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Under the Overcoat

The Life of Insects

by Victor Pelevin, Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pp., $22.00

Omon Ra

by Victor Pelevin, Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
New Directions, 154 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Russian writers of the nineteenth century—Dostoevsky set the example—used to say they had all come out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat.” Many of the younger ones could say the same today about Yury Miloslavsky—of all the post-1970s Russian writers, the blackest in humor, the most streetwise, most nihilistic and disillusioned. Disillusioned not only about the old Soviet system but about those who resisted it, the heroic dissidents, those “various Solzhenitsyns,” as the hero of Victor Pelevin’s novel Omon Ra vaguely refers to them.

One of the young and successful Russian writers of today, Pelevin has unmistakably come from under Miloslavsky’s overcoat, although he has his own original style and approach. He lives in Moscow, whereas Miloslavsky, who was just old enough to have caught the tail end of Soviet persecution, contrived as a writer in trouble to emigrate first to Israel and then to the United States, where he now works for a Russian-language TV and radio station in New York. He claims to be a happy émigré, not regretting Russia in the least (one can see why), and yet ironically, and with true Russian insouciance, has become a Russian Orthodox Christian as a result of several years in Israel, where he learned perfect Hebrew. It seems part of a Russian’s unpredictability that his cynicism is seldom more than skin-deep.

Miloslavsky annoyed both his fellow émigrés and the dissident writers still in Russia with his first novel, Fortified Cities, published in Jerusalem in 1980. It made his name and provoked a furor, chiefly because he mocked both the idea of the “freedom” of the West and the sufferings of writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Union, remarking that “it’s not always a matter of life and death as some would have you believe.” But Miloslavsky’s solid reputation as a brilliant writer came with Urban Romances, a collection of tales and sketches about the delinquent life of the streets he had lived as an adolescent in Kharkov.* The stories are repulsive to read for the usual and today, it must be said, rather banal reasons—theft, rape, murder and mutilation, sodomy, and so forth occur on practically every page; but the author revels in his own virtuosity in describing such matters with all the richness and variety of Russian street argot. As Joseph Brodsky admiringly remarked in his preface, “Yury Miloslavsky is a modern writer if only because it is not literature that is claiming reality under his hand but rather the other way round.” Brodsky also commented on the extreme difficulty of “articulating in a more commonplace linguistic convention any equivalent of the extraordinary medium the author had found to convey the shabby nihilistic bestiality to which the species had been reduced in Miloslavsky’s part of the world.”

This linguistically inventive medium was no doubt what fascinated younger writers, as well as the violence and sex, which are widely fashionable as literary subjects in Russia today, having been seen as extremely nekulturny in Soviet literary circles or indeed in any previous tradition of Russian writing, although Ivan Bunin and Saltykov Schedrin and some others were as brilliant as Miloslavsky at rendering with aesthetic skill the hopelessness and degradation of Russian life. So, above all, was Feodor Sologub in Melky Bes (The Minor Devil), a late nineteenth-century novel famous in its time, of which one is continuously reminded by modern-style Russian writing. And yet almost every nineteenth-century Russian writer unconsciously sensed that the “dawn”—some dawn no matter of what kind or from where—must somehow be coming, whereas few writers today have any expectations of the future at all. Equally so in the case of Miloslavsky, who now seems to be settling into the life of the Western intelligentsia.

A wry and comic despair about present and future is evident in the case of a writer like Victor Pelevin, whose two fantasy novels under review have a charm of manner, despite their nihilism, which suggests that some contemporary Russian novelists and readers still have a hankering for old-style “spiritual values,” or even new-style ones projecting another world to fly to, at least in the imagination.

It is ironical therefore that the Soviet space program, which once offered to Soviet citizens the thrills of pride and romance, is now a relic, nearly defunct. The moon and stars have lost any charms they once possessed, alike for astronaut and earthbound romantic. Rather than straight satire on Russian cosmonautics, it is this loss that gives its point to Pelevin’s novel Omon Ra. The hero was christened Omon, an acronym for Soviet special military forces, because his policeman father had ambitions for his son’s success in that world. Ra—the name recalls Amon Ra, the Egyptian sun god—represents the youthful Omon’s attachment to the thrilling world of modern mythology.

Omon is speedily disillusioned when he joins an army space program, and yet he is never entirely disillusioned. Pelevin knows that a young person can keep some sort of innocence in the teeth of every kind of disappointment. Satire is a predictable form, always in danger of the reader’s seeing the point and becoming bored with it, but both Pelevin’s novels avoid that. Any aspect of the Soviet Union, including a grandiloquent space program achieved by the sacrifice of the consumer society, offers so big a target that satire can become almost pointless. So at least we might feel in the West, but under communism the Russians were starved of full-blooded satire for so long that they still don’t seem able to get enough of it.

