Buddha's Little Fingerby Victor Pelevin, Andrew Bromfield (Translator), Andrew Bromfield (Translator)
Russian novelist Victor Pelevin is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most brilliant young writers at work today. His comic inventiveness and mind-bending talent prompted Time magazine to proclaim him a "psychedelic Nabokov for the cyber-age." In his third novel, Buddha's Little Finger, Pelevin has created an intellectually dazzling tale about identity and Russian history, as well as a spectacular elaboration of Buddhist philosophy. Moving between events of the Russian Civil War of 1919 and the thoughts of a man incarcerated in a contemporary Moscow psychiatric hospital, Buddha's Little Finger is a work of demonic absurdism by a writer who continues to delight and astonish.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Tverskoi Boulevard was exactly as it had been when I last saw it, two years before. Once again it was February, with snowdrifts everywhere and that peculiar gloom which somehow manages to infiltrate the very daylight. The same old women were perched motionless on the benches; above them, beyond the black latticework of the branches, there was the same grey sky, like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God.
Some things, however, were different. This winter the avenues were scoured by a blizzard straight off the steppes, and I should not have been in the least surprised to have come face to face with a pair of wolves during the course of my walk. The bronze Pushkin seemed a little sadder than usual no doubt because his breast was covered with a red apron bearing the inscription: 'Long Live the First Anniversary of the Revolution'. I felt not the slightest inclination for ironical comment on the fact that the cheers were intended for an event which could not by definition last longer than a single day just recently I had been afforded more than ample opportunity to glimpse the demonic face concealed behind such lapidary absurdities inscribed on red.
It was beginning to get dark, but I could still make out Strastnoi Monastery through the snowy haze. On the square in front of it were two open trucks, their tall side walls tightly strung with bright scarlet material; there was a crowd jostling around them and the orator's voice carried to where I stood. I could scarcely make out anything of what he said, but thegeneral meaning was clear enough from his intonation and the machine-gun rattle of the 'r' in the words 'proletariat' and 'terror'. Two drunken soldiers walked past me, the bayonets on their rifles swaying behind their shoulders. They were hurrying towards the square, but one of them fixed his brazen gaze on me, slowed his pace and opened his mouth as though about to say something; fortunately for him and for me his companion tugged him by the sleeve and they walked on.
I turned and set off down the incline of the boulevard, guessing at what it was in my appearance that constantly aroused the suspicions of all these scum. Of course, I was dressed in outrageously bad taste; I was wearing a dirty coat cut in the English style with a broad half-belt, a military cap (naturally, without the cockade) like the one that Alexander II used to wear, and officer's boots. But it did not seem to be just a matter of my clothes. There were, after all, plenty of other people around who looked far more absurd. On Tverskaya Street, for instance, I had seen a completely insane gentleman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles holding an icon ahead of him as he walked towards the black, deserted Kremlin, but no one had paid him the slightest attention. Meanwhile, I was all the time aware of people casting sidelong glances at me, and on each occasion I was reminded that I had neither money nor documents about my person. The previous day, in the water-closet at the railway station, I had tried sticking a red bow on my chest, but I removed it as soon as I caught sight of my reflection in the cracked mirror; with the ribbon I looked not merely stupid, I looked doubly suspicious.
It is possible, of course, that no one was actually directing their gaze at me any more than at anyone else, and that my tight-strung nerves and the anticipation of arrest were to blame for everything. I did not feel any fear of death. Perhaps, I thought, it had already happened, and this icy boulevard along which I was walking was merely the threshold of the world of shadows. I had realized long before that Russian souls must be fated to cross the Styx when it is frozen, with their fare collected not by a ferryman, but by a figure garbed in grey who hires out a pair of skates the same spiritual essence, naturally.
Suddenly I could picture the scene in the finest of detail: Count Tolstoy in black tights, waving his arms about, skates over the ice towards the distant horizon his movements are slow and solemn, but he makes rapid progress, and the three-headed dog barking soundlessly in pursuit has no chance of overtaking him. I laughed quietly, and at that very moment a hand slapped me on the shoulder.
I stepped to one side and swung round sharply, feeling for the handle of the revolver in my pocket, when to my amazement I saw before me the face of Grigory Vorblei, an aquaintance from childhood. But, my God, his appearance! He was dressed from head to toe in black leather, a holster with a Mauser dangled at his hip, and in his hand he was clutching a ridiculous kind of obstetrician's travelling bag.
'I'm glad you're still capable of laughter,' he said.
'Hello, Grisha,' I said, 'how strange to see you.'
'It just is strange.'
'Where have you come from?' he asked in a cheerful voice. 'And where are you going?'
'From Petersburg,' I replied. 'As for where I'm going, I'd be glad if I knew that myself.'
'Then come to my place,' said Vorblei, 'I'm living just near by, with an entire flat all to myself.'
As we walked on down the boulevard we exchanged glances, smiles and meaningless snatches of conversation. Since the time of our last meeting, Vorblei had grown a beard which made his face look like a sprouting onion, and his cheeks had grown weathered and ruddy, as though his health had benefited greatly from several consecutive winters of ice-skating.
