Tolstoy’s Nightmares

  • Victor Pelevin. t. Eksmo. October 2009.

The disconnect in Russia between language and reality can at times become disturbing. It isn’t just the standard “double-talk” of politicians, a screen of incomprehensible loan-words and convoluted syntax. It’s worse: a feeling that the basic descriptions of reality don’t correspond to their objects. The sense of being lied to starts on the level of the infinitely banal and moves its way up. Subway escalators that were working five minutes ago are arbitrarily declared “broken”; stores take random and unpredictable “technical breaks,” even if the technicality is a cigarette. Restaurants often carry so little of what is printed on the menu that the best approach is simply to ask, “What do you have?” The Unified Government Exam, implemented last year to standardize the university application process, is neither unified nor accepted by all government universities.

Russia today thus breeds a desire for stories that bear at least some resemblance to reality, no matter what other baggage they may carry along. Victor Pelevin, one of Russia’s most popular and critically acclaimed novelists, is a writer whose baggage can initially seem overwhelming. His novels brim with references to obscure mythology, lengthy hallucinogenic digressions, and exceptionally corrupt and personally unappealing characters. Pelevin does little to hide the fact that he is, as he has put it, “writing what would amuse me.” His amusements, though, feel somehow right. There is the following, one of the sharpest slogans from his widely acclaimed novel Generation P (1999):

Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilization. Now there is no more culture. No more civilization. All that remains is The Gap.

The absurd accuracy of this slogan—as an advertisement for The Gap, and as a general sentiment—is more than enough to forgive Pelevin the fifteen-page shroom-induced séance with Che Guevara that immediately follows.

The slogan’s comedic take on life in modern Russia also seems particularly characteristic of Pelevin’s work, from his first novel, Omon Ra (1991), to Empire V. The Story of a Real Superman (2006). No matter the domineering strangeness of the surroundings and the heavy-handed metaphors, one never doubts that Pelevin’s larger project remains to describe the world as it is. “My hero,” Pelevin has remarked, “can seem abnormal, but he is an absolutely standard person, whose priorities simply differ just slightly from those injected by advertising.” Pelevin’s hero may see Russia as an “empire, where God manifests himself solely as the waste-product of the production of money,” as in Empire V. Or he may define “postmodernism” as the process of “making dolls out of a doll, while you yourself are a doll” (The Dialectic of a Transitional Period from Nowhere to Nowhere). All the same, Pelevin’s stories remain grounded in a reality quite reminiscent of Russia today, and the political and economic events of the country rarely recede from view.

What does recede from view is Pelevin himself. He does not take part in any social or political movements and he has given only two interviews over the past decade. As a result, Pelevin has come to present himself as a sort of oracle. Jumbled and obtuse commentary filters down about the state of modern Russia; the man himself remains masked and unreachable.

Pelevin’s most recent novel, the enigmatically titled t, not yet translated into English, appears as a radical break from his previous oeuvre. Gone is the Moscow of money-grubbing gangsters and bureaucrats; gone is the modern hero, struggling against the flood of false desires fed to him by advertising. Pelevin turns his attention instead to a certain Count T., who we find on a quest for the “Optina Pustin” some time around 1900. The book drops numerous hints that Count T. is one and the same as Leo Tolstoy, who bore the same title, but this Count, having lost his memory and disguised himself as a priest, manages in the opening chapters of the novel to eat a synthetic dragon, discuss pagan religions with an overweight princess named after a cockroach, and escape an attack from a band of poison-dart blowing pygmies. He later teams up with a battle-ax-toting Dostoevsky, who takes him on a zombie killing spree through the St. Petersburg sewers. Frankly, I don’t know why the biographers left that episode out.

When not engaged with fictional absurdities, the novel busies itself with their metafictional counterparts. A demon named Ariel explains to T. that he is little more than a character in a novel written by Ariel (along with a team of ghostwriters) for obscure material and political reasons in the present day. Ariel and his compatriots, it turns out, do live in the Moscow we expect from Pelevin, and tend to behave in a fitting manner too, playing the demands of the Russian Orthodox Church off those of Caucasian mafiosos, always keeping in mind the overriding need to “suck money from the West.”