And yet satire is only incidental for Pelevin as a novelist. His real strength in Omon Ra, first published in the US in 1996, is to achieve a strangely innocent and unearthly effect, as if Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov had strayed into the plot of Voltaire’s Candide. The point about innocence is that it is unchangeable and indestructible, as wicked old Voltaire knew very well. The innocent man is impervious to the wiles of the world because he never learns. His goodness consists in not having to learn to be good. He is the exact opposite of the man of the Enlightenment who believes in human perfectibility. Pelevin, like Voltaire before him, finds that the wicked always win because they are wicked, and the good never learn because they are good. Between the wicked and the good a great gulf is fixed, and the wicked can no more “improve” than the good can become corrupted.

Poor Omon, the innocent hero with a romantic yearning to play a part in Soviet space travel, is literally taken for a ride by his superiors, who tell him that he will be one of a team engaged in putting an automated vehicle on the moon. The reality, of course, is that the vehicle will be directed and controlled by an astronaut who is making a one-way journey and, although he is not at first informed of the fact, will not be recoverable.

Cadet Krivomazov,” said the Flight Leader, introducing me. “Well, shall we begin?”

He turned towards me, folded his hands on his belly, and said: “Omon, I’m sure you read newspapers and watch films, and you know that the Americans have landed some of their astronauts on the moon and even driven around up there in a motor carriage. Their goals are supposedly peaceful, but that all depends on how you look at things. Just imagine a simple working man from some small country—say, in Central Africa…”

The Flight Leader wrinkled up his face and went through the motions of rolling up his sleeves and wiping the sweat from his brow.

And then he sees that the Americans have landed on the moon, while we… You understand?”

Yes, sir, Comrade Lieutenant-General!” I replied.

The main purpose of the space experiment for which you will now be prepared, Omon, is to demonstrate that we do not tag behind the countries of the West in technology and that we are also capable of sending expeditions to the moon. At the moment it is beyond our capability to send a piloted, recoverable ship. But there is another possibility—we can send an automated vessel, which will not have to be brought back.”

The Flight Leader leaned over the protruding mountains and small hollow craters of the relief map. A bright red line cut across its centre like a fresh scratch made with a nail.

This is a sector of the lunar surface,” said the Flight Leader. “As you know, Omon, our space science programme has mostly studied the far side of the moon, whereas the Americans landed on the bright side. This long line here is the Lenin Fissure, discovered a few years ago by one of our sputniks. Last year an automated expedition was sent to this unique geological formation to gather samples of the lunar surface, and the initial analyses have suggested that further investigation of the fissure is required. No doubt you know that our space program is oriented mostly towards automation—it’s the Americans who risk human lives. We expose only machines to danger. The idea is to send a special self-propelled vehicle, a so-called moonwalker, which will travel along the bottom of the fissure and transmit scientific information back to earth.”

The Flight Leader opened the drawer of his desk and began rummaging about in it with his hand, keeping his eyes on me all the while.

The overall length of the fissure is one hundred and fifty kilometres, but its width and depth are a matter of a mere few metres. It is proposed that the moonwalker will travel along it for seventy kilometres—the batteries should have enough power for that distance—and set up a radio buoy at its centre point, which will broadcast into space radio waves encoding the words ‘Peace,’ ‘Lenin,’ and ‘USSR.”’

A small red toy appeared in his hand. He wound it up and set it at the beginning of the red line on the map. The toy began to buzz and edged forward—its fuselage was like a tin can set on eight small black wheels, with the letters USSR on its side and two eyelike bulges at the front. Everyone followed its motion intently; even Colonel Urchagin turned his head in time with the others. The toy reached the edge of the table and tumbled onto the floor.

Something like that,” the Flight Leader said thoughtfully, casting a quick glance at me.

Permission to speak, sir?” I heard my own voice.

Fire ahead.”

Surely the moonwalker is automated, Comrade Lieutenant-General?”

It is.”

Then what am I needed for?”

The Flight Leader lowered his head and sighed.

Bamlag,” he said, “your turn.”

The wheelchair’s electric motor hummed, and Colonel Urchagin moved away from the table.

Let’s go for a little walk,” he said, driving over and taking hold of my sleeve.

It must of course be said that in the West we have been here before, many times—with Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 and all the unmissable targets of the contemporary literary satirist. The Russian authors come plodding along behind, discovering the wickedness of modern technology, whether Western or Soviet-style. But that is not really the point. The uniqueness of Russian literature and the Russian vision is still there, even in an age of increasing literary standardization. Although Pelevin’s ideas, both in Omon Ra and in his just-published novel The Life of Insects, may strike the Western reader as secondhand, there is still a zestful Russian freshness and spontaneity in his style and approach which take us back to Gogol and Turgenev. Just as the world of Dead Souls does not belong to the diagrammatic world of satire but to Gogol’s vision of Russia itself—lyrical and tyrannical, huge, dreary, monotonous, and enchanting—so Pelevin’s vision of contemporary Russia is by no means bounded by the mere mechanics of his contemporary theme.

Indeed, there is something almost deliberately old-fashioned about his fiction, filled as it is with hints and signs from the classics of the past. Superficially, at least, The Life of Insects is an intelligent reworking of Karel Kapek’s hit of the 1930s, The Insect Play. Poor Omon’s surname—the patronymic Ra, the sun god, is a product of his own idealistic fancy—is Krivomazov, a reference to Dostoevsky’s Karamazov family, to Alyosha in particular. The moon on which Omon finds himself inescapably landed at the end of the novel is as dark and dreary as Moscow itself, his dreams on the way there as claustrophobic and somber. They may remind us of Gogol’s line “Skuchno na etom svetom, Gospoda“—“It is boring in this world, Gentlemen.”

