Demonic Muse ..By LIESL SCHILLINGER
In this satirical, erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world, Victor Pelevin gives new meaning to the words “unreliable narrator.” The story is told by a shape-shifting nymphet named A Hu-Li, a red-haired Asiatic call girl who is some 2,000 years old but looks 14. Her name, said aloud, sounds like a Russian obscenity, but it derives from the Chinese expression for fox spirit, huli jing — an epithet that doubles in China as a put-down for a lascivious home-wrecker. By day, A Hu-Li lives in a dark warren under the bleachers at an equestrian complex in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow; by night, she works the high-end Hotel National, hunting investment bankers.
While she may look like an ordinary (albeit exceptionally alluring) sex worker, A Hu-Li is a supernatural creature, a “professional impersonator of an adolescent girl with big innocent eyes” who ensorcells her clients by whipping out her luxuriant fox tail before each tryst and setting it a-whir like a pinwheeling ray gun, beaming hypnotic carnal fantasies into her customers’ minds. Although the men feel the telepathic pleasures in the flesh, a hotel spy-cam would reveal that the vixen took no physical part in the gymnastics. The men frolic alone.
In Russia, enthralled critics have called “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” “literaturnaya Viagra.” The Viagra effect is what makes the medicine go down — the medicine, that is, of Pelevin’s bereft philosophy of modern times, presented in statements like “The whole of human history for the last 10,000 years is nothing but a constant revision of the results of privatization.” It’s a bitter message that this dark fairy tale makes not only palatable but irresistible.
Pelevin, an introspective Russian trickster now in his mid-40s, has made his name over the last 20 years by writing queerly unsettling fiction that grafts social and political reality to both Western and Eastern philosophies, binding them with the gauze of science fiction and taping them with literary allusion. Pelevin’s broad preoccupation is the meaning (or increasing lack thereof) of the human condition. His narrower focus is the change that has occurred in Russia since the rise and fall of Gorbachev, among the “generation that was programmed for life in one sociocultural paradigm but has found itself living in a quite different one.” He has called this group Generation P, for Pepsi, because “once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi.” What happens to such a generation when Coke and capitalism invade, and when, after that, authoritarianism returns? “When established connections in the real world collapse,” Pelevin writes, “the same thing happens in the human psyche.”
In an early novel, “The Life of Insects,” he projected this disconnect onto the body. His characters slipped between human and insect form without any warning or interruption in dialogue, leaving the reader to untangle their metamorphoses and make the mind-body connection. His most successful later novels, “Buddha’s Little Finger” and “Homo Zapiens,” made even more demands on his readers’ powers of ironic association, with brilliant set pieces reminiscent of “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
In “Buddha’s Little Finger,” Pelevin imagined the merging of post-Communist Russia and consumerist America as a doomed joyride on a jet fighter piloted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, taken by a Russian mental patient who goes by the name Maria. Unseatbelted and exposed to the elements, she straddled a wing of the plane, clutching a tumescent antenna as Schwarzenegger zoomed impassively through the sky, ultimately crashing. In “Homo Zapiens,” a poetry translator changes careers after the U.S.S.R. “improved so much that it ceased to exist.” He becomes an advertising copywriter, creating impenetrable ads that impress the boorish, money-hungry “New Russian” target audience — because the ads’ inane content proves that the company paying for the advertising is so stinking rich, it can afford to “simply flush a million dollars down the tubes.” Confused by what all this means? So is the novel’s hero, but he receives clarifications from Che Guevara, who sends him lengthy communiqués about television, identity and dualism via Ouija board. One of the adman’s bosses also helps direct his mission. “First you try to understand what people will like,” he tells him, “and then you hand it to them in the form of a lie. But what people want is for you to hand them the same thing in the form of the truth.”
That insight underlies Pelevin’s new novel; and though it may sound cynical, it’s not meant that way. He doesn’t understand “truth” and “lie” as a simpler thinker might, and by grounding his ideas in fantasy, putting them in the words of his demonic muse, he has removed the need to make the distinction. In her guileful storytelling, the supervixen enfolds the precepts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Sikhism, along with the theories of Wittgenstein, William of Occam, Freud, Foucault and, especially, Berkeley. (A Hu-Li’s lover’s idea of pillow talk: “Everything only exists by virtue of perception.”) While writing her own Internet pornography ad for whores.ru, A Hu-Li teasingly draws from the fairy tales of Aksakov, the poetry of Blok, the writings of Nabokov. To spice up a casual encounter, she daydreams of Suetonius — who inspires one of her especially sadistic group sex sessions. Needless to say, she handles the allusions with an admirably deft touch.
