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Victor Pelevin: Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf)

According to the Commentary by Experts in the preface, this book is a literary forgery. It was found, not in the traditional literary way, of a manuscript hidden somewhere, but on the hard drive of a laptop in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow. Witnesses had reported seeing strange phenomena and various other items were found, including female clothing. One of the items of clothing was a T-shirt with what looked liked the letters ckuf on it. This was not an anagram of fuck but probably СkиФ, the Russian for Scythian and perhaps a reference to Alexander Blok’s poem The Scythians. The text circulated among occult fringe groups and was later published. This text is not, of course, deserving of any serious literary or critical analysis, states the FSB agent writing the report and adds it presents such a dense interweaving of borrowings, imitations, rehashings and allusions (not to mention the poor style and the author’s quite exceptional puerility), that its authenticity or genuineness do not pose any question for serious literary specialists.

He may have a point. The idea behind it is not dissimilar to other works by Pelevin. The major characters are actually animals taking human form, something we have already seen in Жизнь насекомых (The Life of Insects) and Ампир В (Empire V) and, of course, the book is going to mercilessly mock contemporary Russia and, in this case, contemporary Britain. It is is full of literary references from Nabokov to Stendhal, from Stephen Hawking to Tolstoy. Inevitably, it is very post-modern, with language games galore. Of course, it is great fun.

The book is narrated by A Hu-Li. Unfortunately, her name, when transliterated into Russian, is А Xули which the book coyly says is a Russian obscenity, but is the Russian equivalent of Oh, fuck!. However, in Chinese, it means the fox named A and, indeed, she is a fox. Her two sisters, whom we will meet, are called respectively E Hu-Li and U Hu-Li. The foxes, at least the Hu-Li sisters, whom we meet in this book, are not like the foxes we know in real life. All three sisters take human form and can have sex with and marry human men, though they seem to have an artificial vagina. (Foxes don’t have any sex in the strict sense of the word, and if we are referred to as ‘she’, it’s because of our external resemblance to women. In actual fact we’re like angels – that is, we don’t have any reproductive system.) Indeed, they have no need to reproduce as they live such long lives. A Hu-Li is at least two thousand years old, though she may be older – she cannot remember. She (and her sisters) make their living out of men. A Hu-Li is a prostitute. However, though she has human form and an artificial vagina, she also has a bushy tail. This tail is not, however, a straightforward tail. When she is about to have sex with a man, she goes to the bathroom and undresses. She appears. For a few brief seconds, the man sees a woman with a tail but her tail has an hypnotic effect and the man forgets what he saw and imagines he has had sex with a very beautiful woman. Though more than two thousand years old, she looks as though she is aged between fourteen and seventeen.

Her latest assignment goes wrong as her client accidentally falls out of the window of the hotel where she is working, so she has to flee and cannot use that hotel for her assignments for a while. As a result, she has to go on the Internet to sell herself. Her first client, Pavel Ivanovich is an intellectual (Pelevin/A Hu-li is very damning of intellectuals and intelligentsia, e.g. nothing delights a member of the Russian intelligentsia as the purchase of a new electrical household appliance). While she whips him with a knout for $50 an hour, he reads learned articles which he reads out to her, such as the idea that beatniks were invented by the CIA, to create an attractive West for the youth. However, when he starts being patronising and sexist, she whips him too hard and he complains. She is accosted by the authorities.

One of the authorities is Alexander, a man she immediately falls for and who falls for her. It is all complicated (but not too much) by the fact that he is, in fact, a wolf. From his point, we get a lot about fox-wolf relations. Of course, as the title tells us, there is the issue of he sacred werewolf that people are looking for.

As mentioned above, A Hu-Li has two sisters. They write to one another. U Hu-Li is in Thailand and is considering coming to Russia to live and work. A Hu-Li does not think it would be a good idea and tells her why. Firstly there is the weather. Then there is the political situation. The elite here is divided into two branches, which are called ‘the oligarchy’ (derived from the words ‘oil’ and ‘gargle’) and ‘the apparat’ (from the phrase ‘upper rat’). ‘The oligarchy’ is the business community, which grovels to the authorities, who can close down any business at any moment, since business here is inseparable from theft. And ‘the upper rat’ consists of the authorities, who feed on the kickbacks from business. The way it works is that the former allow the latter to steal because the latter allow the former to thieve. When A Hu-Li considers moving to England, E Hu-Li who lives there and is married to Lord Cricket (whom she is considering replacing with Mick Jagger), tells her sister that the West is just a giant shopping mall. As regards the English, she says Before, when I observed the English, I used to wonder what was hidden beneath that impenetrable armour-plating of hypocrisy forged over the centuries. And then I realized – it was precisely that simple act. There is nothing else there, and that minimalism is what guarantees the stability of the order of things here, another point I cannot really argue with.

The sacred werewolf is something of a red herring as it seems that, to a great extent, this book is about sex and love and their complications. Love and tragedy go hand in hand. Homer and Euripides wrote about that, so did Stendhal and Oscar Wilde and Love doesn’t transform. It simply tears away the masks. Pelevin is, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool cynic about love, sex and pretty well everything else. It is standard Pelevin, which you either like or do not like, though while I enjoyed it, on the whole, I found Pelevin got carried away with the discussions between A Hu-Li and Alexander, as though he was grasping for something, perhaps trying to admit that there might be something to love after all. But Pelevin is really not going to admit that so the book drags on and one and ends with A Hu-Li essentially causing the world to disappear. It is all very clever and all very post-modern and we can expect no more or no less from Pelevin.

First published 2004 by Eksmo
First published 2008 in English by Viking