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)

Victor Pelevin
Victor Pelevin; drawing by David Levine

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…

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