“The Europeans look at us like we’re shit, like we’re animals!” Vovchik the Small, one of Victor Pelevin’s angst-ridden mobsters, declares in the 1999 Generation P. “It’s because we don’t have a national i-den-ti-ty.” Vovchik may as well have been speaking of Pelevin’s writerly colleagues. What began as a wonderful new start for artistic freedom—with Pelevin, in his first major publication, dismissing the dissident movement with a reference to “various Solzhenitsyns”—has become, instead, a continuous existential headache. Some have abandoned the craft entirely, others have begun to write for politicians and the movies, while still others have taken the prophetic leanings of the older generation in unexpected directions—the repatriated memoirist Edward Limonov, for one, recently left prison after serving two years for the illegal purchase of some Kalashnikov rifles. On the more serious charge, of plotting to invade Kazakhstan, he was acquitted.
The appearance at this late date of Yuri Druzhnikov’s Angels on the Head of a Pin feels like a slightly garbled message from a rejected literary path. Druzhnikov (b. 1933) was certainly one of Pelevin’s Solzhenitsyns, and his reasons for writing this in many ways very “literary” novel can only be puzzling twenty-five years after its completion and more than a decade after the regime it purported to lampoon collapsed.
Angels is a satire on a large Soviet newspaper, based on Druzhnikov’s own experience as a journalist and editor. It opens with Party boss Igor Makartsev, editor in chief of Trudovaya Pravda (“The Laborers’ Truth”), keeling over with a heart attack as he leaves the newspaper office one winter evening in 1969. Angels then goes on to describe two months in the life of TP during a time of increased ideological pressure—it is not long after tanks were sent to crush the Prague Spring, not to mention sunshine, girls with flowers in their hair, and rock-and-roll.
Makartsev’s replacement as editor is a sinister, hard-line KGB man who begins right away to establish order in the wake of the old-fashioned Makartsev. Some of the newspaper staff attempt to resist, but this is futile. Meanwhile, Makartsev’s home life goes into precipitous decline, and as the novel continues it also moves backward in time to discover the cause of his heart attack. This turns out to have been the appearance, on his desk, of a samizdat translation of the Marquis de Custine’s famously caustic travelogue, Russia in 1839. Despite his high position, Makartsev finds himself paralyzed with worry. Was it planted? Should he ignore it? Call the KGB? He decides to take a look at the thing, and this only makes matters worse: “After reading the book…he felt he could no longer think the way he had before.”
The idea that one book could send a candidate for membership in the Central Committee of the Communist Party into a paroxysm of doubt, and then the hospital, is touching, and it explains a great deal about Druzhnikov and the writing of Angels. Because before he wrote it, he was doing all right. He was the author of several books, the host of a weekly radio program, a member of the Soviet Writers’ Union. He was already, by his own account, unhappy, his work was not always published, and the work that was published was severely edited and puffed up with quotes from Marx and Lenin. Yet he could probably have gone on that way for some time. Instead, he wrote Angels. In the course of doing so he entered the burgeoning dissident movement, met with other writers, read his work-in-progress aloud at gatherings—and was duly excluded from the Union, removed from libraries, and blacklisted. He was denied medical attention at his former clinic. One person went to jail for possessing a copy of the Angels manuscript.
And after all that, the book didn’t even make a splash. Druzhnikov wasn’t then, and is not now, well known. His biography is odd, as if someone had taken a typical dissident-novelist curriculum vitae and fiddled with the numbers. On October 8, 1977, the Writers’ Union expelled the famous dissident writers Vassily Aksyonov, Vladimir Voinovich, and Lev Kopelev …and Druzhnikov. Aksyonov and Voinovich’s manuscripts went abroad and were published, along with those of Andrei Bitov, Fazil Iskander, Sasha Sokolov, and Edward Limonov, by Ardis Press in Michigan, which also published Nabokov in Russian. Druzhnikov’s smuggled manuscript (on micro-film, inside a pack of cigarettes, by an American professor) wasn’t published until 1989, and by the significantly less prestigious Russian-language publishing house Liberty, in New York. Aksyonov and Voinovich and Sokolov and even Limonov were all living in the West by 1981—Druzhnikov had to tough it out in the USSR until 1987, when he was finally asked to leave.
Why did he write it? Not for laughs. Though in intention Angels is a satire, in execution it is a long realist novel with a sarcastic narrator. The book does not pretend to reveal much about the mechanisms of repression or propaganda; its venom is sooner directed toward what the Soviets called “personal histories,” the endless paper trail each citizen, like some perpetual college applicant, accumulated to prove that at every stage of life he had been faithful to the cause. In a country built on lies, these were the lies you had to remember from one application to the next.