We had studied in the same grammar school, but since then we had seen each other only rarely. I had encountered him a couple of times in the literary salons of St Petersburg he had taken to writing verse in a contrary style which was only heightened by its obvious self-satisfaction. I was rather irritated by his manner of sniffing cocaine in public and his constant hints at his connections in social-democratic circles; however, to judge from his present appearance, the hints must have been true. It was instructive to see someone who at one time was quite adept at expounding the mystical significance of the Holy Trinity now sporting the unmistakable signs of belonging to the hosts of evil. But then, of course, there was really nothing surprising in this transformation: many decadents, such as Mayakovsky, sensing the clearly infernal character of the new authority, had hastened to offer their services to it. As a matter of fact, it is my belief that they were not motivated by conscious satanism they were too infantile for that but by aesthetic instinct: after all, a red pentagram does complement a yellow blouse so marvellously well.
'How are things in Petersburg?' asked Vorblei.
'As if you didn't know.'
'That's right,' agreed Vorblei, suddenly seeming to lose interest. 'I do know.'
We turned off the boulevard, crossed the roadway and found ourselves in front of a seven-storey apartment house. It was directly opposite the Palace Hotel, in front of which two machine-gun installations were visible; they were manned by sailors smoking cigarettes, and a red flag flapped in the wind at the end of a long stick.
Vorblei tugged at my sleeve. 'Look over there,' he said.
I turned my head. On the street outside the entrance to the house stood a black limousine with a tiny cabin for passengers and open front seats, on which the snow had piled up.
'What?' I asked.
'It's mine,' said Vorblei. 'It goes with the job.'
'Ah,' I said, 'congratulations.'
We entered the apartment building. The lift was not working and we had to make our way up a dark staircase, from which the carpet runner had not yet been ripped away.
'What is it that you do?' I asked.
'Oh,' said Vorblei, 'it's not something I can explain in a few words. There's really a lot of work too much, in fact. First one thing, then another, and then something else, and all the time you have to try to keep up. First one place, then another. Someone has to do it all.'
'In the cultural line, is it?'
He inclined his head to one side in a rather indefinite fashion. I did not try to ask any more questions.
When we reached the fifth floor we approached a tall door on which there was a clearly defined lighter coloured rectangular area which showed where a name plaque had once been. He opened the door, and we went into a dark hallway when a telephone on the wall immediately began to jangle.
Vorblei picked up the receiver. 'Yes, comrade Babayasin,' he roared into the ebony cup of the mouthpiece. 'Yes, I remember ... No, don't send them ... Comrade Babayasin, I can't do that, it will look ridiculous ... Just imagine with the sailors, it will be a disgrace ... What? I will follow orders, but I must register a vigorous protest ... What?'
He glanced sideways at me and, not wishing to embarrass him, I went through into the lounge.
The floor there was covered with newspapers most of them banned long ago. I supposed there must have been files of them left behind in the flat. Other traces of the place's former life were also visible: there was a delightful Turkish carpet hanging on the wall and below it stood a secretaire decorated with enamel rhomboids of various colours. As soon as I saw it I realized that a well-to-do bourgeois family must have lived there. A large mirror stood against the opposite wall. Beside it hung a crucifix in the art-nouveau style, and for a moment I pondered the nature of the religious feeling which might correspond to such a work of art. A considerable part of the space was occupied by an immense bed under a yellow canopy. The items that stood on the round table in the centre of the room seemed to me possibly because of their proximity to the crucifix to be a still-life composed of esoteric Christian motifs: a large bottle of vodka, a halvah tin shaped like a heart, a staircase leading into emptiness constructed out of pieces of black bread laid one on top of another, three tooth glasses and a cross-shaped can-opener.
Lying on the floor beside the mirror was a pile of packages whose shapes put me in mind of contraband; a sour smell of leg-wrappings and stale drink hung in the air, and there were also a great many empty bottles in the room. I sat on the table.
Shortly afterwards the door squeaked open and Vorblei came in. He took off his leather jacket, exposing an emphatically military tunic.
'The things they give you to do,' he said as he sat down. 'That was the Cheka on the phone.'
'You work for them as well?'
'I avoid them as much as I can.'
'How did you get involved with such company anyway?'
Vorblei smiled broadly. 'It couldn't have been more simple. I had a five-minute telephone conversation with Gorky.'
'And straight away they gave you a Mauser and that limousine?'
'Listen,' he said, 'life is a theatre. That's a well-known fact. But what you don't hear said so often is that every day the theatre shows a new play. And right now, Petya, I'm putting on a show the like of which you can't imagine ...'
He raised his hands above his head and shook them in the air, as though he were jingling coins in an invisible sack.
'And it's not even the play that's the thing,' he said. 'To continue the analogy, in the old days anyone who felt like it could fling a rotten egg at the stage. Today, however, it's the actors who are more likely to rake the hall with machine-gun fire they might even toss out a bomb. Think about it, who would you rather be right now? An actor or a member of the audience?'
This was a serious question.
'What can I say? The action at this theatre of yours starts much further back than you suggest,' I said thoughtfully. 'Besides, I think that the future really belongs to the cinematograph.'
Vorblei chuckled and nodded. 'All the same, you think about what I said.'
