Over the past two decades Victor Pelevin has become something of a phenomenon on the Russian literary scene. His surreal works of satire have vividly chronicled the startling transformations which have occurred in Russian politics and everyday life since the advent of perestroika. However, critical response to his output has been ambivalent, and his Russian Booker Prize win some years ago sparked controversy. His considerable number of fans see him as revitalising Russian satire, by giving it a self-consciously post-modern twist. His detractors see his combination of magic realism, Eastern philosophy, and arch references to Western pop-culture as a betrayal of the Russian literary tradition. His latest novel, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, will provide plenty of ammunition for both sides.
Contemporary Moscow: A Hu-Li is a "fox," one of an ancient and magical race who have passed unnoticed in the world of man for millennia. Like all her people she has the ability, once she unfurls her hidden "tail,' to manipulate the senses of those around her. Using this talent A Hu-Li can make people see whatever she, or they, desire. One fox can enrapture an individual with their illusions, while a group of them working in concert (in the unlikely event they are willing to co-operate) can induce mass hallucinations, shaping the course of human history by creating the impression of wars, battles, and natural disasters. A Hu-Li is over two-thousand years old and, like many of her kind, she uses her abilities to work as a prostitute, inhabiting a dingy storeroom under a sports stadium and meeting prestigious clients in Moscow hotels by night. Her unnatural talents mean there is constant desire for her services: while never physically engaging in sexual congress she can indulge her clients' most intimate fantasies, giving wealthy businessmen and politicians the impression that they have enjoyed the night of their life. Throughout her escapades she maintains an air of detached cynicism, regarding her clients and other human beings as childishly naive and unable to control their base instincts.
A Hu-Li's problems begin when a liaison leads to her falling into the hands of the Federal Security Bureau, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB. Here she encounters Alexander Sery (or "Sasha the Grey") who soon reveals himself to have occult powers of his own: he is a werewolf. Furthermore, he leads a faction of fellow lycanthropes within the security agencies who are devoted to securing Russia's borders and her oil wealth. A Hu-Li soon finds herself drawn into a complex romantic relationship with the unpredictable shape-shifter, as they discover their powers interact in strange and unexpected fashion. Meanwhile, other developments are afoot in Moscow: A Hu-Li's sister (who passes the centuries by hunting members of the English aristocracy) arrives in Moscow with her latest husband in tow, the occultist Lord Cricket of the Pink Sunset Lodge. They bring with them rumours of the emergence, in Russia, of the fabled "super-werewolf.”..
More obviously than his earlier works, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf demonstrates Pelevin's unease with Russia's increasingly authoritarian political system (it is perhaps unsurprising that the author now resides in London). The collapse of the democratic and liberal hopes of the 1990s is perfectly captured in the scenes in which A Hu-Li is employed by a repentant ex-liberal politician. Guilt-ridden over having led his country into the morass of free-market democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union, he pays the heroine, in the guise of "Young Russia," to inflict brutal sado-masochistic punishments upon him. The Russian security services, who have capitalised on this crisis of liberalism, are cast in an equally unfavourable light, having already been portrayed as predatory werewolves in Pelevin's earlier short story, "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia." Here, Sasha the Grey and his colleagues are atavistic throwbacks to Russia's past—fanatical, secretive, and bigoted beneath a thin veneer of patriotic rhetoric. Their mystical powers grant them the ability to commune with the primal spirit of the Russian land and even draw oil up from its depths. A Hu-Li herself suggests that the only changes resulting from the abolition of the KGB, and the Soviet Union itself, were cosmetic; all that occurred in 1991 was "one of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!"
This comment emphasises Pelevin's other central concern in this novel: how the transition to dog-eat-dog (or wolf-eat-wolf?) capitalism in Russia has forced individuals to operate in a world of deception and self-deception, where they are constantly seeking to market and commodify themselves. Commercial slogans, brand-names, buzz-words and meaningless political euphemisms pepper both the characters' conversations and Pelevin's own narrative voice, dramatically conveying the impression of a world dependent on artifice and hypocrisy. Here, as in previous Pelevin works, most notably Babylon (1999), identity and perception are constantly in the process of transformation, through means of advertising, magic, drugs, or a combination of all three. Pelevin's non-literal prose style (or perhaps, that of his translator, Andrew Bromfield) succeeds admirably in conveying such transformations. Take, for example, the passage where Sasha first reveals his true nature:
He staggered, made a terrible howling sound and literally fell out of his own body—as if it were a bud that opened up into a sinister, shaggy flower in just a few seconds. It turned out that the man who was called Alexander was no more than a drawing on a door into the beyond. Now that door had opened, and the creature who had been watching me through the keyhole for a long time had come tumbling out. (p. 108)
The conditional nature of personality and identity are best demonstrated in the character of A Hu-Li herself, who narrates the tale as a memoir. She informs the reader that she, like all foxes, essentially has no personality, and instead constantly adapts to her social environment in order to survive and please those she depends upon to earn her living. Foxes never have original thoughts, nor dwell seriously on ideas and arguments they derive from others: "A fox's mind is simply a tennis racket you can use to keep bouncing the conversation from one subject to another for as long as you like." Holding conversation, A-Hu Li regularly resorts to pseudo-post-modernist jargon, dazzling others with her supposed intelligence, while often having little awareness of what, if anything, she is really saying. One memorable scene finds her writing adverts for her services on whores.com, blissfully unaware of what most of the pleasures she offers involve (she can see the effects her illusions create, but without any awareness of what her clients are actually experiencing). Even her thoughts are the product of conflicting inner voices, at times being expressed as fragmentary lists, rather than a coherent narrative.
However, Pelevin's focus on the transitory and illusory nature of human identity is not simply an immediate reaction to the traumas and hypocrisies of modern Russia. Ultimately, it is rooted in his personal Zen Buddhist beliefs, which have previously been aired in novels such as The Clay Machine Gun (1996). Much of the reader's enjoyment of the story will depend on their willingness to embrace (or at very least tolerate) his philosophical meanderings, much of which stem from A Hu-Li's struggle to define the essence of the "super-werewolf." The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is obviously intended to be more of a Buddhist parable than a conventional narrative, and what conclusions it arrives at derive more from spiritual awakening than dramatic tension or character resolution. The plot, such as it is, is littered with red herrings which are never fully developed. Even the philosophical conclusions, being reliant on the logic of Zen, may confuse and frustrate, but their paradoxical nature is presumably part of the point. Still, those with low tolerance of what Pelevin himself describes in the foreword as 'pseudo-oriental pop-metaphysics' would probably be advised to steer well clear. Those content to go with the flow, on the other hand, will find a book rich in well-observed satirical jibes, zingy conversational duels and evocative description.
Michael Froggatt is Teaching Associate in European History at the University of Edinburgh.