Druzhnikov’s implicit contention is that simply revealing the truth of the lives beneath these “histories” is enough. Throughout Angels, the introduction of each new character stalls the novel’s momentum by devoting a chapter to his or her actual story. So when we first catch a glimpse of Makartsev’s secretary, Anna, we immediately get eight pages on “The Joys and Sorrows of Anna Lokotkova,” in which we learn that the attractive but aging Anna has been mistreated by men throughout her life, that she is in love with Makartsev, that she has been waiting for years now for a sign from him. Then back to the narrative, and we don’t see much of Anna again. These character-sketch chapters—there are nineteen of them and they take up about a third of the book—are intelligent, and in their way subversive, but for all that Druzhnikov does to keep them moving, the stories are mostly too sad to be funny, and the jokes too bitter.
Did Druzhnikov think that his lengthy manuscript would land on a desk in the Kremlin and give the Soviet leadership a collective heart attack? Maybe he did, and given the authorities’ hysterical reaction to printed matter this wasn’t an entirely unreasonable supposition. In any case it’s not the worst reason to write a book. It kept Druzhnikov going for seven years and nearly six hundred pages, amid physical threats and threats to his livelihood, with no hope of publication in his native land.
It also warped his sense of what literature could and should try to do. His novel has not aged well. Its anger, its edginess, and the obvious courage of its composition are now of merely historical interest. In his other writings on contemporary themes, Druzhnikov has been what one might call a hard-line dissident, inflexibly critical of those, like the novelist Yuri Trifonov, who were too weak or too greedy to join the anti-Soviet fight. Yet the one truly inspired character in Angels is not a dissident hero, à la Druzhnikov, but a cynical and corpulent editor named Yakov Rappoport. Drained of all his ideals by years in a labor camp followed by years of ghostwriting speeches and articles, Rappoport is a genuine late-Soviet type. He does not think truth can be mined and extracted and presented whole and immutable to the world. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says to a man who’s brought a manuscript to the newspaper. “Everything we print in this newspaper is crap. What you’ve written is also crap. But it isn’t the kind of crap that we print.”
In retrospect, it feels as if in the late Seventies the ship of Soviet state was already leaking through so many holes. Stagnation, Afghanistan, television images of the West, the price war with OPEC—any one of these could have sunk her. And then there were the Moscow Conceptualists. These were the writers around the poets Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, and Timur Kibirov, who, influenced by the visual-art work of Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, practiced a Soviet version of Pop Art, adopting the stale forms of socialist realism as the face whose cheek they slapped. Sots-Art, as it was christened by Komar and Melamid, was not so much anti-Soviet as un-Soviet; it did not so much do battle with communism as appropriate it to its humor. Occasionally it pretended, as dissident literature could never have done, that the USSR simply wasn’t there. Perhaps it only pretended to pretend. Either way, because it was not in direct tension with the regime, and was in line with Western movements in the arts, it seemed to intelligent observers that Conceptualism would outlast that regime. And its only real prose writer, and resident genius, its hope for producing a great Russian novel, was Vladimir Sorokin.
Sorokin’s work from the early 1980s—particularly his first two novels, The Queue (Ochered’) and The Norm (Norma)—are, or should be, landmarks of international postmodern fiction. The Queue, the only one of his novels to be translated fully into English, is about people waiting in line for an unidentified leather or suede object. It is written exclusively in unattributed dialogue. “Excuse me, citizen,” it begins, “are you last?”
—I think so. But there’s a woman in a blue coat, she’s behind me.
—So I’m behind her.
—Right. She’ll be back in a minute. But stand behind me for now.
—Will you be here?
—I’ll just be gone a second, literally.
—It’d be better, I think, if you waited. Or else people will come, what will I tell them? Wait. She said she’d be quick.
—All right. I’ll wait. Have you been here long?
The novel continues this way for two hundred pages and two days of waiting in line. The page moves, so to speak, up and down the line, so that we catch snatches of conversations, while here and there different characters come into focus. People fall in love, and betray one another; they leave the line and return; one citizen (“a great strategist,” another calls him) maneuvers a portion of the line over a city block so that everyone can buy some kvass. We witness Vadim, a young editor, share two bottles of vodka with some other gentlemen, become very drunk, lose his place in line, start a fight, and then pass out—all in unattributed dialogue. At another point a list of names is taken down so that people can leave the line for a few hours, and the roll call (“—Arbuzova!—Here!—Kiprensky!—Here!—Zamusovich! No. Out…. Vlasina!—Here!”) lasts thirty-five pages. We never learn what they’re waiting for—at different points it appears to be shoes, coats, and leather bags—but we do finally determine that whatever it is, it’s American. The news is well received.