'I promise I will,' I answered.
He poured himself some vodka and drank it.
'Ah,' he said, 'about the theatre. Do you know who the Commissar for Theatres is now? Madame Malinovskaya. Of course, you never knew her, did you?'
'I don't remember,' I replied, a little irritated. 'Who the hell was she?'
'Vorblei sighed. He stood up and walked across the room without speaking.
'Petya,' he said, sitting down facing me and gazing up into my eyes, 'we keep on joking away, but I can see that something's wrong. What's happened to you? You and I are old friends, of course, but even setting that aside I could probably help you.'
I decided to risk it.
'I will be honest with you. Three days ago in Petersburg I had visitors.'
'From that theatre of yours.'
'How do you mean?' he asked, raising his eyebrows.
'Just as I said. Three of them came from the Cheka, one introduced himself as some kind of literary functionary, and the others had no need to introduce themselves. They spoke with me for about forty minutes, mostly the literary one; then they said our conversation had been most interesting, but it would have to be continued in a different place. I did not want to go to that other place because, as you know, it's not one from which one very often returns ...'
'But you did come back,' Vorblei interrupted.
'I did not come back,' I said, 'I never went there. I ran away from them, Grisha. You know, the way we used to run away from the doorman when we were children.'
'But why did they come for you?' asked Vorblei. 'You've got absolutely nothing to do with politics. Was it something you did?'
'I did absolutely nothing at all. It sounds stupid even to talk about it. I published a poem in a newspaper, but it was a newspaper which didn't meet their approval. And there was one rhyme in it they did not like either: "Red" and "mad". Can you imagine that?'
'And what was the poem about?'
'Oh, it was completely abstract. It was about the stream of time washing away the wall of the present so that new patterns keep appearing on it, and we call some of them the past. Our memory tells us that yesterday really existed, but how can we be sure that all of these memories did not simply appear with the first light of dawn?'
'I don't quite understand,' said Vorblei.
'Neither do I,' I said. 'But that is not the point. The main thing I am trying to say is that there was no politics in it at all. At least, that was what I thought. But they thought differently, they explained that to me. The most frightening thing was that after the conversation with their consultant I actually understood his logic, I understood it so well that ... It was so frightening that when they led me out on to the street, I ran away not so much from them as from this new understanding of mine ...'
'The entire story is a load of arrant nonsense,' he said. 'They're nothing but idiots. But you're a fine fool yourself. Was that the reason you came to Moscow?'
'Well, what could I do? As I was running away, I fired. You may understand that I was firing at a spectre created by my own fear, but that is hardly something I can explain to them at the Cheka.'
Vorblei looked at me seemingly engrossed in his thoughts. I looked at his hands he was running them across the tablecloth with a barely perceptible motion, as though he were wiping away sweat, and then suddenly he hid them under the table. There was an expression of despair on his face, and I sensed that our meeting and my account had placed him in an extremely awkward situation.
'Of course, that makes it worse,' he muttered. 'But still, it's a good thing you've confided in me. I think we'll be able to sort it out ... Yes, yes, I'm sure we can sort it out ... I'll give Gorky a call straight away ... Put your hands on your head.'
I did not take in the meaning of the final words until I saw the muzzle of the Mauser lying on the tablecloth. Incredibly enough, the very next thing that he did was to take a pincenez out of his breast pocket and set it on his nose.
'Put your hands on your head,' he repeated.
'What are you doing?' I asked, raising my hands. 'Grisha?'
'No,' he said.
'Weapon and papers on the table, that's what.'
'How can I put them on the table,' I said, 'if my hands are on my head?'
He cocked his pistol.
'My God,' he said, 'if you only knew just how often I've heard that phrase.'
'Well, then,' I said, 'the revolver is in my coat. What an incredible bastard you are. But then I've known that since we were children. What do you get out of all of this? Do you think they'll give you a medal?'
Vorblei smiled. 'Into the corridor,' he said.
When we were in the corridor he kept the gun trained on me while he rummaged through the pockets of my coat, took out the revolver and put it in his pocket. There was a furtive haste about his movements, like a schoolboy on his first visit to a brothel, and the thought occurred to me that he had probably never had to commit an act of treachery in such an obvious and commonplace fashion before.
'Unlock the door,' he ordered, 'and go out on to the landing.'
'Let me put my coat on,' I said, feverishly wondering whether there was anything I could say to this man, so excited by his own baseness, that might be capable of changing the unfolding course of events.
'We're not going far,' said Vorblei, 'just across the boulevard. But put it on anyway.'
I took the coat down from the hanger with both hands, turned slightly to thrust my arm into one of the sleeves, and the next moment, to my own amazement, I had flung the coat over Vorblei not simply tossed it in his direction, but actually thrown it right on top of him.
To this day I do not understand how he failed to shoot me, but a fact is a fact. He pressed the trigger only as he was falling to the floor under the weight of my body and the bullet missed my side by a few inches and struck the door of the apartment. The coat covered Vorblei's head where he had fallen and I grabbed hold of his throat through the thick fabric. I managed to pin the wrist of the hand clutching the pistol to the floor with my knee, though before his fingers opened he had fired several more bullets into the wall. I was almost deafened by the thunderous noise. I think that in the course of the struggle I must have butted his covered face; in any case, I can clearly recall the quiet crunching of his pincenez in the interlude between two shots.
