Russian history is full of turning points. To the outside observer, there is nothing but upheaval on an unimaginable scale: revolutions, murders, war, starvation – a litany of suffering. Seen from within, these events are no less terrifying. They lack the shape our general terms give them, and perhaps for those experiencing them, shapelessness is a key part of the terror they hold.
Born in 1962, Victor Pelevin missed the events that formed previous generations of Soviet citizens. The Revolution, the Civil War and World War Two – the Great Patriotic War – had by then become the stuff of textbooks and Metro murals, stories whose realities could neither be confirmed nor denied. His contemporaries grew up with the Soviet Union’s comforts and discomforts already in place: they had not fought for, or even against, everything that was pulled from under their feet in the years after 1991.
For this generation there was no guide, not even a false one, to the tortuous and convoluted events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not clear what experience was being shared, or who was sharing it. Many Russians today feel nostalgia for Communism, but often it is not because of any political commitment. For ‘Communism’ read ‘certainty’.
Pelevin’s books have achieved cult status, appearing on stall after stall in the streets, markets and Metro stations of Moscow and St Petersburg. In 1993 he won the ‘Little Booker’ (awarded for ‘a contribution to the field of literature’) with The Blue Lantern and Other Stories;the fact that The Clay Machine-Gun failed to make the shortlist for the 1997 Russian Booker itself caused a scandal, and was taken more as an indictment of the literary establishment than as a judgment on the book. Much of his work is now available in English, smoothly and wittily translated by Andrew Bromfield.
Pelevin has a relentlessly black sense of humour, and a satirical touch and use of the fantastic reminiscent of Bulgakov. His mastery of street language goes with a gift for extravagant simile: the sky is ‘like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’; the barrel of a carbine strapped to a soldier’s back is ‘like the head of a small steel turkey carefully listening to their conversation’; a character can ‘scarcely make out’ through a window ‘the rusty sieg heil of the pile-driving crane’. The similes are often stretched until they become loosely allegorical or suggestively nonsensical. This happens in the stories especially, since it is here that Pelevin flexes his satirical muscles. ‘The Tarzan Swing’, one of the stories in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, opens with the description of a street:
The wide boulevard and the houses standing along both its sides were like the lower jaw of an old Bolshevik who, late in life, has arrived at democratic views. The oldest houses were from Stalin’s time – they towered up like wisdom teeth coated with the brown tarnish produced by many years of exposure to coarse shag tobacco ... Up in the sky the full moon blazed brightly like a dentist’s lamp.
Pelevin’s popularity owes much to his comic talents and his satirical elegance; but his fiction also speaks to the broader condition of contemporary Russia. A sense of bewilderment, of lost proportions or direction underlies all his work. When he writes about the past it is not the past we know, and the post-Perestroika signposts that litter his present prove to be of no use at all.
The Life of Insectsbegins with a description of a hotel in a Black Sea resort: its façade has ‘columns, cracked stars and sheaves of wheat bent eternally before a plaster wind’. Pelevin wastes no time telling us we are in a crumbling, post-Soviet world, and the rest of the book satirises types that can only be contemporary. In the first chapter Sam, a visiting US businessman, meets up with two Russian associates to discuss some unspecified but murky deal. The three tumble off a first-floor balcony, only to reappear in the distance as three mosquitoes flying towards the nearest village. This is only the first of many transformations, since all the characters in the novel are also insects. Sam and his associates are both literal and metaphorical bloodsuckers; Natasha is a prostitute/fly; Marina a military widow/ant; and Mitya a gloomy teenager/moth.
The choice of parallels is often obvious, the characters are easy targets: the interest lies not in the individuals themselves but in the hazy boundaries between their human and insect forms. The switches are never described as they happen: we become aware of them because extra legs, wings, balls of dung have appeared. Since not all the characters are insects at the same time, there are frequent conflicts of scale. Natasha dies stuck to a piece of flypaper in a café while a human Sam looks on; earlier on, Natasha feels something on her thigh and instinctively slaps it, killing a mosquito named Archibald. No one knows when or why the characters undergo these transformations. Their names are labels that remain attached even though what is behind them has altered in size, in shape, in species. Far worse than not being able to trust anyone is not knowing where to place your mistrust. In Pelevin’s brutal post-Soviet world nothing offers any purchase or guidance.