The Queue was published in Paris in 1985. The Norm was not. And here you can hardly blame the Soviets—it’s tough to imagine The Norm being published anywhere, at any time. The first third of the book is a series of scenes, three or four pages in length, of people going about their lives. Sveklushin runs into his old friend Trofimenko on the street; Marina and Vika are experiencing sexual difficulties; the teenagers Sashka, Slavka, and Vitya share a bottle of vodka in a twilit courtyard. What recurs throughout is a chewy brown substance, wrapped in cellophane, called “the norm”—at some point in each scene, the characters must eat it. Some take it straight; others cover it with jam or bake it into brownies. We realize pretty quickly, much as we’d rather not, that the norm consists of human feces, and one begins to read each scene in anticipation of how the norm will present itself. It is considered prestigious to eat it, and only dissidents and social outcasts (criminals, the uneducated) go without. Those first hundred pages of The Norm are a perfect metaphor for Soviet life: it was not, after all, constant fear and anguish and constant repression. Even during the Lenin-grad blockade, Lidiya Ginzburg once wrote, people fell in love and committed adultery. There is sex under a Communist regime, and cheating, and plenty of drinking. But there comes a point every day when you are forced to eat some shit.
The rest of the novel is, it’s true, less fun. Vyacheslav Kuritsyn, probably the most amusing of the Russian poststructuralist critics and now a Putin speechwriter, has said that Sorokin’s chief flaw is that his books “are not exactly meant to be read” (the French publisher of Marina’s Thirtieth Love, having apparently grown bored, cut the novel’s concluding chapter), and with The Norm this is certainly the case. There is a very long parody of Turgenev, then an interminable series of letters from a working-class war veteran to his highfalutin brother-in-law. Thirty pages of rhyming prose about World War II are very good, if eventually exhausting, but the book clearly bears the marks, as does Druzhnikov’s Angels, of a writer convinced that he will never be published. The popular American author Dave Eggers has said that he composes on the design program used by his publisher, so that he can immediately see how his work will look on the printed page. Much of the work done for the desk drawer by Soviet writers feels as if it was meant to be copied in secret script on a piece of paper, folded into a tiny, tiny square, and placed into a foreign friend’s shoe, or cigarette pack, to be smuggled through customs at She-remetyevo airport.
In Sorokin’s case, the resistance to being readable also followed from his hostility to the very idea of literature. If Druzhnikov was the anti-Trifonov, and Pelevin the anti-Solzhenitsyn/ Druzhnikov, Sorokin is the anti-Tolstoy. Not only does he not believe that literature can give people heart attacks, he is amazed at the very thought of its giving people pleasure, or pain, or guidance. “When people talk to me about morality in literature…I don’t understand it,” he has said. “These are just letters on paper.” And, “I’ve always been interested in the hyper-efforts of authors to make the page come alive. Tolstoy’s hyper-efforts, for example, are simply incredible, and yet I always felt that it was just paper.” Matthew Arnold said of Anna Karenina that it was not about life, but was life itself. Nothing could be further from Sorokin’s conception of literature.
Sorokin is at least consistent. While the dissidents braved arrest and physical assault to get their works published, Sorokin appears oblivious to publication. In various interviews he says he “put out” a collection of stories, The First Working Holiday (Pervy Subbotnik), in the late 1970s. This is puzzling, because the stories are all vicious parodies of socialist realism and Soviet mythology. Each begins with a happy scene from Soviet life, told in the cheerful/solemn language of Soviet writing (its nearest American equivalent might be the tone of the evening network news). And then each story, at some point toward the end, breaks down, sometimes linguistically, almost always violently. In “Night-Time Guests,” for example, a couple staying home for the evening are thrilled to find their old friend Georgy suddenly ringing their doorbell. How’s he doing? Is he in town long? Come in, come in! So good to see you! Then there are three pages of ellipses. We return to find them covering the table with a towel and injecting the wife with what appears to be a dose of heroin. It feels great. “I’m flying!” she says. Then they make some more preparations—and chop off her hand! Ha ha!
In short, it seemed unlikely that these stories had been published at the time, and I’d never heard of a samizdat edition. Then I found an interview in which the journalist followed up:
Sorokin: My first collection was constructed according to the rules of official mid-level Soviet literature. Like it had come out in Kaluga, say.
Q: And where did it actually come out?
Sorokin: Nowhere yet.
To him this was neither here nor there.
It could not stay that way forever. Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Norm is that it was, eventually, published. This was in 1994, by which time Sorokin had gone into a creative crisis. Druzhnikov and the other dissidents had dreamed of the Soviet collapse for decades, had sped its arrival, and whatever loss of status they might suffer was more than made up for by the publication of their work in their homeland (Angels did very well in Russia in the early 1990s). But what if you were a committed avant-gardist who had turned the language of the Soviet regime into one of the chief materials of your art? It was as if Andy Warhol had displayed his Brillo boxes, and five years later the capitalist system lay in ruins.