Even after he had stopped moving, it was a long time before I could bring myself to release my grip on his throat. My hands scarcely obeyed me; in order to restore my breathing I performed an exercise, but it had a strange effect, inducing a mild fit of hysterics. I suddenly saw the scene from the perspective of an outside observer: a figure sitting on the corpse of a newly strangled friend and assiduously breathing according to Yogi Ramacharaki's method as described in the journal Isida. As I stood up, I was overwhelmed by the realization that I had committed murder.
Of course, like anyone else who did not entirely trust the authorities, I carried a revolver, and two days before I had had no qualms about using it. But this was something different, this was some dark scene out of Dostoevsky: an empty flat, a corpse covered with an English-style coat, and a door leading to a hostile world a door perhaps already being approached by people attracted by idle curiosity. By an effort of will I banished these thoughts from my mind. The Dostoevskian atmosphere, of course, was not created by the corpse or the door with its bullet hole, but by myself, by my own consciousness, which had assimilated the forms of another's repentance.
Opening the door on to the stairs slightly, I listened for a few seconds. I could hear nothing, and I thought that perhaps the sound of a few pistol shots might not have attracted attention after all.
My revolver was still in Vorblei's trouser pocket, but I really did not feel inclined to retrieve it. I picked up his Mauser and looked it over. It had an excellent mechanism, and was quite new. I forced myself to search his jacket and discovered a packet of 'Ira' papyrosas, a spare cartridge clip for the Mauser and a pass for a member of the Cheka in the name of Grigory Fourply. Yes, I thought to myself that was a typical touch; but his true character had already been clear even when we were children.
I squatted down on my haunches and opened the lock of his obstetrician's bag. Inside there was an official-looking file full of blank arrest warrants, another two cartridge clips, a tin box full of cocaine, some extremely unpleasant-looking medical forceps (I immediately flung them into the corner) and a thick wad of money, with rainbow-coloured one-hundred-rouble Duma notes on one side and dollars on the other. It was all just what I needed. In order to restore myself a little after the shock I had suffered, I stuffed a generous amount of cocaine into my nostrils. It slashed across my brain like a razor and I instantly became calm. I did not like cocaine, it made me too sentimental, but just now I needed to recover control rapidly.
Taking Vorblei under the arms, I dragged him along the corridor, kicked open the door into one of the rooms and was about to push him inside when I froze in the doorway. Despite the devastation and neglect, signs of the room's former life were still visible, illuminated by a light still there from before the war; it had been the nursery, two small beds with light bamboo railings stood in one corner and on the wall there was a charcoal drawing of a horse and a face with a moustache. There was a red rubber ball lying on the floor. When I saw it, I immediately closed the door and dragged Vorblei further along the corridor. I was startled by the funereal simplicity of the next room: standing in the centre was a black grand piano with its lid open, and beside it a revolving stool. There was nothing else.
At this moment a strange sensation came over me. Leaving Vorblei half-sitting in the corner (all the time I had been moving him I had been very careful to make sure that his face did not peep out from under the grey fabric of the coat), I sat down at the piano. How strange, I thought, comrade Fourply is here and he is not here. Who knows what transformations his soul is now undergoing? I remembered a poem by him, published three years earlier in the New Satiricon it took the form of a retelling of a newspaper article about the disbanding of some parliament or other and its acrostic read as 'Mane Tekel Fares', the words on King Belshazzar's wall. He was alive; he thought; he pondered over things. How very strange.
I turned towards the piano and began quietly playing a piece by Mozart, my favourite fugue in F, which always made me regret that I did not have the four hands the great musical madcap himself had dreamed of. The melody that engrossed me had nothing to do with the shocking incident with Vorblei: the image that appeared before my eyes was of the small bamboo beds in the next room, and for a second I imagined someone else's childhood, someone else's pure glance directed at the sunset, someone else's world, deeply moving beyond all words, which had now been borne off into oblivion. I did not play for very long, though, the piano was out of tune, and I knew I should be leaving as quickly as possible. But where should I go?
It was time to think about how I would spend the evening. I went back into the corridor and glanced doubtfully at Vorblei's leather jacket, but there was nothing else. Despite the daring nature of several of my literary experiments, I was still not enough of a decadent to put on a coat which had now become a shroud and, moreover, had a bullet hole in its back. I took the jacket off the hook, picked up the obstetrician's bag and went through into the room with the mirror.
The leather jacket was just my size the dead man and I were almost exactly the same height. When I tightened the belt with the holster dangling from it and looked at my reflection, what I saw was the very image of a Bolshevik. I expect that an inspection of the packages lying by the wall would have made me a rich man in the space of a few minutes, but my squeamishness won the upper hand. Painstakingly reloading the pistol, I checked that it sprang easily from its holster and was just about to leave the room when I heard voices in the corridor. I realized that all this time the front door of the apartment had been open.
