Inner Mongolia

Tony Wood

Russian history is full of turning points. To the outside observer, there is nothing but upheaval on an unimaginable scale: revolutions, murders, war, starvation – a litany of suffering. Seen from within, these events are no less terrifying. They lack the shape our general terms give them, and perhaps for those experiencing them, shapelessness is a key part of the terror they hold.

Born in 1962, Victor Pelevin missed the events that formed previous generations of Soviet citizens. The Revolution, the Civil War and World War Two – the Great Patriotic War – had by then become the stuff of textbooks and Metro murals, stories whose realities could neither be confirmed nor denied. His contemporaries grew up with the Soviet Union’s comforts and discomforts already in place: they had not fought for, or even against, everything that was pulled from under their feet in the years after 1991.

For this generation there was no guide, not even a false one, to the tortuous and convoluted events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not clear what experience was being shared, or who was sharing it. Many Russians today feel nostalgia for Communism, but often it is not because of any political commitment. For ‘Communism’ read ‘certainty’.

Pelevin’s books have achieved cult status, appearing on stall after stall in the streets, markets and Metro stations of Moscow and St Petersburg. In 1993 he won the ‘Little Booker’ (awarded for ‘a contribution to the field of literature’) with The Blue Lantern and Other Stories;[1] the fact that The Clay Machine-Gun failed to make the shortlist for the 1997 Russian Booker itself caused a scandal, and was taken more as an indictment of the literary establishment than as a judgment on the book. Much of his work is now available in English, smoothly and wittily translated by Andrew Bromfield.

Pelevin has a relentlessly black sense of humour, and a satirical touch and use of the fantastic reminiscent of Bulgakov. His mastery of street language goes with a gift for extravagant simile: the sky is ‘like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’; the barrel of a carbine strapped to a soldier’s back is ‘like the head of a small steel turkey carefully listening to their conversation’; a character can ‘scarcely make out’ through a window ‘the rusty sieg heil of the pile-driving crane’. The similes are often stretched until they become loosely allegorical or suggestively nonsensical. This happens in the stories especially, since it is here that Pelevin flexes his satirical muscles. ‘The Tarzan Swing’, one of the stories in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, opens with the description of a street:

The wide boulevard and the houses standing along both its sides were like the lower jaw of an old Bolshevik who, late in life, has arrived at democratic views. The oldest houses were from Stalin’s time – they towered up like wisdom teeth coated with the brown tarnish produced by many years of exposure to coarse shag tobacco ... Up in the sky the full moon blazed brightly like a dentist’s lamp.

Pelevin’s popularity owes much to his comic talents and his satirical elegance; but his fiction also speaks to the broader condition of contemporary Russia. A sense of bewilderment, of lost proportions or direction underlies all his work. When he writes about the past it is not the past we know, and the post-Perestroika signposts that litter his present prove to be of no use at all.

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[1] Translated by Andrew Bromfield (Harbord, 176 pp., £9.99, 2 February 1998, 1 899414 30 4).

[2] First published in Great Britain by Harbord in 1996.

[3] First published in Andrew Bromfield’s translation by Harbord in 1994 and reissued in paperback by Faber in 1996 (154 pp., £6.99, 0 571 17798 0).