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Victor Pelevin: Ампир В (Empire V)

I am well aware of the popularity of books featuring vampires, from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer via Anne Rice. I have to admit that I have never read one, though I have seen several Dracula films, both those starring Bela Lugosi and those starring Christopher Lee. This is, therefore, a first for me. However, as the author is Victor Pelevin, this is not your conventional vampire novel. I would not think that linking vampires and Vladimir Putin and his henchmen and friends is a particularly original idea but, as always, Pelevin has thrown himself into the idea with gusto, given us the full vampire story.

Our narrator is a young Russian man called Roman. He lives with his mother, in a flat in Moscow. His father disappeared well before he was born, though he later learns that he is a journalist and has found him on the Internet and that his father’s family were aristocrats. Mother and son do not always get on but more or less tolerate one another. Roman has ambitions for his studies but his mother has no money so cannot help him. When he takes an exam to try and advance, he fails. He takes a job as a lorry unloader which has the advantage that he shares in the spoils of the unloaders’ theft but the disadvantage that he is given a hard time because of his middle-class origins. Eventually, he quits. Walking home, he sees an arrow pointing to an opportunity for a limited time period. That time period is now so he follows it and enters a room.

The book actually opens with the moment he wakes up after having entered the room. He is upright, tied to a Swedish exercise bar. Facing him, on a divan, is a masked man. The man admits to being a vampire and tells Roman that he is going to convert him into a vampire, which he does. As this is Pelevin, this is not just a straightforward bite on the neck but a more complicated procedure. The man then shoots himself. When Roman recovers, he realises that the body has gone and another man is there, who introduces himself as Mithra. Mithra is to be his new guide and tells him that his name is now Rama. Mithra shows Rama how he will have the ability to see into people and gives him an example, as Rama sees into an IT engineer for whom the most secret and humiliating of all his problems, was his inadequate grasp of Windows, giving Pelevin ample opportunity for jokes about XP and Vista.

Mithra tells Rama that he has a lot to learn before he can reach the Great Fall and, now settled in the fairly luxurious flat, with a large sum of money given to him, a succession of teachers come to him to tell him about vampire bats, Glamour and Discourse, the Art of Combat and Love (which are, of course, the two sides of the same coin) and unarmed combat, vampire-style. He learns about deception and advertising and about the well-off looking down on the ordinary people and how to do it effectively. The key message a human being tries to convey to others is that he enjoys a much more prestigious level of consumption than might at first appear. He also learns that it is important that he does not bite non-vampire women he has sex with and does not let them have fake orgasms. He learns that there is no such thing as normal. When did you last meet a normal person? In our country there are not more than a hundred of them left, and they are all under close FSB surveillance. He learns that the most important thing for a writer is to possess a malicious, morbid, jealous and envious ego. Pelevin inevitably mocks sex, women, relationships (the coexistence of the two sexes is an extraordinary, hilarious but completely invisible absurdity) and the normal life.

Part of the story is his relationship with Hera, a fellow rookie vampire. This relationship inevitably involves sex and jealousy, though, as beginners, they do do things together, such as turn into vampire bats and fly into the night. As he points out, vampires now get quite a good press. For some unknown reason people seem anxious to idealise us vampires. We are portrayed as exquisite connoisseurs, melancholy romantics, pensive dreamers – but always with a marked undercurrent of sympathy. Vampire roles are taken by good-looking actors, popstars are happy to appear as vampires in their music videos. Of course, they no longer suck blood. Vampires have long ceased to avail themselves of biological red liquid, in favour of a far more advanced medium of human vital energy. Money. Indeed, this is the key to the novel. The vampires are the blood-suckers or, rather, money-suckers, who rule the world and who rule Russia in particular. Pelevin spends a lot of time, through his vampires, expiating on the role of money and explaining what it actually is. Money is a colourful dream that people see in an attempt to explain something of which they have an inkling but do not actually understand. Life, he explains, is defined in two ways. Either you have money or you do not. There is nothing in-between.

We gradually learn about the origins of vampires. It was vampires that bred humans, the way humans bred cattle and sheep. They wear black because they reflect the human soul, which is irredeemably black. There is even an intermediate class, acting between the vampires and the humans, called Chaldeans. Most of these are rich crooks, money men, with offshore bank accounts. Indeed, Rama exposes one of them. The history of vampires goes back a long time and, while we get quite a detailed explanation of it, it is still not clear what actually happened.

In many respects, this is typical Pelevin: post-modern, vicious mocking of Russia and Russians (it even ends with a good Russian duel), language games and lots of jokes, from the posh people’s favourite restaurant called Le Yeltsine Ivre [The Drunk Yelstsin] to his view on bloggers (these mental latrines we call Internet blogs. Blogging is the defensive reflex of a mutilated psyche which continually spews out Glamour and Discourse, (with Glamour and Discourse meaning, essentially, advertising and punditry). However, I do not think it works as well as some of his other works, as he gets too involved, far too involved, in the intricacies of the vampire rituals, behaviour, history and philosophy, often at the expense of both the plot and his mockery of Russia and Russians. Nevertheless, it is still a highly original work, with, no doubt, the intention not to write a Stephenie Meyer/Anne Rice vampire novel. Having read neither, I cannot firmly say that he has succeeded but my guess is that, in least in that, he has done so.

First published 2006 by Eksmo
First published 2016 in English by Gollancz
Translated by Anthony Phillips