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Victor Pelevin: Жизнь насекомых (The Life of Insects)

The most famous book about humans as insect is obviously Kafka‘s Die Verwandliung (The Metamorphosis). This book has a somewhat different take on that theme in that the main characters are both insects and humans. We first meet Arthur on a balcony in Crimea, as a human. He is joined by Arnold, who is somewhat overweight, and Samuel Sacker, an American. Samuel seems to be there to investigate something. Suddenly, they all jump onto the balustrade (Arnold requires two attempts) before seemingly falling off but, in fact, they have turned into mosquitoes and fly off. They are in search of human blood. Samuel, it seems has travelled the world and tasted all sorts of varieties of human blood and he is here in Russia to sample Russians. Unfortunately for him, the blood he gorges on, is from a Russian who has been trying to get drunk by drinking eau-de-cologne. It has a bad effect on him.

We follow other insects who can both take human form and insect form. In some respects, they show evidence of human behaviour, from reading Marcus Aurelius, the I-Ching and newspapers to going to the beach, from smoking (a moth uses a lighter to light his cigarettes) to watching French films. They dress as humans, when they are humans. Some of their characteristics are both human and insect, such as, obviously, the need to eat, find shelter, find companionship and be secure, though their sex life seems to hover between the human and insect. In other aspects, they are clearly insect, from blood-sucking to flying around and observing what is below, from cannibalism (more common with insects than with humans) to burrowing and nesting. They also risk death more than humans do, with one dung beetle trodden on (accidentally) by a human and a fly caught on flypaper. The hemp bugs die when in a joint that is being smoked. These insects, though insects, are living in the Soviet system and Pelevin uses them to mock the system for, at least when they take on human form, they have the same problems as normal humans, if there are such things.

Where Pelevin is particularly clever is in what might be described as their aspirations and their philosophical approach to life. The dung beetles – a father and son (I am assuming insects do not do parenting but I may be wrong) – are both, naturally collecting dung but the activity is seen as some sort of higher aspiration. The father calls the dung ball that dung beetles push in front of them the Ai (a sacred Egyptian symbol that dung beetles have used for thousands of years for their spheres) and it seems to refer not only to the sphere but also to something higher that some religions call the soul and less religious people might call the personality. The moths inevitably have a sort of love-hate relationship with light and dark but two of them discuss the issue in a clearly philosophical manner. One insect follows the I-Ching, as mentioned. Two beetles, while well aware that there are other insects, still maintain that they are essentially solitary creatures and the only creatures in the world.

This inherent contradiction is key to the book. Insects go into their burrows, nests and ant-hills, as insects, yet find in them beds, tables, chairs, lights, fridges and all the comforts of human homes. In one ant-hill, there is a theatre and a bar. One cicada burrows away, going to his office and finding, in his burrowings, money, furniture and other human artefacts. One other key feature is cross-speciation. This same burrowing cicada ends up as a cockroach. Natasha, whose parents are both ants (and who eats both her siblings and bits of her father) becomes a fly and has a human affair with Samuel Sacker, a mosquito when in insect form.

A lot of this is, as we would expect from Pelevin, is tongue in cheek. He enjoys his jokes (Is there a lot of shit in America? Natasha the fly asks Samuel, while Arnold comments Are we just going to stand by and watch while American mosquitoes fuck our flies?) and mocking both the Soviets and the Americans. Some of it is clearly playing games. But some is clearly quite serious as the insects often seem more philosophical as insects than as humans and, doubtless, if insects were able to be philosophical, they would discuss their role in the world and some of the issues facing them, such as the dung beetles’ need to roll dung and the effect of light on moths. However, you take it, and you should take it both as a post-modern romp as well as a serious reflection on life, it really is a most original book and one that really is well worth reading.

First published 1993 by Znamya magazine; first published in book form in French by Editions du Seuil in 1995
First published 1996 in English by Harbord
Translated by Andrew Bromfield