Werewolf Problem in Central Russia
Victor Pelevin has spent his short career hunting for a metaphor. What image, his writing questions, can hope to capture not simply the eroded political and social order that Soviet Communism enforced, but something altogether more unsettling--the consequent slippage of reality's moorings?
Reality, in Pelevin's telling, appears not all at once but in flashes: In this collection's "Vera Pavlovna's Ninth Dream," he plots glasnost's course in a public toilet and envisions the USSR as both "a beef carcass hanging on the wall of the meat department" and "the most beautiful thing it was possible to imagine." In fact, he has run through a score of endlessly allegorical possibilities: Was Communism the shabby train to nowhere of Pelevin's 1996 novella The Yellow Arrow? Are its survivors the interchangeable humans and insects of last year's The Life of Insects? For my money, Pelevin's most plangent allegory--the one most intimate with the daily dinginess of Communism's backwash--is the spit-and-baling-wire space program of 1997's Omon Ra. (Your ordering of the above may vary, particularly if you have more patience than I do with the occasional woolly mysticism that is the author's major concession to his literary forebears.)
Pelevin's newest collection, published in Russia in 1994 and translated by Andrew Bromfield, unavoidably feels less absurd than real life, if that phrase even applies in Eastern Europe today. This collection does, however, offer a few choice additions to Pelevin's gallery of national metaphors. Stories like "Sleep" and "Bulldozer Driver's Day" are, respectively, obvious and tiresomely obscure (it turns out everyone's asleep as they go about their daily business, so much so that one character can't tell whether he's sleeping or awake). Yet these selections, too, engage the same issues that even the slightest of Pelevin's work considers. Was Communism merely a persuasive and terrible hallucination? Was it consensual or imposed? Why did everyone believe in it?
Pelevin, as ever, provides no answers, nor does searching get us anywhere. Still, there's an inexorable will to survive in his work, a drive to make sense of the world that used to masquerade, unconvincingly, as coherent and has since been banished. Pelevin's questions recall a kind of Stephen King premise: What happens if you wake from a nightmare into another nightmare? And is it possible to prefer one to the other?
It is this volume's title story, "A Werewolf Problem," and the closer, "Prince of Gosplan," that show Pelevin at the top of his powers. Uniting philosophical speculation and cultural autopsy, these pieces mourn the passing of Communist man and try to predict who, or what, will replace him. In "Werewolf Problem," the Russian soul--a fiction beloved of nationalists from Peter the Great to Vladimir Zhirinovksy--surges to the surface of dumpy apparatchiks who suddenly discover themselves tearing through the forest, howling at the moon. Or perhaps, Pelevin muses, this is only what Russians tell themselves in order to imagine a way beyond their essentially bleak futures. Is rebirth even possible, or are we doomed to repeat gestures bred into us by this century?
Even better is "Prince," which nails both Americans' recent gaming addiction and our longer-term dependence on the psychological specter of a terrifying Communist conspiracy. The title character, a bureaucratized video-game hero, slaves for years to reach a seventh level and boots up anew each time he fails. When he gets there, his prize is worthless and he learns, to his horror, that his video enemies use his (in their view) baseless evil to terrify their children. Successful as both satire and post-Cold War cultural rapprochement, this story reveals the very real worth of Pelevin's project--even if he never finds the perfect metaphor. He may write for and about Russians conditioned to expect nothing less than absurdity, but Pelevin also escorts his American readers behind a rhetoric we know all too well. And in doing so, he reasserts an essential humanity that survives the cruelest indignities our two nations have imposed on one another and on the world as a whole.