Brian Libgober on Victor Pelevin

The Voice of Russia's Pepsi Generation

A few years ago, which one can describe fairly as Russia's answer to Slate, asked its readers to identify the country's most influential intellectual. The majority of votes, by a significant margin, went to satirist Victor Pelevin (b. 1963), a contemporary writer who has received a smattering of publicity in the West, but remains mostly unknown.

A graduate of the prestigious Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, Pelevin won Russia's first Little Booker Prize in 1991 for his first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Blue Lantern. His follow up novel, Omon Ra, was completed that same year and took two of Russia's most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy. Although Pelevin has not maintained the breakneck publishing speed that marked his early career, one might still consider him a prolific author. Not yet fifty, Pelevin has ten novels to his name, almost all of which have been translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Western critics have often compared Pelevin's writing to that of Kurt Vonnegut and Mikhail Bulgakov, since Pelevin often bases his stories upon a fantastic premise that requires some suspension of disbelief. For example, in "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia," his characters transform into various animals (mythical or otherwise) depending on their personalities. Yet Pelevin's stories are not always of a magical realist bent. Some of his stories take place in real historical situations. For example, "Crystal World" is about two cocaine-addled sentries on guard duty in St. Petersberg on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Frequently his characters are thrown into surreal, existentially agonizing scenarios that recall the works of Ionesco and Beckett: The Yellow Arrow is about a train whose passengers (except for one) are bizarrely nonchalant about the fact that their journey's far-off destination is a ruined bridge; and in "News from Nepal," Pelevin gives us a young woman who endlessly repeats the same episode in her life without any idea that she is repeating it.

If Pelevin's scenarios are highly varied, the feelings and experiences of his characters are decidedly not. Wherever a Pelevin character goes, one can count on him to be the victim of a profound injustice. Often that injustice is simply inherent to the natural order of things in Pelevin's fictional world, as the previous examples illustrate. Just as frequently, however, injustice may also stem from authority figures exploiting their charges. Nowhere is this second type of injustice more evident than in Omon Ra. Its protagonist, Omon, is a young man whose dream is to rise above the crudity of Soviet life by flying to the moon. Accepted to the cosmonaut academy, Omon is in for a rude shock. The Soviet government has been lying about its technical expertise; none of its engineers have any idea how to program computers to guide long-range ballistic missiles. In order to keep pace with the Americans, the Soviets have been putting human pilots inside all their 'automated' rockets, including those heading to the moon, even though they rarely carry enough fuel for a return trip. In other words, Omon and the other cosmonaut cadets have been selected because the authorities believe they would make good cannon fodder. Far from providing a way out of Soviet life, as Omon discovers, flying to the moon starkly exposes its cruelty.

One common thread linking many of these stories of injustice is that not all characters are as stupid or helpless as their oppressors believe. "Hermit and Six Toes" is the story of two chickens (the wizened Hermit and his apprentice Six Toes) who avoid slaughter in a factory farm by learning to fly. Hermit's speech to the other chickens is a wonderful demonstration of both Pelevin's whimsy and how he invokes the idea of resistance:

"Come on, calm down," said Hermit. He turned to the crowd around the heap of straw and adopted a prayerful posture, turning his face to the heavens and raising his arms on high. "All of you below!" he shouted. "Soon you shall enter Hell. There all shall be roasted and the most sinful among you shall be marinated in vinegar!A gasp of horror ran through the air above the crowd."But I, by the will of the gods and their emissary, my master, wish to teach you how to save yourselves. To do this you must conquer sin – but do you even know what sin is?The only answer was silence."Sin is excess weight. Your flesh is sinful, for because of it the gods strike you down. Why, do you think, the Decisive Stage... the Day of Judgment is fast approaching? It is because you are growing fat. For the thin shall be saved, but the fat shall not. Verily I say unto you: not a single bony and blue one shall be cast into the fire, but the fat and the pink shall all be there. But those who from this day forth until the very Day of Judgment shall fast, shall be born again. Oh, Lord! And now arise and sin no more!"

(from The Blue Lantern, tr. Andrew Bromfield)

Hermit and Six Toes succeed in preventing the slaughter of their comrades, but whether this reprieve is permanent remains an open question.

In Pelevin's fiction, protection from injustice, freedom, and ultimately transcendence are usually only available to heroic dreamers like Hermit and Six Toes. Knowing that escape is contingent upon their learning to fly, they work tirelessly at building their wing muscles. While success at flying depends mostly on physical factors, as one would think, Pelevin emphasizes the extent to which the feat is mental. "You have to imagine you're already there," Hermit tells Six Toes just before the latter's first successful flight. "On previous occasions Six Toes had always been in a hurry to open his eyes, and he'd always found him sitting in the same place, but this time he decided to try something new." A mental leap is often what finally wins the day for Pelevinian protagonists. In "The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII", the titular shed only succeeds in transforming into a bicycle when he summons up the memory of the day he was painted.

Given the frequency with which imagination triumphs over reality in his stories, one might infer that Pelevin opposes traditionally Western ideas about mind and matter. Perhaps this opposition explains why Pelevin's work is so riddled with mysticism, conspiracy theories, and drug use, all of which might be said to challenge 'normal' conceptions of everyday life. These three elements come together in Generation P, Pelevin's most renowned work.

Also published under the English titles Homo Zapiens and Babylon, Generation P tells the story of an idealist who gives up poetry to join an advertising firm. Unable to do the work at first, Babylen Tatarsky begins experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms. In his drugged state, the ideas for many brilliant ads come to him and he climbs up the ranks of Russian advertising. The real breakthrough for Tatarsky, however, comes when he buys a Ouija board and starts communicating with the ghost of Che Guevara. The ghost of Che, using theoretical language reminiscent of both Buddha and Freud, reveals to Tatarsky that the market economy is actually a God-like ancient organism called Oranus that feeds off the psychological energy of individuals engaging their oral and anal impulses. Armed with the knowledge that in working for advertisers he is really serving Oranus, Tatarsky rises up the ranks even faster. Eventually he becomes the head of the largest advertising agency in Russia, the one whose job it is to fabricate all the political news in the country.

While it is tempting to read Pelevin's books—in all their popularity—as an expression of the zeitgeist of the contemporary Russian public, it is important not to take this line too far. True, a country dominated by dialectical materialism for 80 years and then blitzed by consumerist materialism may take especially well to the wild-eyed mysticism, feverish theorizing, and idealistic philosophy that Pelevin's work seems to embody. It should be remembered, however, that Pelevin's popularity may just as well be attributed to the accessibility and wit and special brand of irony of his work, and to how his stories inspire the unique mirth only fiction can give. But above all, perhaps Pelevin is so celebrated by his countrymen because his oeuvre demonstrates that the inventive and humanistic tradition of Russian literature is flourishing, in spite of the ever more disappointing political realities.