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The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: A Novel

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: A Novel

4.0 8
by Victor Pelevin, Bromfield (Translator), Andrew Bromfield (Translator)

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The world's first Zen Buddhist paranormal romance-published to coincide with Halloween

One of the most progressive writers at work today, Victor Pelevin's comic inventiveness has won him comparisons to Kafka, Calvino, and Gogol, and Time has described him as a 'psychedelic Nabokov for the cyberage.' In The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, a smash


The world's first Zen Buddhist paranormal romance-published to coincide with Halloween

One of the most progressive writers at work today, Victor Pelevin's comic inventiveness has won him comparisons to Kafka, Calvino, and Gogol, and Time has described him as a 'psychedelic Nabokov for the cyberage.' In The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, a smash success in Russia and Pelevin's first novel in six years, paranormal meets transcendental with a splash of satire as A Hu-Li, a two-thousand-year-old shape-shifting werefox from ancient China meets her match in Alexander, a Wagner-addicted werewolf who's the key figure in Russia's Big Oil. Both a supernatural love story and an outrageously funny send-up of modern Russia, this stunning and ingenious work of the imagination is the sharpest novel to date from Russia's most gifted literary malcontent.

Editorial Reviews

On Labor Day weekend in 2008, 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:

"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). "[T]he business of buying and reforming collective farms is suddenly and improbably very profitable, attracting hedge fund managers, Russian oligarchs, Swedish portfolio investors and even a descendent of White Russian émigré nobility…. [T]he new business model rests on a belief that Russia's long, painful history of collectivization is destined to end in large corporate factory farms."

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:

"And what is the Russian soul like?"

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."

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.

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. "[They] 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? --Jonathan Liu

Jonathan Liu is a reviewer and journalist who has written for The New York Observer, Gawker.com, and the Harvard Book Review.

Liesl Schillinger
Racy, playful, thought-provoking and perverse, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf lends itself to both highlighting by the grad student's yellow marker and under-scoring by the thrill-seeker's red pen…It's a joy to read Pelevin's phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pair's longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Bromfield's English text is fleet and magical.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Russian novelist Pelevin's chaotic latest examines contemporary Russia as viewed through the eyes of A. Hu-li, a 2,000-year-old werefox who is able to transform into a beautiful nymphet. The opening chapter is both an introduction to werefoxes as well as an account of how werefoxes, working as prostitutes, utilize their stunning looks to absorb a man's life energy. Hu-li's experiences are standard for an ancient werefox until she meets Alexander, an attractive Russian intelligence officer who happens to be a werewolf. The two share a whirlwind romance, and after some trouble, shack up in Hu-li's bomb shelter. While hiding out, Hu-li and Alexander argue about religion, death, truth and the like until they both claim to be the "super-werewolf." This argument-and Hu-li's disclosure of her true age-rupture the bliss. Pelevin creates interesting enough characters, but the unexplainable plot twists and the author's preoccupation with philosophical ramblings are nearly as perilous as a silver bullet. (Sept.)

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Kirkus Reviews
The werewolf of the title is both literally and metaphorically a fox, a 2,000-year-old Muscovite prostitute in the body of a 15-year-old. Russian author Pelevin (The Helmet of Horror, 2007, etc.) creates a novel both fey and fantastic, with flights of verbal fancy self-confessed as Nabokovian. The fox/narrator recounts that her "physical appearance arouses feelings in people, especially men, that are boring to describe . . . [for] nowadays everybody's read Lolita, even the Lolitas." The fox's bushy tail creates hypnotic illusions in the victims, who are more or less reliably overcome with erotic desire. The narrator is the fox herself, namely A Hu-Li (not to be confused with her sisters E Hu-Li and U Hu-Li, both of whom she corresponds with), who recounts her lustful exploits in a satiric mode, and there's much she finds to satirize: human foibles ("Every time I see a girl in a boutique with an admirer buying her a brooch that costs as much as a small aeroplane, I'm convinced that human females are every bit as good at creating mirages as we are"); sex; Russian consumerism; sci-fi; and even the story she tells, which loops back on itself in self-consciously ironic ways. The main relationship here is between A Hu-Li and the enigmatic Alexander, a Russian intelligence officer who's revealed to be a superwerewolf (perhaps). Toward the end the novel becomes Zen-like in its philosophical play. Alexander turns out to be bewildered about his lupine nature, and the werefox is left to explain that "the super-werewolf is the one you see when you look deep inside yourself for a long time." It's nothing less than our own soul-part bestial, achingly human. A complex, expansive, explosive novel-attimes brilliant, at other times tedious-and definitely not for every taste.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Ursula K. Le Guin
Full of tour de force passages, and full of sex, the novel yet succeeds in not being one of those showy, sexy, cold-hearted books. The fantasy is fueled by passion, the humor by grief.

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."

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Sacred Book of the Werewolf 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great book, but one has to know a lot about Russia to understand it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite book for many reasons. It is funny and modern, yet plays with history and sometimes quite solemn. Deceptively a mere raunchy quest, the tale of A-HuLi is one that I can continue reading over and over agin. The narration is clever and just feels good to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Irv_Highward More than 1 year ago
Tongue in cheek? You bet! This novel takes on Russian culture and zeitgeist, werewolves (or werefoxes), romantic movies, male/female relationships, and a host of other topics, and blends them into a pastiche that is amusing and very enjoyable. At times, the plot drags on a bit; whether that's a symptom of the translation from Russian or the perception of the reader is not known. That's not enough of a handicap to keep you from reading this, though.
janeLW More than 1 year ago
This is not a book I would typically choose, but it was my turn to pick for book club, and from the synopsis I thought this would be a light read the group would enjoy. Well, the discussion was definitely lively because we had a great time listing all the ways this book annoyed us. Perhaps it would have been better had I known details of Russian current events or a deeper knowledge of Buddhism, but I doubt it. I thought the book would be a playful, somewhat surreal romp through the eyes of a werefox prostitute with hypnotic powers (fun, right?). Instead it meandered into looking for the meaning-of-life nonsense of a self-righteous, self-centered werefox prostitute with hypnotic powers trying to attain nirvana. Along the way she falls in love with a werewolf (whom she shames into weredog but with the power to kill flies and possibly make the earth give up oil for Mother Russia's prosperity). And throughout she spouts Buddhist philosophy that sounds like it's straight out of the overdubbed 70s kung fu movies. Trippy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MicheleLeesBookLove More than 1 year ago
This book is a long, hard read with lots of social and political commentary. But it's funny, A Hu-Li is a dynamic, interesting character and it has a beautiful ending, if you can last that long.
basiaaa More than 1 year ago
A very original and hysterical novel. So clever and so much fun! Couldn't put it down. Had some of the funniest scenes I've read in a while, especially when the protagonist works with her 'clients'. Great language too. Can't wait to read more Pelevin!