizzle out soon one can only imagine what will come next. It may be wise to let the dust settle for a while before trying to decide where Pelevin fits into the literary canon to which he makes so many cheeky references. For now, it’s surely more than enough to be able to say that this is a splendid novel, inventive, compelling and totally unique.
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