. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pelevin's Cheerfully Grotesque World




It should be no surprise by now to anyone who follows the Russian literary scene that Victor Pelevin is the hottest writer around. He has become an icon to the young, with fan clubs and Internet sites galore, and has the added cachet of being a supreme irritant to the older, stodgier generation.


He is one of the few authors who can cause a national scandal by not being nominated for a literary award. When his novel, "Chupaev and the Void," failed togain a spot on the Booker Prize short list in 1997, critics and writers across the board condemned the jury for lack of vision.


It is a testament to Russia's recherch? cultural tastes that such renown belongs not to a composer of thrillers or steamy potboilers, but to a sensitive, philosophical writer of great lyrical beauty whose fiction has the power to change the reader's view of himself, and his world.


Pelevin's earlier novels, which include the brilliant satires "Omon Ra" and "The Life of Insects," have been available in translation for years. But only now can the Anglophone reader experience the work that catapulted the young author to fame: a volume of short stories titled The Blue Lantern, which earned Pelevin the Little Booker Prize in 1993.


The stories are beautifully crafted, each one a polished jewel with a mystery at its center. Pelevin can write with equal deftness about the death of a cat or the striving of a simple storage shed for self-affirmation. Moreover, he does it with such intensity that the reader is swept away into another world and finds himself accepting the rules, the triumphs and tragedies of his new environment with astounding speed.


Much of Pelevin's work is reminiscent of science fiction, and he employs many of the devices of that genre. "Hermit and Six-Toes," for example, reads at first like a post-apocalyptical work in which a strange new breed is struggling for survival.


The motivated reader can discern a distinct anti-Soviet sentiment in the story. Six-Toes is isolated by the greater community because he is different, with his extra appendage, and because he "does not love the things that should be loved." After meeting up with the wise and worldly Hermit, he becomes something of a philosopher, and the pair are later exiled for spouting heresy.


But Pelevin is not so superficial as to develop a simple social satire and leave it at that. As the story develops, we gradually become aware that we are dealing with a poultry farm, described from the point of view of two very hip chickens. While the pair ponder the meaning of life and pump iron to strengthen their arm muscles, their doom aproaches. The brood is being prepared for slaughter. The story is grotesque, and at times very funny. Hermit, by far the sharper of the two, advises the entire chicken community to avoid Judgment Day by fasting and exercise. We are treated to the verbal picture of a bunch of fowls off their feed, running around their small world to shed their excess weight. The "gods," or humans who tend the farm, cannot understand why their charges look so peaked, and are forced to delay the killing until the chickens can be fattened up again.


By the time the story reaches its climax, the reader has abandoned his own species and has crossed over completely to the side of the two feathered heroes.


Pelevin delights in setting up expectations and then confounding them. This is most spectacularly done in "Nika," a story in which a rather petulant intellectual mourns his lost love, a sensual and heedless creature of great beauty. I will not spoil the fun by revealing the ending, but it is a delight from start to finish, and almost demands an instant re-reading.


Some of the stories are less successful than others: "The Blue Lantern," which gives the collection its name, made much less of an impression on this reader than any other selection in the book. It describes a bunch of boys at summer camp, scaring each other by telling ghost stories, while the narrator gazes at a blue lantern outside his window. As a portrait of bratty adolescents it is fine, but perhaps I was spoiled by Pelevin's outrageously subversive prose. I kept waiting for a surprise denouement that stubbornly failed to occur. Or, perhaps, there is some underlying significance to the tale that I simply failed to grasp.


I could not escape this feeling of missing the point in "Crystal World," a story of two cocaine-snorting, ephedrine-shooting guards patrolling St. Petersburg the night before the October Revolution. As the pair debate Spenglerian philosophy and reincarnation, a series of strange-looking pedestrians, most of them with a strange speech defect that might or might not be a hint at Vladimir Lenin's famous lisp, attempt to gain access to Smolny, where the revolutionaries had their headquarters. I kept wishing I were more familiar with Alexander Blok, the Silver Age poet whose verse begins and ends the story. Whatever Pelevin was driving at, I was left puzzled and a bit frustrated.


Pelevin belongs to the cusp generation of Russians -- those caught between the old system and the new. Born in 1962, during Nikita Khrushchev's Thaw, he was educated and came of age during the gray but stable stagnation era. This is a group that experienced the grimness of Soviet life without the idealism or terror of earlier days, and proved more than ready to cast the old aside when Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to the new.


This may explain why Pelevin's satire lacks the bitter edge of some older writers, like Vasily Aksyonov, or the much-earlier Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose 1920s novel "We" laid the groundwork for George Orwell's "1984."


Pelevin has a bite, of course, but he is more cynically amused than scathing. In "The Tambourine of the Upper World" he spins a riotous tale of two business women who make a living by raising foreigners from the dead so that desperate Russian women can marry them and leave the country. They specialize in World War II Germans, most of whom are only too grateful to escape from their hell for a few years in return for squiring a damsel in distress out of Russia. The plan works well until the women accidentally rouse a Russian airman (who, of course, is from the upper world, where things are much nicer). The ending is typically ambiguous, and typically Pelevin.


In "Mid-Game" we have the tale of two ladies of the evening who end up tangling with a pair of military officers who travel around the city murdering prostitutes. By the end the reader is thoroughly entangled in a confused tale of gender reversal and death, but the details are amusing. One upwardly-mobile Party bureaucrat decides to become a woman after a reprimand was entered in his file and he, now she, runs into a previously despised colleague -- who has also abandoned his previous sexual orientation. Soon, it turns out that everybody's doing it, and we are no longer exactly sure who is who.


It all makes for a fun read and a wry chuckle at the expense of Soviet bureaucracy and the frailty of human nature.


The stories have been expertly translated by Andrew Bromfield, and admirably convey the spirit, as well as the letter, of the original. The slim volume of text requires no more than a few hours, but it provides rich food for thought.


"The Blue Lantern and Other Stories," by Viktor Pelevin. Harbord Publishing. 175 pages, pounds 9.99 or $16.24.