I dashed over to the balcony. It looked out on to Tverskoi Boulevard and the twenty or so yards of cold dark emptiness beneath it held nothing but swirling snowflakes. In the circle of light from a street lamp I could see Vorblei's automobile, and a man wearing a Bolshevik helmet who had somehow appeared in the front seat. I decided that Vorblei must have summoned the Cheka when he was on the telephone. It was impossible to clamber down on to the balcony below, so I dashed back into the room. They were already pounding on the door. So be it, I thought, all of this had to come to an end sooner or later. I aimed the Mauser at the door and shouted: 'Enter!'
The door opened and two sailors in pea-jackets and rakishly flared trousers came tumbling into the room; they were hung all over with bottle-shaped hand grenades. One of them, with a moustache, was already elderly but the other was young, although his face was flaccid and anaemic. They paid not the slightest attention to the pistol in my hand.
'Are you Fourply?' asked the older one with the moustache.
'Here,' said the sailor, and he held out a piece of paper folded into two.
I put the Mauser back in its holster and unfolded the paper.
Com. Fourply! Go immediately to the 'Musical Snuffbox' to propound our line. To assist you I am sending Zherbunov and Barbolin, experienced comrades. Babayasin'
Below the text there was an illegible seal. While I was thinking what to say, they sat down at the table.
'Is that driver downstairs yours?' I asked.
'Yes,' said the one with the moustache. 'But we'll take your car. What's your name?'
'Pyotr,' I said, and then almost bit my tongue.
'I'm Zherbunov,' said the older one.
'Barbolin,' the younger one introduced himself. His voice was soft and almost womanish.
I sat facing them at the table. Zherbunov poured out three glasses of vodka, pushed one across to me and raised his eyes to my face. I realized that he was waiting for something.
'Well then,' I said, taking a grip on my glass, 'let us drink to the victory of world revolution!'
My toast was not greeted with any great enthusiasm.
'Of course, victory's all very well,' said Barbolin, 'but what about the works?'
'What works?' I asked.
'Don't you try playing the fool with us,' Zherbunov reproached me, 'Babayasin told us you were issued a tin today.'
'Ah, you're talking about the cocaine,' I said, reaching into the obstetrician's bag. 'Works is a word with many different meanings. Perhaps you'd like some ether, like William James?'
'Who's he?' asked Barbolin, grasping the tin in his coarse, broad palm.
'An English comrade.'
Zherbunov cleared his throat dubiously, but for a moment Barbolin's face reflected one of those feelings that nineteenth-century Russian artists loved to depict when they were creating national types the feeling that somewhere out there is a wide and wonderful world, filled with amazing and attractive things, and though you can never seriously hope to reach it yourself, you cannot help sometimes dreaming impossible dreams.
The tension disappeared as though by magic. Zherbunov opened the tin, picked up a knife from the table, scooped up a monstrous amount of the white powder and rapidly stirred it into his vodka. Barbolin did the same, first with his own glass, and then with mine.
'Now we can do the world revolution justice,' he said.
My face must have betrayed an element of doubt, because Zherbunov chuckled and said: 'This goes right back to the Aurora, brother, back to the very beginning. It's called "Baltic tea".'
They raised their glasses and drained them at a gulp, and there was nothing left for me but to follow their example. Almost immediately my throat became numb. I lit a papyrosa and inhaled deeply, but I could not taste the smoke. We sat there without speaking for about a minute.
'We should get going,' Zherbunov said suddenly and rose from the table. 'Ivan'll freeze to death down there.'
In a state of numb torpor, I put the tin back into the bag. I hung back in the corridor, trying to find my fur hat, then put on Vorblei's peaked cap instead. We left the apartment and set off in silence down the dimly lit staircase.
I was suddenly aware that my spirits were calm and easy, and the further I went, the calmer and easier they became. I was not thinking about the future, it was enough for me that I was not threatened by any immediate danger, and as we crossed the dark landings I gazed entranced at the incredibly beautiful snowflakes swirling in the air outside the windowpanes. It occurred to me that I myself was like one of those snowflakes, and the wind of fate was bearing me onwards in the wake of the two other snowflakes in black pea-jackets who were stomping down the stairs in front of me. However, despite the euphoria that had enveloped me, I remained capable of a sober assessment of reality and was able to make one interesting observation. While I was still in Petrograd I had been curious about how the sailors managed to keep up those heavy bullet harnesses they wore. On the third-floor landing, where a solitary electric bulb was shining, I spotted several hooks on Zherbunov's back which held his machine-gun belts together, rather in the manner of a brassiere. I immediately had a vision of Zherbunov and Barbolin preparing themselves for their next killing and helping one another with this difficult element of their toilet like two girls in a bathing hut. It seemed to me yet another proof of the feminine nature of all revolutions. I suddenly understood several of Alexander Blok's new moods; some involuntary exclamation must have escaped my throat, because Barbolin turned around.
'And you didn't want to try it, you nelly,' he said, exposing a gleaming gold tooth.
We went out into the street. Barbolin said something to the soldier sitting in the front seat of the car, opened the door and we climbed in. The car immediately moved off. Through the rounded windscreen of the passenger cabin I could see a snow-covered back and a sharp-pointed felt helmet. It was as though our carriage were being driven by one of Ibsen's trolls. I thought that the construction of the automobile was most uncomfortable and, moreover, humiliating for the driver, who was always exposed to the elements but perhaps this was a deliberate arrangement, so that the passengers could enjoy not only the view through the window, but also savour the inequality of the classes.
