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Victor Pelevin: Чапаев и Пустота (UK: The Clay Machine-Gun; US: Buddha’s Little Finger)

Dmitry Furmanov, a Soviet commissar, was the commissar for Vasily Chapayev, a Soviet commander, who fought the Whites in the Russian Civil War. Furmanov published a novelisation of his time with Chapayev, which was both a successful book and then a successful film. While the book was very partisan and clearly exaggerated the exploits of the Reds, the book has generally been accepted as more or less accurate in its account, at least till Pelevin came along. This book claims that iy is, in fact, a manuscript found in a Mongolian monastery (For numerous reasons the name of the true author of this manuscript, written during the early 1920s in one of the monasteries of Inner Mongolia, cannot be mentioned, so it is signed by the name of the editor, Urgan Jambon Tulku VII, Chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation ). He goes onto to point out that Furmanov’s book on Chapayev is a complete fake and it is this book that is the authentic tale of the Soviet hero.

The book starts with the narrator telling the tale. His name is Pyotr Voyd. (The title of the book in Russian is Чапаев и Пустота, which means Chapayev and the Void. In the original Russian, Pyotr’s surname is Пустота (Pustota), i.e. Void. The translator has clearly decided to take the Russian meaning of the word, rather than the spelling, by calling him Voyd, even going so far as to suggest that, when he was younger, he was teased for having an Estonian surname, when the original Russian merely states that he was teased for having a surname meaning void. Void and emptiness are key themes of this book.) Voyd has fled from St Petersburg and arrived in Moscow, in a somewhat concerned state. The period is 1919, soon after the Russian Revolution. Voyd is an experimental poet and has received a visit from the Cheka (the precursors of the KGB), who do not seem to like his poetry. Voyd managed to escape from the Cheka and has now fled to Moscow, unsure of what to do. By chance, he bumps into an old friend in the street, Grigory Vorblei, who promises to help him. Vorblei takes him to an expensive apartment and then promptly arrests him, as it turns out that Vorblei is well connected with the Soviet government. Voyd manages to struggle with Vorblei and ends up killing him. At this point, two sailors summoned by Vorblei arrive but Voyd manages to convince them that he is Vorblei. He is taken off to a theatre, where Vorblei has to make a presentation defending the Soviet point of view. Voyd does this by reciting a poem (under the name of Fourply) and seems to get away with it. He is taken back to the apartment but as he is so cold and tired, he falls asleep in the car. When he wakes up, he is in a straitjacket in a cell.

The cell is in an asylum in contemporary (i.e. 1990s) Russia and, for the rest of the book, Voyd alternates between the contemporary era, mainly spent in the asylum, and the revolutionary era. Boyd is convinced that the reality is the revolutionary period and that his time in the contemporary period is merely a bad nightmare. Indeed, when Timur Timurovich, the doctor, mentions certain modern people and features, such as a discussion of Nabokov and Lolita, Voyd assumes he is talking about the author’s father, a prominent pre-revolutionary politician. For Timur Timurovich, the issue is clear. Why do some people actively strive, as it were, towards the new, while others persist in their attempts to clarify their non-existent relations with the shadows of a vanished world?’, he comments, clearly referring to Voyd. Pelevin uses Timur Timurovich to mock the current system. Scoundrels actually adapt to change before it has even begun, he comments and Pelevin shows us that it is scoundrels that are running contemporary Russia. Russia cannot be grasped by logic, as the saying goes – but neither can it be entirely reduced to sexual neurosis, Timur Timurovich adds.

Voyd is not happy in the present era. The treatment, which includes cold baths, is not pleasant. His (relatively few companions) include Serdyuk, who was arrested when drunk, by mistake he says, just to round out the statistics and who will later have a hypnotic fantasy, where he is hired by a mysterious Japanese company, whose owners are taken over by another mysterious company between his hiring and his starting the job (a matter of a few minutes), requiring him to commit seppuku, which he does; Maria, who is in fact a man (named after the author Erich Maria Remarque) who takes up a soap opera role; and a Russian gangster called Volodin.

However, in the past, things are much better. He meets Vasily Chapayev, who immediately appoints him as his commissar. We know, in real life, that Chapayev’s commissar was the afore-mentioned Dmitry Furmanov and he is, indeed, there but is effectively shunted aside in favour of Voyd. This Chapayev is something of a larger than life character and he and Voyd get on well. Voyd’s main problem is Chapayev’s niece, Anna, with whom he falls in love but who does not love him. However, otherwise, things are interesting. He takes part in a major battle, where he performs heroically but has no recollection of it, after having been wounded. He meets the mysterious and deceased Jungern von Sternberg, who takes him to a sort of Valhalla and who promises to help free him from his nightmare (the nightmare of continually returning to the present-day asylum). Ultimately, he is taken to Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia is not called that because it is inside Mongolia. It is inside anyone who can see the void).

However, poor Voyd is still not sure what is dream and what is not. But while I am dreaming, it’s impossible to understand what is real in actual fact. He asks Chapayev ‘But why is everything that is happening to me a dream?’, to which Chapayev responds Because, Petka, there just isn’t anything else. But there is and that something else is Inner Mongolia.

This is a wonderful book, full of surprises, ideas, satire on the revolution, mental health care in Russia, Russia of the past and Russia of the present. It is witty and original and determinedly post-modern. Like Voyd, you sometimes wonder where you are and where everything is going but that is all part of the fun that Pelevin gives us. It certainly confirms Pelevin as one of the leading post-Soviet writers.

First published 1996 by Vagrius
First published 2000 in English by Viking/Faber & Faber
Translated by Andrew Bromfield