Throughout his works, Pelevin’s major talent has been a shredding mockery, and the humor has always had at least an element of social commentary. In Omon Ra and Yellow Arrow the target was Soviet and modern Russian political propaganda; in Generation P, the wave of advertising and Western-funded business ventures of Russia in the late 1990s. With t, it seems, Pelevin has turned his sights on popular Russian literature, from the 19th century to the present. The result is a novel that, ironically enough, resembles this body of literature more than Pelevin’s previous works.

While it would hardly be fair to call modern Russian literature “socially unaware,” there has been a trend in recent years toward fiction more concerned with literary games than everyday life. In his previous work Pelevin distinguished himself both by his engagement with contemporary Russia and by his basic nihilism. When a Pelevinian everyman finally works his way through the labyrinth of lies built around him by society, he very quickly and happily agrees to become one of those doing the lying. The final lesson for Vavilen, the hero of Generation P, is in the joys of the $10,000 prostitute. And if t is less colloquial (and more pretentious) than Pelevin’s previous books, the plot is as cynical as ever. Count T. keeps returning to his memories of a sweet assignation with a young peasant, even though these daydreams, as the novel informs us (and him), have been crafted by an “erotica specialist” ghostwriter brought in to attract “the female 15-25 market segment.”

In t’s better moments, Pelevin’s nihilism remains pleasingly smart-ass. But by making Russian literature his main target of mockery, Pelevin reduces the biting descriptions of reality as well as another part of what made his novels enjoyable—his use of language. His virtuosity, more than any desire for literary tough-love, was what made his previous work so popular with readers. Pelevin breaks out the old tricks every so often in t., playing, for instance, the English word “marketing” off of mrak, obscurity or gloom. Yet there is little to compare to the delicious interweaving of English and Russian that filled Pelevin’s earlier novels. In the course of commenting on the corrupt nature of Russia’s 1990s experience with privatization in Yellow Arrow, for instance, a character is asked to say what the word “business” (biznes) means. “I can guess,” Pelevin’s hero answers. “Judging by the sound . . . to beat (bit’), a cunt (pizda), and without us (bez nas).”

It’s unfortunate, then, just how seriously Pelevin takes his literary games in t. In order to more acidly mock other writers, the language of t excludes a great deal of his previous playfulness. Count T. tends to speak in a tiring parody of 19th-century literary Russian, throwing in the occasional awkward and obvious literary reference—a scratch of Pushkin here, a famous and heavily commented line of Lermontov there. The story suffers from repetitive jokes about ghostwriters’ bad habits. And as Ariel openly admits, characters and whole plot lines are often simply forgotten, or tied together by, say, a headless philosopher who appears at just the right place and time. The fact that a great deal of the plot revolves around haphazardly scattered winks at the life of the historical Leo Tolstoy hardly helps. This can at times amuse—the real Tolstoy, too, had a peasant lover named Aksina—but it becomes especially tiresome once the emphasis on Eastern philosophy starts to push out other considerations.

Tolstoy (the real Tolstoy), so the story goes, liked to retell Confucian sayings to peasant children on his estate. He even went so far as to publish a book of children’s stories based on Confucian and Buddhist philosophy. Pelevin, no stranger to Eastern religions—he’s reported to have worked for a time covering Eastern mysticism for the magazine Science and Religion (Nauka i Religiya)—takes this as a cue. The dominance of the resulting semi-philosophic and Buddhist-infused ramblings often distracts from much of the rest of the novel. Granted, Count T. does have a tendency to end meetings by throwing shrapnel-loaded bombs in the air and killing everyone present, but until that point a decidedly ruminative atmosphere tends to dominate.

It would be wrong, though, to take Pelevin too seriously in his apparent philosophical turn, or to assume that with t he has somehow abandoned his previous nihilism for the sort of mild optimism found elsewhere in modern Russian writing. Pelevin’s skepticism is aimed not only at those who would use literature for commercial gain, but at newly earnest (and increasingly successful) writers such as Vladimir Sorokin, who admit that “civilization is a meat grinder” but nonetheless think people need literature in the way “they need a glass of orange juice.” No novel, Pelevin seems to be saying, is capable of staving off societal scurvy—and here, too, his mockery feels right. No matter how we struggle to comprehend a work’s author or its characters, the meat grinder continues to work its inexorable way through us all. Or as Pelevin himself puts it in a line Count T. wanders past in the St. Petersburg sewers:

You think that you’re Leo Tolstoy

But all the same you’re just a simple dick.

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