I turned towards the side window. The street was empty and the snow falling on to the roadway was exceptionally beautiful. It was illuminated by widely spaced street lamps; by the light of one of them I caught a glimpse of a phrase of graffiti boldly daubed on the wall of a house: 'LENINE EST MERDE'.
When the automobile braked to a halt, I was already feeling a little more normal. We alighted on an unfamiliar street beside an entirely undistinguished-looking gateway in a wall, in front of which stood a couple of automobiles and several smart cabs. A little further off I noticed a frightening-looking armoured car with its machine-gun turret buried under a cap of snow, but I had no time for a closer look, for the sailors had already plunged into the gateway. We walked across an inexpressibly bleak courtyard and found ourselves facing a door surmounted by a protruding canopy with volutes and cherubs in the old merchant style. A small signboard had been hung on the canopy: 'THE MUSICAL SNUFFBOX: LITERARY CABARET'.
There was light showing through the pink curtains drawn tightly across several windows beside the door: from behind them I could hear the plaintively beautiful note of some obscure musical instrument.
Zherbunov tugged the door open sharply, revealing behind it a short corridor hung with fur coats and greatcoats, which ended in a heavy velvet curtain. A man wearing a simple Russian shirt and looking like a convict rose from a stool to meet us.
'Citizen sailors,' he began, 'we don't ...'
With the agility of a circus acrobat Barbolin swung his rifle around his shoulder and struck him with the butt in the base of his belly; the attendant slid down the wall and on to the floor, his hostile face suddenly expressive of weariness and revulsion. Zherbunov pulled aside the curtain, and we entered a dimly lit hall.
Feeling myself fired by an unusual burst of energy, I looked around. The place looked like an ordinary run-of-the-mill restaurant with some pretensions to chic, and the public seated among the dense clouds of smoke at small round tables was quite varied. There was a smell of opium. Nobody took any notice of us, and we sat at a small table not far from the entrance.
The hall was bounded on one side by a brightly lit stage, on which a clean-shaven gentleman in evening dress, with one bare foot, was sitting on a black velvet stool. He was sliding the bow he held in his right hand across the smooth edge of a long saw, one handle of which was pressed against the floor by his foot while the other was gripped tightly in his left hand, so that the saw bent into a trembling curve. When he needed to dampen the vibration of the gleaming strip of metal, he would press his bare foot against it for a second. Beside him on the floor stood a patent-leather shoe with a blindingly white sock protruding from it. The sound which the gentleman extracted from his instrument was absolutely unearthly, at once doleful and enchanting. I think he was playing a simple melody, but that was not important; what mattered was the timbre, the modulations of a single note that faded away over an eternity and pierced straight to the very centre of my heart.
The door-curtain at the entrance quivered and the man in the Russian shirt stuck his head and shoulders out from behind it. He clicked his fingers somewhere off into the darkness and nodded towards our table. Then he turned towards us, gave a short, formal bow and disappeared back behind the curtain. Immediately a waiter emerged out of somewhere with a tray in one hand and a copper teapot in the other (there were identical teapots standing on the other tables). The tray held a dish of small pies, three teacups and a tiny whistle. The waiter set the cups out in front of us, filled them from the teapot and then froze in motionless anticipation. I held out a bill drawn at random from my travelling bag I think it was a ten-dollar note. I could not understand at first what the whistle was doing on the tray, but then I heard a melodic whistling from one of the neighbouring tables, and saw a waiter come dashing over at the sound.
Zherbunov swallowed a mouthful of liquid from his cup and grimaced in distaste. Then I tried a sip from mine. It was khanja, a bad Chinese vodka made from kaoliang. I started chewing on a pie, but I could not taste it at all; the freezing effect on my throat of the cocaine had still not worn off.
'What's in the pies?' Barbolin asked gingerly. 'People keep disappearing these days, after all. I don't feel like breaking my fast that way.'
'I tried it once,' Zherbunov said simply. 'It's like beef.'
Unable to bear any more of this, I took out the tin box and Barbolin set about stirring the powder into our cups.
Meanwhile the gentleman in evening dress finished playing, donned his sock and shoe with elegant rapidity, stood up, bowed, picked up the stool and quit the stage to the sound of scattered applause. A handsome-looking man with a small grey beard got up from a table beside the stage. His throat was wrapped in a grey scarf as though to conceal a love bite. I was astonished to recognize him as the poet Valery Briusov, now old and emaciated. He mounted the stage and turned to face the hall.
'Comrades! Although we live in a visual age, in which lines of printed words are being supplanted by sequences of images or ... hmm ...,' he declaimed, 'still tradition does not abandon the struggle, but seeks to discover new forms. To this day the immortal Dostoevsky and his novel Crime and Punishment continue to inspire young seekers of truth, both with axes to grind and without. And so now a little tragedy that is the precise definition of this play's genre, according to the author himself, the chamber poet Ioann Pavlukhin. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please for the little tragedy Raskolnikov and Marmeladov.'
