At 50, Victor Pelevin creates myths for the new Russia
Victor Pelevin, the guru of the Russian reading public, turned 50 on November 22nd, which offers us a chance to ruminate on his creative influence. Recently, one of Russia’s online communities voted Pelevin Russia’s No. 1 intellectual.
For two decades now, his work has been a beacon of light on the cultural life of a country whose history is difficult and whose socio-economic situation is far from ideal.
Creating the myths and legends of the new Russia, Pelevin mixes the Strugatsky brothers with Stanislav Lem and marinates them in Jorge Luis Borges.
This turns out to be a winning combination for works of the fantastical satirical genre, books that are deep, poisonous, funny and endlessly inventive, revealing, explaining and commentating on the reality we read about in the newspapers.
Pelevin captures the plight of contemporary Russia in all its color and intricacy, and what’s more, he manages to do this without resorting to historical chronicles or savage ridicule of topical events.
Pelevin places current events in an abstract, metaphysical realm, evoking ancient philosophy and theology, so that the plots of his novels are played out against an overarching universal perspective, where references to a specific reality cease to be so important.
His novels are based on a single philosophical principle: according to this, our world is just a series of artificial constructions, in which we humans are doomed to forever wander around blindly, searching in vain for the ‘real’ reality.
None of these worlds are true, but neither can they be called false, at least not while people believe in them. So each version of the world only exists in our hearts and minds, and we cannot recognize the psychological reality as false.
So Pelevin’s masterpiece “Chapayev and Pustota,” (called “Buddha’s Little Finger” in English) also known as Russia’s first Zen-Buddhist novel, is based on the indivisible nature of real and projected reality.
The author manages to successfully create these mirages by varying the scale and structure of the fictional lens – the ‘window’ – through which the heroes (and therefore the readers) see the world.
The main action is played out on the ‘windowsill’ – where these two different worlds meet, somewhere suspended between reality and portrayed reality, because this is exactly the place where Victor Pelevin is in his element; as a poet, a philosopher and portrayer of ordinary life.
This theoretical division between two realms creates amazing artistic results, as the author can play with these worldviews – if you place one on top of the other you get a third view on the world, different from the first two.
As a writer whose experience straddles two different epochs, pre and post-perestroika, Pelevin chooses characters that simultaneously inhabit two different worlds.
The Soviet officials from the story Prince Gosplan (available in English in the collection, “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia: And Other Stories”) live alternative lives in a computer game.
Lumpen from the story Bulldozer Driver’s Day turns out to be an American spy, the Chinese peasant Zhuang is a Kremlin leader, and a Soviet student turns into a wolf.
The boundary between the worlds cannot be crossed, because these worlds themselves, as the Buddhist author likes to remind us, are only projections of our consciousness.
The only way to get from one reality to another is to change yourself; to undergo a metamorphosis. Personal evolution is the only way to survive when the realities we think we know are constantly reshuffling and replacing one other at random.
But the social angle is just one aspect of Pelevin’s work. References to the contemporary are placed in the context of the eternal, and knowledge of the eternal is what all Pelevin’s heroes are striving for. Adventures that divert the consciousness from the path of truth, a truth that evades description by words, but that must be described and understood nonetheless – this is the main thrust of all Pelevin’s works. If this was all, it would be simple, but there’s a catch.
Like many authors Pelevin sees everything, knows everything, and believes in nothing, but unlike many post-modernist writers, Pelevin offers a ray of hope.
Drawing on the philosophy of Plato, Pelevin assures us that behind the reality that we see, where the best-case scenario is that “we are stuck in a terrible traffic jam in a dark red Porsche,” there is another reality.
And whatever it is, and whatever we choose to call it, this is where there is hope, and this is Pelevin’s gift to his faithful readership, who, like all of Pelevin’s heroes, “just want the beautiful – something that will change everything.”
Pelevin has made a name for himself in Western publishing circles – and this has nothing to do with the novelty of his cultural roots. Pelevin is read in translation, and renowned as a contemporary author in his own right in the U.K., the United States, France and also in Japan, where he is especially popular.
In Chapaev, culture-specific Soviet references, which not many people understand in the West, have not stood in the way of his success.
Good translations of his new books (one of them is even comes with the very English original title "Burning Bush") have put Pelevin up there on par with the best masters of the quirky, philosophical, fantastical realism that is making the 21st a better and more interesting place to live.
Alexander Genis is a Russian-American writer, broadcaster and columnist for the Russian newspaper, "Izvestia."
A sampler of Victor Pelevin books in translation
“Omon Ra” was immediately likened to Gogol. The Observer wrote that the absurd journey of the cosmonaut is “full of the ridiculous and the sublime.”
“Buddha’s Little Finger” is set in two periods of upheaval as well as in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. Pelevin blends not only time but also questions identity, and the real nature of the characters is only revealed in fits and starts.
“The Blue Lantern and Other Stories” brings together eight of his best stories, and includes the story of a shed that wants to become a bicycle.
“The Yellow Arrow” would be terrifying if the passengers on the one-way train to a destroyed bridge were not so blasé about the whole thing. “The Arrow” is heavy on metaphor lightened by the everyday absurdity that people get used to everything.
“A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia” won the Booker prize for short story collections; the central story is indeed about a group of Russians who turn into wolves; the story “Vera Pavlova’s Ninth Dream,” creates a dark link between a poet and a public bathroom attendant.
In the surreal novel, “The Hall of the Singing Caryatids," a young woman is employed to stand naked and sing for the oligarchs. A decorative pillar in an elite nightclub, she is fueled by a serum that allows her to stand sill as long as a praying mantis.
About “Singing Caryatids,” culture correspondent Phoebe Taplin wrote: “Russian master of postmodern science fiction Victor Pelevin has shifted his satirical focus from the absurdities of the communist regime to the iniquitous consumerism of post-Soviet Russia.”