This year, on Labor Day weekend, on a New York Times front page otherwise preoccupied with the American presidential election and another Atlantic hurricane portending natural and moral cataclysm, an implausible, bleakly hilarious headline sneaked in just under the fold: “And what is the Russian soul like?” The Sacred Book of the Werewolf thus meets perhaps the first condition for the Great Russian Novel in a 21st century lacking the certitudes of, say, Solzhenitsyn: an abiding ambivalence to the possibility of the same. Writing of, and in, a nation that has in two short decades exhausted all the credible stories, official and otherwise, it could tell itself about itself — in this, they remain the global vanguard — Pelevin is right to radically overdetermine the sex lives of canids, right to stud his own foray into national literature with professions that only losers and the repentant guilty would be so gauche as to try such a thing. He’s also right to try such a thing.
“Russia’s Lazy Collective Farms Are a Hot Capitalist Property,” announced the article (which had nothing, at least on its surface, to do with the Georgian war). “
The ghoulish cast of new-economy characters, the stolid solids of the Soviet past melting into the air of global capital: Here, on the front page of The New York Times, was an unholy satire, broad and over-the-top and profoundly true. It was, in short, a story that could have been written by Victor Pelevin.
About halfway through Pelevin’s Intelligently vulgar and smuttily erudite novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, first published in 2005 and newly available in English, Pelevin’s protagonist-narrator A Hu-Li chastises her sister E Hu-Li against pat declarations of national “character.” Like E, A Hu-Li is a 2,000-year old Asiatic were-creature (the name means “fox” in Mandarin and roughly “What the f**k?” in Russian); her species’ appearance — “fine, silky, gleaming hair that’s a bright fiery-red color” and “magnificently defined musculature — the kind that some teenagers who do sport have” — allows her to pose as a child prostitute working out of a Moscow hotel room, although, as she lacks genitalia, her seductions never lead to any orthodox consummation. Instead, her furry vulpine tail, once unfurled, implants hallucinations into the minds of the pitiable men who request her services, while concurrently extracting their “life energy.”
Alias “Adele,” A Hu-Li’s client list comes straight out of that Times article; the Russian oligarchs enjoy rather ambitious forays into sadomasochism, while “anal sex,” we’re told, “is the favorite sport of portfolio investors.” It’s the accidental death of one of these portfolio investors — as it happens, not a Swede but a Sikh — during a session with Adele that sets into motion the events of The Sacred Book, events that lead our fox into the arms of a rapaciously well-endowed werewolf who, like one Vladimir Putin, happens to double as a rapaciously well-compensated veteran of the state security services. Proper nouns like Pushkin and Derrida and Final Fantasy 8 are summoned and discarded; were-canines of all types gather in rituals that control the flow of fossil fuels from the earth: With semiotics so insisting, what could this ecstatic little novel be other than a microcosmic indictment of postmodern Russia, where sex and money and power chase each other in a game totally unmoored from the collective farms of even 15 years ago or, for that matter, the collective mobilizations of 50?
So, do we take Victor Pelevin at his word, when, in the voice of A Hu-Li, he adamantly rejects the reduction of states and peoples to metaphors, or catchphrases, or dirty parables? Sister E, we learn, plies in London a NATO variety of the sacred fox trade; upon hearing her elaborate dismissal of the “English soul” as a “closet?dark and damp,” A sighs, “I can’t stand it when someone speaks badly about entire nations. In my opinion, such a person is either a loser or has a guilty conscience.”
This is a marvelous, nervy moment — a winking gut-check 161 pages into a work heretofore so obviously and ambitiously invested in speaking, rather altogether badly, about an entire federation, that is to say Gazprom and United Russia. Be careful, Pelevin would seem to smirk, all those cues may be mere feints. The book you’re holding might in fact be just a sly, slight fairy tale about the hirsute erogenous zones of well-read woodland creatures — which is to say, at most a Russian Pyscho regarding privileged Muscovites and their commercial-carnal vices. Take my word for it: don’t go looking in these ribald pages for earnest national allegory, for Chechnya and Georgia and New York Times cover stories.
The admonishment hangs for about half a page of dialogue, before A grudgingly plays along with her sister, thus hazarding a definition of the contemporary Russian soul. To go by Pelevin’s disclaimer, what follows could only be simile as droll and generic as the dank “closets” of the perpetually repressed English, could only be two-bit generalization bound to one-off punch line. And indeed, the answer he has A Hu-Li give is all those things, and an unpleasant mental image besides.
Trouble is, it’s also likely the most affecting passage in the novel, and, by any measure, an uncommonly brutal, and artful, thing for a man to write about his country:
I thought about it.
“Like the cab of a long-distance truck. The driver took you in so that you could give him a blowjob. And then he died, so you’re left in the cab on your own, surrounded by nothing but the boundless steppe, the sky and the road. And you have no idea how to drive.”
Of course, if it’s dangerous nowadays for a Russian writer to speak for — that is, condemn — his entire nation, an outsider (whether civilian or critic) limning the state of the country from its texts is committing something like criminal negligence; just ask those poor State Department Kremlinologists discredited and unemployed by 1991. Andrew Bromfield’s translation does its part to preempt any overly ethnographic literalism: Dexterous and playful throughout, any foreignizing cast it takes on is achieved through adroit, unfussy fluency. “The elite here is divided into branches,” he renders a particularly snarky (and difficult) aphorism. ” are called ‘oligarchy’ (derived from the words ‘oil’ and ‘gargle’) and the ‘the apparat’ (from the phrase ‘upper rat’).”
If Bromfield sounds like he’s having a good time, it might be because, at its best, Pelevin’s is a novel whose first language is translation. The book begins with an epigraph by Nabokov — or rather, Humbert Humbert — and the episodic follies of A Hu-Li’s early libidinal transactions can read like cracked Lolita fan fiction, with the American nymphet Dolores Haze swapped for a streetwise Russian who’s conversant in the latest literary theory and actually a product of Han Dynasty China. (“My physical appearance arouses feelings in people, especially men, that are boring to describe, and there’s no need — nowadays everyone has read Lolita, even the Lolitas.”) This pitched hysteria’s sustained until the final 50 pages (no section or chapter breaks here), which inexplicably dissolve into the same tedious sort of “Eastern” spirituality and new-age obscurationism gently poked at in earlier dialogue.
No matter. Intermittingly heavy-handed and overwhelming outlandish, Werewolf nevertheless maintained for this decidedly un-Russian reader a productive, penetrating reality principle. This is a sign of maturity, no doubt, though not necessarily the author’s. Back in the 1990s, when he was the Moscow literati’s enfant terrible, Pelevin wrote books like Omon Ra and Homo Zapiens, so unhinged by sci-fi flourishes and lapses into streams-of-drug-consciousness that they seemed only possible as documents from that great historical exception to global prosperity, that Yeltsin-era giant disintegrating into nothingness. Putin miraculously appeared, of course, but then so did Musharraff and Sarkozy and Bush (who famously looked into the former’s Russian soul). Are we all Russians now?
“And what is the Russian soul like?”
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf thus meets perhaps the first condition for the Great Russian Novel in a 21st century lacking the certitudes of, say, Solzhenitsyn: an abiding ambivalence to the possibility of the same. Writing of, and in, a nation that has in two short decades exhausted all the credible stories, official and otherwise, it could tell itself about itself — in this, they remain the global vanguard — Pelevin is right to radically overdetermine the sex lives of canids, right to stud his own foray into national literature with professions that only losers and the repentant guilty would be so gauche as to try such a thing. He’s also right to try such a thing.