FIFTH COLUMN: English Adds Spice to New Russian Novel
- By Leonid Bershidsky
- Aug. 03 1999 00:00
Russian literature has always looked to the West for spice and often for clarity. In the 19th century, certain things were best said in French.
Besides, when French was the Russian nobility's lingua franca, authors had to use it to make dialogue sound realistic.
These days, of course, English is everywhere. If a large part of your readership consists of internal emigr?s, you have to talk to them in their language. And internal emigr?s, just like members of the middle class everywhere, are the most avid readers of quality literature.
It is no accident, then, that perhaps the biggest Russian "quality" bestseller of 1999, the latest novel by Viktor Pelevin, even has a half-English title, "Generation P," where only the "P" is a Cyrillic letter.
Even so, it stands for Pepsi in one of the possible meanings of the intentionally ambiguous title.
The book comes complete with an epigraph from Leonard Cohen's album "The Future" and a bunch of newly-coined English-based terms, such as "Wow-Factor." In his novel, Pelevin develops an entire theory describing the way advertising affects the consumer. The "Wow-Factor" is the impulse in advertising that forces a consumer to say "Wow" and consume. Of course, "Wow" is something only an internal emigr? would say in Russia.
Pelevin's highly fashionable book centers, in large part, on the vagaries of adapting the advertising of Western brands to the Russian consumer's perceptions. The main character in "generation P" is a copywriter, a kopiraiter, to be precise, since there is no Russian word for the trade. And generally, if you do not speak at least some English, you will miss a lot of very topical humor in the book.
Pelevin has been experimenting with English for quite some time, probably as long as with psilocybin mushrooms. From story to story, novel to novel, his English keeps getting better, though he still has some trouble using the definite and indefinite articles in the right places. There is plenty of time for him to improve: He has a young cult following that is not going to die out anytime soon.
In the not-so-distant future, English might be superceded by some other language as the fashionable non-Russian element in the literary hodgepodge. At least that is the way Vladimir Sorokin, the author of another list-topper, "Blue Fat," would have it.
Sorokin, with his stylistic fireworks and libertarian literary approach to sex and drugs, is the Russian bohemian's author of choice. For this readership, English is not hip enough. Every culturally deficient kopiraiter speaks it. French is obsolete. German has limited aesthetic appeal. So in Blue Fat, Sorokin's characters, including Russians, speak a 21st-century version of Russian in which there is at least one Chinese word in every sentence.
There is even a small Chinese glossary at the end of the book. The logic is that if the 20th century belonged to the United States, in the next 100 years China should get its shot at world economic, cultural and linguistic dominance.
If this trend develops, subsequent bestsellers will speak to their readers in flowing Italian, musical Arabic and exotic Swahili. Plain Russian is just not enough anymore. No matter how beautifully you write it, it will not titillate the overfed audience the way foreign words never fail to do, whether you understand them or refer to Sorokin's glossary.