The Life of Insects
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
THERE IS A dark, brilliant moment in Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin's 1996 satire of the Soviet space program, in which Henry Kissinger, on a visit to the USSR, asks to go bear hunting. His nervous hosts oblige, but not before arranging for the ultimate fool-proof scenario: A soldier, disguised as a bear, will leap menacingly before the hunting party and take a quick bullet, thus sparing Kissinger any risky promenades in the Russian Taiga. The Amerikanetz gets his trophy, World War Three is averted--and all this with only minor bloodshed. Ain't politics grand?
In The Life of Insects, Pelevin amplifies his interest in anthropo-zoological crossdressing and the result reads like an Animal Farm for the '90s. In a drab and run-down Black Sea resort, a bizarre cast of characters--dope heads, single mothers, racketeers, thrill seekers, and prostitutes--pass the summer hours in rather typical ways. There's a bit of interspecies romance, dangerous nightly landings atop human buttocks for fresh blood, father-son bonding amid clumps of dung, a transformation, an adolescent pregnancy. Of course, Pelevin's characters are insects and except when devouring their neighbors' limbs, they are charming and chummy with one another.
Pelevin, who is one of the most idiosyncratically funny voices in Russian literature, understands the potentially limited appeal of his premise, and shapes his story accordingly. Mosquitoes, hemp bugs, moths, and horseflies are entertaining not for their inherent features but for the way in which those features mirror, evoke, and ridicule ours. The oddballs in The Life of Insects are thus not just insects with select human-like traits, but creatures of both worlds, effortlessly inhabiting the related logics of human and insect behavior.
This act of futuristic and metaphysical audacity works largely because Pelevin sees the phenomenon as funny, not grave:
"Oh," said Natasha, "my mother was always talking about France. What were you doing there?"
"The usual thing, sucking blood."
"That's not what I meant. Did you go there just because you felt like it?"
"Not exactly. Some friends invited me to the annual Proust festival in Combray."
Comic turns abound in The Life of Insects but it is Pelevin's depth of perception that ultimately proves most moving. If this is a satire of life in post-Communist Russia, the act of sucking blood can only stand for one thing: the free market.