'Your attention please,' echoed Zherbunov, and we drank.
Briusov left the stage and returned to his table. Two men in military uniform carried a massive gilded lyre on a stand and a stool out on to the stage from the wings. Then they brought out a table, stood a pot-bellied liqueur bottle and two glasses on it, and pinned up two pieces of cardboard at either side of the stage, bearing the words 'Raskolnikov' and 'Harmeladov' (I immediately decided that the misspelling of the second name was not a mistake but a symbol of some kind), and finally they hung a board bearing the incomprehensible word 'yhvy' in the centre of the stage. Having duly situated all of these objects in their places, they disappeared. A woman in a long tunic emerged from the wings and began running leisurely fingers over the strings of the lyre. Several minutes passed in this fashion before a quartet of individuals in long black cloaks appeared on stage. Each of them went down on one knee and raised a black hem to conceal his face from the audience. Someone applauded. At the opposite end of the stage two figures appeared wearing tall buskins, long white robes and Greek masks. They began slowly moving towards each other, but stopped before they came close. One of them had an axe hanging under his arm in a noose entwined with roses I realized that he was Raskolnikov. This, in fact, was obvious enough without the axe, because the board bearing his name was hanging by the wings on his side of the stage.
The other figure halted, slowly raised his arm in the air and began intoning in ponderous hexameters. In almost exactly the same words as his drunken prototype in the novel, he confessed that he had nowhere left to turn, then declared that Raskolnikov's blazing eyes betrayed a keen sensibility of the woes of the downtrodden and oppressed, and immediately suggested that they should drink to that (this was indeed a revolutionary innovation).
The actor with the axe declined curtly. Marmeladov quickly drained his glass and continued his oration, paying Raskolnikov a long and confused compliment, in which I found several of the images quite effective for instance that of the arrogant strength of emptiness blossoming behind the hero's eyes and lending his face a semblance of the visage of God.
On hearing the word 'God', Zherbunov nudged me with his elbow.
'What d'you reckon?' he asked in a low voice.
'It is still too soon,' I whispered in reply. 'Carry on watching.'
Marmeladov's meaning grew more and more ambiguous. Dark hints began to surface in the flow of his words: a comparison of the grey St Petersburg morning with a blow from an axe to the back of the head, of his own world-weary soul with a dark closet in which the bodies of dead women lay. At this, Raskolnikov began showing clear signs of nervousness, and he enquired what Marmeladov wanted of him. In some confusion, Marmeladov asked him to sell the axe.
In the meantime I surveyed the hall. There were three or four people at each round table; the customers were a very mixed bunch, but as has always been the case throughout the history of humanity, it was pig-faced speculators and expensively dressed whores who predominated. Sitting at the same table as Briusov, and grown noticeably fatter since the last time I had seen him, was Alexei Tolstoy, wearing a big bow instead of a normal tie. The fat that had accumulated on him seemed to have been pumped from the skeletal frame of Briusov: together they looked quite horrific.
Looking further, at one of the tables I noticed a strange man sporting a military blouse criss-crossed with belts and an upturned handlebar moustache. He was alone at his table, and instead of a teapot there was a bottle of champagne standing in front of him. I decided that he must be a big Bolshevik boss. I do not know what it was in his calm, powerful face that struck me as unusual, but for several seconds I was unable to take my gaze off him. His eyes met mine, but he immediately turned away to face the stage, where the meaningless dialogue was continuing.
Raskolnikov attempted to discover for what purpose Marmeladov required the axe and received replies couched in vague, flowery phrases about youth, the Grail, eternity, power, hope and for some strange reason the phases of the moon. Eventually Raskolnikov capitulated and handed over the axe. He was counting the wad of bills that Marmeladov had given him in payment, when he suddenly swayed back and froze in astonishment. He had noticed that Marmeladov was standing there in front of him wearing a mask. Still speaking in the same laboured hexameters, he began asking Marmeladov to remove the mask. I was particularly struck by one image which he used, 'Your eyes are like two yellow stars' Briusov broke into applause at the words, but overall it was far too long and drawn out. After Raskolnikov had repeated his request for the third time, Marmeladov paused in silence for a long, terrible moment before tearing the mask from his face. Simultaneously the tunic attached to the mask was torn from his body, revealing a woman dressed in lacy knickers and a brassiere, sporting a silvery wig with a rat's-tail plait.
'Oh God! ... The old woman! And I am empty-handed ...' Having pronounced these final words in an almost inaudible voice, Raskolnikov slumped to the floor from the full height of his buskins.
What followed made me blench. Two violinists leapt out on to the stage and began frenziedly playing some gypsy melody, while the Marmeladov woman threw her tunic over Raskolnikov, leapt on to his chest and began strangling him, wiggling her lace-clad bottom to and fro in excitement.
For a moment I thought that what was happening was the result of some monstrous conspiracy, and that everybody was looking in my direction. I glanced around like a beast at bay, my eyes once again met those of the man in the black military blouse, and I somehow suddenly realized that he knew all about the death of Vorblei that he knew, in fact, far more serious things about me than just that.