The resulting novel is what Pelevin would call an “aporia” containing an “irresolvable contradiction.” It’s an encyclopedic catalog of Pelevin’s philosophical and political thought wrapped in a fairy tale: imagine Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” as manga. To A Hu-Li, this aporia is a synonym for life. “The substance of life doesn’t change much from one culture to another,” she observes, “but the human soul requires a beautiful wrapper.” Racy, playful, thought-provoking and perverse, “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” lends itself to both highlighting by the grad student’s yellow marker and underscoring by the thrill-seeker’s red pen.
Early in the novel, as A Hu-Li plies her trade, her signals get jammed when she brushes up against a member of the F.S.B. (the new K.G.B.), the “captain of the hit men’s brigade.” Alexander Sery (his surname, which means “gray” in Russian, is also a euphemism for the black market) is “unshaven, sullen and very good-looking,” with a “fierce, wolfish” mien, for which there’s a very good reason. Alexander is a werewolf, and A Hu-Li’s shifty vulpine defenses prove useless against his crude lupine brio. His grayish-yellow eyes burn into her retinas, but the “most significant thing,” she notes, is that his face “was a face from the past. There used to be a lot of faces like that around in the old days, when people believed in love and God.”
Alexander calls his lover Ada — a nod to her Internet name, to Nabokov and to the Russian word for hell. She nicknames him Shurik, deliberately suggesting the name of the dog Sharik from Bulgakov’s story (famous in Russia) “Heart of a Dog,” about a cur who turns into a proletarian and becomes so annoying that he has to be stopped. Their werefox and werewolf games begin with lovestruck “tailechery” (a form of transcendental canine commingling) but detour into more dangerous sport as A Hu-Li and Shurik initiate each other into secret passions. She likes to put on an evening gown, drop by farmhouses and horrify the occupants by nabbing their hens and bolting, transforming into a werefox as she flees. He likes to rally with other F.S.B. werewolves in the frozen north, howling at a cow skull on a stake in hopes of necromantically summoning oil from the substrate into Mother Russia’s waiting pipelines. Watching this scene, seeing the cow’s skull, A Hu-Li is reminded of a grim Russian fairy tale about a slaughtered cow who takes pity on an orphan and sends the girl gold from the grave. Touched, A Hu-Li adds her own soulful lament to the cacophony: “We were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred $100 a barrel.” In response to her emotion (she thinks), oil comes burbling up the stake. Shurik laughs at her sentimentality. “It’s my job to get the oil flowing,” he scoffs. “And for that, the skull has to cry.”
It’s a joy to read Pelevin’s phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pair’s longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Bromfield’s English text is fleet and magical.
Animal parables lie at the heart of every culture. Usually such tales are meant to instruct human behavior, but Russian folktales are unusual because they so often lack a moral. Instead, they portray bleak or unjust situations in mesmerizing language, making a fable of resignation itself. Russian children grow up on stories like the adventures of Alyonushka and her thirsty brother, Ivanushka, who turned into a goat after he drank water from a hoof print.
Werewolf literature is an offshoot of the man-and-beast genre and an abiding preoccupation of this author. In his early story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” Pelevin sent an unsuspecting young man to a village near an old collective farm to take part in a gathering of werewolves, creatures whose existence he had not previously suspected. “What are werewolves, really?” he asks the leader of the pack. “What are people, really?” the leader retorts, baring his teeth.
For a man as steeped in Nabokovian wordplay as Pelevin is, it can be no mistake that in the Russian version of “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” he chose the word oboroten, which means shape-shifter or, literally, someone who turns back to what he was before, instead of vervolk, which he used for his earlier werewolf tale. Could this choice be a comment on present-day Russia? Is there a moral to Pelevin’s story? What are changelings, really? Those are questions best answered by A Hu-Li.