In the title-story of A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia the borderline between contemporary Russia and the animal kingdom is once again blurred. A young man finds himself at a mysterious gathering in the forest and, along with the strange assortment of people around him, is transformed into a wolf. Noticing that all the wolves have a human shadow, he is told that humans have animal shadows. In ‘Mid-Game’, one of the stories in The Blue Lantern and Other Stories, two prostitutes who narrowly escape death at the hands of two serial-killing, chess-playing sailors end up having a sexual encounter, only to discover that both have had sex changes, and that one used to be the other’s Party boss. Meanwhile it turns out that the sailors were once sisters. Pelevin doesn’t use these sex changes to comment on the notion of gender: he is merely adding gender to all his other uncertainties. In these stories, as in The Life of Insects, anyone can, and indeed does, become anything. Pelevin’s world is always bleakly funny, often ridiculous. It is also barely imaginable: but in contemporary Russia the barely imaginable is more entertaining, and a good deal better structured, than the truth.
The Clay Machine-Gun switches between the present and the chaos of the Civil War, c. 1919. The plot centres on the character of Pyotr Voyd, a prominent poet in pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg who is thrust into the service of the Revolution as political commissar to Vasily Chapaev, a real-life Red Army commander and a hero of Soviet mythology. The story goes backwards and forwards in time and travels at will between the Russian Far East and a mental hospital just outside Moscow.
Voyd finds himself alternately in 1919 with selective amnesia and in the present with no awareness that eighty-odd years have elapsed. That this often has comic results goes without saying. Thus Voyd’s psychiatrist, Timur Timurovich, makes a reference to Nabokov, which prompts Voyd to ask:
‘Excuse me ... but which Nabokov are you talking about? The leader of the Constitutional Democrats?’
Timur Timurovich smiled with emphatic politeness. ‘No,’ he said, ‘his son.’
‘Little Vovka from the Tenishevsky school? ... But he’s in the Crimea! And what kind of nonsense is all this about little girls?’
Timur Timurovich diagnoses Voyd’s claim to be Chapaev’s commissar as a delusional psychosis while for Voyd, narrating from the standpoint of 1919, the mental hospital seems like a recurring nightmare. His narrative keeps breaking off as he drifts from one time and place to the other without explanation, and details that could make sense of them are omitted or forgotten. This slippage from one incomplete world to another feels much like waking from a dream or falling into one. Each of the worlds he inhabits is equally frail and frayed at the edges.
To confuse matters further, Chapaev, far from being an ordinary Red Army commander, turns out to be a profoundly enigmatic, mystical figure. He conducts a series of metaphysical conversations with Voyd and ultimately persuades him of the nonexistence of the world. Timur Timurovich and Chapaev, present-day Russia and the Russia of 1919, are both mirages created by his consciousness. A mysterious Baron Jungern tells him that the mental hospital is merely a metaphor for the plane of existence in which he is currently trapped. The ‘cure’ that will get him out of the bin will also remove him from 1919, since it is the ascent to Nirvana itself. The novel ends with Voyd, having attained a state of enlightenment in 1919, being discharged from the mental hospital in the present, whereupon he rejoins Chapaev, who has magically appeared in central Moscow in an armoured car. Accompanied by Chapaev’s sidekick Anna, who also provides the stubbornly resistant love interest for Voyd, the two drive off into a neo-Buddhist sunset – or the higher plane of being which Chapaev calls Inner Mongolia.
Although Pelevin’s philosophising provides a solution for the complications of his story, the switches between 1919 and the present, as enacted in Pyotr Voyd’s narrative, set up a more interesting and powerful metaphor. The snatch of conversation about Nabokov is one of the few occasions when it is apparent that the patient and the psychiatrist are talking about entirely different times. When Timur Timurovich tells Voyd that he belongs to ‘the very generation that was programmed for life in one socio-cultural paradigm, but has found itself living in a quite different one’, Voyd agrees wholeheartedly. Not because he knows anything of what has happened in the last eighty years, or even the last eight, but because what is true for the Voyd of 1919 is equally true for someone his age in contemporary Russia. In other words, the chaotic world that emerged after 1991 echoes the one that followed 1917, just as the survivors of the events of 1917 anticipate the survivors of the events of 1991.
Which is not to say that history is merely repeating itself, or that Communism is the same as Tsarism. Voyd’s psychosis, and its location in Russian history, tells us not so much that 1991 and the Revolution and ensuing Civil War aren’t worth distinguishing from each other, but that the Russia of 1991 has not got beyond 1917, that it is still wearing its past like a straitjacket. Voyd’s trauma in 1991 is an obsessive return to an initial shock. History is not repeating itself, it has merely failed to escape itself.