At that moment I came close to leaping up from my chair and taking to my heels, and it took a monstrous effort of will to remain sitting at the table. The audience was applauding feebly; several of them were laughing and pointing at the stage, but most were absorbed in their own conversations and their vodka.
Having strangled Raskolnikov, the woman in the wig bounded over to the front of the stage and began dancing wildly to the insane accompaniment of the two violins, kicking her naked legs up towards the ceiling and waving the axe. The four figures in black, who had remained motionless throughout the play, now took hold of Raskolnikov, still covered by the tunic, and carried him into the wings. I had a faint inkling that this was a reference to the very end of Hamlet, where there is a mention of four captains who are supposed to carry away the dead prince. Strangely enough, this thought brought me to my senses straight away. I realized that what was happening was not a conspiracy against me nobody could possibly have arranged it all in the time which had passed but a perfectly ordinary mystical challenge. Immediately deciding to accept it, I turned to the two sailors, who had by this time retreated into themselves.
'Time to call a halt, lads. This is treason.'
Barbolin looked up at me uncomprehendingly.
'The agents of the Entente are at it again,' I threw in at random.
These words seemed to have some meaning for him, because he immediately tugged his rifle from his shoulder. I restrained him.
'Not that way, comrade. Wait.'
Meet the Author
Victor Pelevin is the author of A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories, The Life of Insects, Omon Ra, The Yellow Arrow, and The Blue Lantern, a collection of short stories that won the Russian "Little Booker" Prize. His novel Buddha's Little Finger was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He was named by The New Yorker as one of the best European writers under thirty-five and by The Observer newspaper in London as one of "twenty-one writers to watch for the 21st century."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
One of the best Pelevin's books
A strange and delightful trip through some fantastic terrain, both outside and inside. The beginning bogged down a little for me, but after that I couldn't put it down. I've read it twice and think it is a book that needs to be taken in again and again. But let me add- if you aren't interested in Buddhism, Zen and the 'realness' of exsistence don't even take this trip.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the victorious Reds still had to face the Whites in a Civil War. Dmitry Fermanov's 1923 novel, Chapaev celebrated one of that conflict's greatest generals. In Buddha's Little Finger, Victor Pelevin, whose loathing for his national heritage couldn't be more intense, takes hilarious aim at both Chapaev and Fermanov, making them both riotous figures of fun. Buddha's Little Finger highlights the unreality of Russia today and traces its similarities to Russia during the days of the Revolution by weaving back and forth between the 1990s and 1918-19. In the 1990s, the first-person narrator of Buddha's Little Finger is Pyotr Voyd, a patient in a mental hospital. In 1918-19, this same person is Petya, Chapaev's sidekick. Each of these narrators, in a drug-induced hypnotic trance, talks about critical moments in his inner life. Buddha's Little Finger is a story of a spiritual quest that encompasses several short stories inserted into the whole of the novel. These stories share a thematic connection to the novel-as-a-whole, but little else, revolving around parodies of Russian history, critiques of modern Russia, investigations of Japanese culture and intense philosophical debates among the characters. Pelevin treats us to dreams, visions and absurdity a la Gogol and Kafka as well as to moments of genuine lyrical beauty. At the heart of this book, however lies the ago-old question, 'Who am I?' For Pelevin, the answer lies in a fictional construct. He tells us, through his characters, that what for years has seemed so real and immutable has really been nothing more than an illusion; a reality as flimsy and diaphanous as a dream. Pyotr Voyd's (the choice of the name was deliberate) mental illness is a literary device symbolic of the illogical disjunctions in Russia's history, but, in the context of the novel, the illness has been caused by those very same historical changes; an ironic twist on the doctrine of dialectical materialism. Buddha's Little Finger is a novel haunted by nothingness. Indeed, Pelevin seems to pay homage to nothingness; the Russian title of this book means 'Chapaev and Emptiness.' Chapaev, however, stands for 'something,' but the something he stand for is little more than a cardboard myth. Voyd, the anti-hero, represents the 'nothingness,' that followed years of heroic struggle in the Soviet Union and that lives on in the Russia of today. Buddha's Little Finger is definitely not a quiet, meditative treatise on Buddhism; it is a lively, absurd, disjointed postmodern novel that expresses life's problems without offering any patent answers. Instead, Pelevin give us the typically postmodern shrug, the ironic wink, the standard lip service paid to pat political remedies. At one point, Pelevin describes the answer as an 'incredible trip, the likes of which you couldn't get out here from a fix or a grand in greens. And no stopping--get it? Morning, noon and night.' At times, Buddha's Little Finger does borrow heavily from Buddhist thought, toying with its symbols and seeming contradictions, as in 'As soon as I know...I am no longer free. But I am absolutely free when I do not know.' At times like these, the novel takes us back to the pre-revolutionary novelist Andre Biely, the symbolist poet Alexander Blok, the mystical visions of Sergei Soloviev. Buddha's Little Finger is a masterfully told tale, on par with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Like The Master and Margarita, Buddha's Little Finger draws the reader in piece by piece so that the effect is more poetic than novelistic. In the end we are left with a series of philosophical images and puzzles that satisfy far more than any 'quick fix' plot contrivances ever could.