The Life of Insects is in one sense a more lighthearted affair, full of a poetry that does not seem absurdist or self-consciously deadpan but is lyrical and natural, almost naive. Having decided that human beings, particularly in the beach resorts of the Russian Crimea, spend most of their time being insects of various kinds, Pelevin, like Kafka in The Metamorphosis, simply carries on his story from there, and its logic is impeccable. Arthur and Arnold, a pair of enterprising Russians looking for a business deal, meet the American Sam Sacker at a Black Sea resort.

Sam looked around at his partners. Arthur and Arnold had turned into small mosquitoes of that miserable hue of gray familiar from prerevolutionary village huts, a color that in its time had reduced many a Russian poet to tears; they were staring in dull envy at their flying companion as he swayed in the current of warm air rising from the ground.

Only the inconvenient arrangement of his mouth organs prevented Sam Sacker from grinning complacently. He looked quite different from the others: he was a light chocolate color, with long elegant legs, a small tight belly, and wings swept back like a jet plane’s. The transformed faces of Arthur and Arnold terminated in thick dowels resembling the needle of a titanic syringe or the speed gauge on the nose of a jet fighter, but Sam’s lips extended elegantly into six fine, elastic appendices, with a long, pointed proboscis protruding from among them. In short, the American mosquito cut a fine figure alongside the two simple Russian insects. In addition, Arthur and Arnold flew with a womanish kind of breaststroke, while the way Sam’s wings moved was more like a butterfly’s, so he flew much faster and sometimes had to hover in the air to wait for his companions to catch up with him.

They fly off together and soon locate a victim “in the Russian forest.” This is the title of the first chapter, which refers to the location on the skin of a sleeping man, on which the expert Sam, who to his Russian colleagues’ envy can fly “without making a sound” (“That’s America for you,” Arnold says), is landing and preparing a borehole where “hairs grew up like young birch trees,” meanwhile fixing his thoughtful gaze “on the distant hills of the nipples covered with thick reddish undergrowth.”

But then things begin to go wrong. The sleeper turns out to have been imbibing cheap Russian cologne. The next morning Sam feels terrible and is sick all over the place, throwing up a horrid mixture of blood and cologne while his huge belly shrinks to half its size. Arthur and Arnold are full of embarrassed apologies, assuring the suffering Sam that not every Russian “drinks Russian forest cologne.”

While Sam is recovering we are off with a father and son, who happen to be a couple of dung beetles, and then with Dima and Mitya, who have a terrible adventure with bats. Meanwhile Karina, a dragonfly, is having her own kind of adventures. She feels an impulse to pull off her wings and make herself a little burrow, and then she encounters an army officer, Major Nikolai.

She paid close attention to her sensations as the cold damp body heaved to and fro on top of her, and she wondered whether this could really be what all the fuss was about, and what they wrote such beautiful songs about in France. Sometimes Nikolai would stop moving and tell her about his life in the army, what he did and who his friends were. Marina soon knew them all by name and rank. Every time Nikolai climbed down off her he began doing things around the burrow.

To angels, vision of God’s throne/To insects, sensual lust,” as Ivan Karamazov quotes in Dostoevsky’s novel. Then Major Nikolai is chewed up by the mandibles of his comrades, and Marina’s daughter Natasha, the first to hatch, eats all the eggs containing her brothers and sisters. Still, Marina soon becomes very attached to her delinquent daughter; the most touching sequence in the fantasy occurs when Natasha is found by her friends in a café, stuck to a piece of flypaper.

Interspersed with these adventures comes a certain amount of humorous and satiric dialogue, with mordant comments on Ukrainian nationalism, the Third World and the Second World, as one mosquito refers to it, the takeover of Russia by the dollar, the tourist industry, and the state of the country generally. But Pelevin’s imagination is what matters and particularly his gaiety, which is as natural as gloom in good Russian writing. Taken over by insects it may be, but the Crimean seascape is still amazingly beautiful, and a tarnished green bust of Chekhov (who used to live in Yalta) “gazes thoughtfully out of the bushes, with the shards of a broken vodka bottle gleaming beside it in the moonlight.”

Today all literary genres and products are becoming increasingly standardized and internationalized. Modern Russian writing is far from exempt from this depressing tendency, but novelists like Pelevin and Miloslavsky can still exemplify the old zest and spontaneity with which Russians of the “Golden Age”—Pushkin and Gogol, and after them Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—began to write. However much they borrowed from the West in those days, they always possessed their own unique and paradoxical sense of freedom in the arts, if not in politics and life. They did things their own way, as Tolstoy observed, claiming that a Russian author didn’t bother about the form of what he was writing but instead “produced what he wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” That is as true of Miloslavsky and Pelevin as it was of their great predecessors.

  1. *

    Urban Romances and Other Stories, edited by Nicholas Luker (Ardis, 1997).

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