Pelevin’s choice of Chapaev as a main protagonist is significant. There have been films, legends and jokes about him, most of them deriving from Dmitri Furmanov’s Chapaev, published in 1923. Furmanov was Chapaev’s commissar, and fictionalised his adventures with him, giving his own fictional counterpart the name Fyodor Klychkov. (Klychka is the Russian for ‘nickname’ – so Fyodor Nicknamov.) Pelevin has Pyotr Voyd as Chapaev’s commissar and Furmanov as a minor character who only encounters Chapaev twice. He has hijacked a Soviet myth, and his Chapaev-as-mystic is if anything even more ludicrous than the heroic commander of the original myth. Recasting it as a Buddhist fantasy is a way of saying that nothing could be more fantastic or more arbitrarily chosen than the official Soviet version of history.
In Omon Ra,Pelevin hijacks another Soviet myth. The hero, Om, achieves his childhood dream of becoming a cosmonaut, only to have the glories of the space programme debunked by his superiors. It transpires that the Soviets don’t make rockets whose stages separate at the push of a button. Nor do they make warheads that detonate automatically. Instead, each rocket stage contains a cosmonaut, who separates the stages himself by means of a set of latches. And each warhead contains a political prisoner who pushes the button when the missile reaches its target.
The joke is a cruel one, since each cosmonaut loses his life to help the rocket on its way, just as each prisoner chooses death in preference to years in the gulag. Elsewhere in Omon Ra a gamekeeper and his son regularly put on bullet-proof vests and dress as an assortment of wild animals before throwing themselves in front of the rifles of the apparatchiks. Every week the gamekeeper is given a new Party membership card to replace the previous one now riddled with bulletholes. The Party is only too happy to duplicate the paperwork as long as it still has the gamekeeper’s life at its disposal.
In ‘Tai Shou Chuan USSR’, a story (described as ‘a Chinese folk-tale’) in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, a peasant is abducted and brought to Russia to serve as deputy to the leader, Son of Bread, who sits at a white grand piano. The Chinese peasant, Ch’an, turns out to be a genuine populist:
What Ch’an liked most of all was not the food and drink, not all his mansions and mistresses, but the local people, the workers. They were hard-working and modest, understanding. For instance, Ch’an could crush as many of them as he liked under the wheels of his immense black limousine, and everyone who happened to be on the streets at the time would turn away, knowing it was none of their business ... Ch’an even wrote an article for the main newspaper – ‘With People Like This You Can Do Anything You Want’ – and they published it, with just a slight change to the title which became, ‘With People Like This You Can Achieve Great Things’.
Ch’an later becomes leader himself and learns the secret of the grand piano:
The Son of Bread’s main responsibility was to play some simple melody on it. It was considered that in doing so he set the fundamental harmony which was followed in every other part of the government of the country. Ch’an realised that the difference between rulers lay in which tunes they knew.
Ch’an makes mistakes and there are rebellions and earthquakes. Khrushchev, it appears, played ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ and the U-2 spy-plane was shot down: ‘the notes in many of the melodies had been masked with black paint, and there was no way of telling what the rulers of earlier years had played.’
Pelevin’s scenarios are no more deranged than the ones provided by history. Things like this, you begin to think, would really have happened if the lunacies of the Soviet system had been carried to their absurd but somehow logical conclusion. Pelevin’s version of the space programme, of Chapaev, of the Civil War, has many things in common with what we now know from the historical record: but more jokes. And in every joke, too, there is something uncomfortably close to the truth. Still more ridiculous than the idea of Party men shooting fake wild boar is the gamekeeper himself. In his continuing obedience to Party orders, despite the hail of bullets, despite the tragic (but also comical) death of his son at the hands of Henry Kissinger, he is not merely a victim of brutality, but an accomplice in his own misfortunes. The wider implication of his story might be that the victims were in place before their victimisation.
Pelevin is writing in a country going through what the Western media, somewhat understating it, call a ‘transition period’. In a few generations’ time it may well be possible to look back and see the Nineties as a pivotal moment, but virtually an entire decade of ‘transition’ makes a mockery of the word ‘pivot’. ‘Uncertainty’, ‘instability’, ‘disorientation’ don’t go the required distance either: you wouldn’t get from them the sense that the Russians are now living through a situation in which all their paranoias seem about to be realised. And as Omon Ra and The Clay Machine Gun demonstrate, the paranoia stretches back in time as well as forwards: everything you knew about the past is probably disastrously mistaken or fabricated, but what you are replacing it with is probably an invention.