Sorokin seems to have experienced the Soviet collapse as a profound shock. Throughout the 1990s he gave interviews explaining why he was no longer producing fiction. “Probably this is connected not only with fatigue …but also with the change in language,” he told David Remnick and The New Yorker in 1994. “This is one of those times in Russia when real life is even more vivid than literature.” True enough, but disingenuous. Another way of putting it would have been that Russian postmodernism had experienced its historic endgame, both aesthetically and politically. It would be unfair to label Sorokin an anti-Soviet phenomenon and leave it at that; it was more along the lines of what Pelevin writes of an aging hippie in Generation P:
In his strange outfit, he seemed like the last fragment of a dead universe. Not the Soviet one, because there were no wandering Tibetan astrologists in the Soviet Union, but another, which existed parallel to the Soviet universe, and even in opposition to it, but disappeared along with it anyway.
Put still another way, Sorokin spoke to Remnick at just around the time that the Russian public finally got a look at The Norm (New Yorker readers were not favored with a description of its contents). So one must imagine oneself with Sorokin’s dilemma: You have written a novel about eating shit, and a publisher has given it to the world. Now what?
Sorokin did not publish another novel until 1999. Blue Lard (Goluboe Salo) picks up the work of desacralization with alarming brio. The plot is hopelessly complicated, jumping back and forth between a fake future and a fake past. (Jamey Gambrell has bravely described the book, and its persecution by the absurd and sinister Moving Together youth group, in these pages.*) In brief, though, the novel is an attack on the very idea of Russian literature, an old Sots-Art target, now including the figures most beloved of the postwar intelligentsia. Moving Together sued Sorokin’s publisher over the scene in Blue Lard in which Khrushchev sodomizes Stalin; I was more disturbed by the episode in which Anna Akhmatova is portrayed as an enormously fat poetess, a Mother Russia who spends many pages giving birth to something (“Requiem”?), after which a young Joseph Brodsky appears and eats her placenta.
This perverse and literal-minded concreteness has always been a part of Sorokin’s method. In The Norm, soldiers going off to the war leave their hearts with their girlfriends, who then don’t know what to do with the wet, beating organs when the boys have been killed at the front. But the very extremity of the imagery in Sorokin’s new novel is a sign of confusion. There is, believe it or not, a certain subtlety to the coprophagia in The Norm—with the method of consuming the shit rations serving as a measure, the episodes each manage to contain a moral universe. To some degree Sorokin’s post-Soviet difficulty is the obverse of the problem often noted in the so-called “liberal” stream of Soviet-era writing: that a readership totally familiar with the Party line will notice with joy even the slightest deviation from it. No one knew their readers better, could more accurately anticipate their reactions, than Soviet writers of the Sixties and Seventies. This often made them lazy and parochial, but in a few happy instances it made them great. Sorokin’s early novels and stories were written with the certainty that readers existed who would understand what he was up to; judging by his new work, that certainty has been shattered.
Blue Lard was followed by a book of stories, A Feast (Pir), and then in 2002 by Ice (Lyod). Blue Lard was essentially the same as his earlier work, except much more so; A Feast included stories of the old ultra-parodic variety (in one story, Sorokin replaces all adjectives and adverbs with the names of foods), and some experimental work in a new vein, though all of it radically difficult to read. Ice appears, if only because of its readability and sustained attention to one theme, to be the beginning of a new phase. The novel describes a murderous cult of fanatical, blue-eyed, blond vegetarians who believe that the rest of the world is asleep—“meat-processing machines,” they call the others. The cultists’ ways are a bit obscure. They worship a magic piece of outer-space ice that landed years ago in Siberia, and they use the ice to make hammers, with which they whack cult candidates on the chest to see if their hearts “speak.” Most people don’t survive the test.
The first section of the novel is set in contemporary Russia and written in the clipped-sentence thriller style. The second is written by a senior member of the cult, who describes her travails over the course of twentieth-century Russian history: how she was taken away from her village by the retreating German army, put in a labor battalion, then discovered as a “sister” by one of the cult vegetarians, who also happened to be a high-ranking SS officer. Ice’s final sections are a user’s manual and customer testimonials for the ice—the cult has apparently turned into a joint-stock company.
The novel still moves in too many directions to be successful, but it does show Sorokin trying on styles that are not merely pastiche or parody. Actual characters emerge, and Sorokin applies his remarkable talent for mimicry to the dialogue. And there is another interesting development: “We were luckiest [in finding brothers] at the libraries,” the cult’s memoirist tells us.
There were always thousands of meat-processing machines there, silently partaking of an insane ritual: they were very carefully turning paper sheets, covered with letters. And they derived a special, incomparable pleasure from this. The fat, worn-out books were written by meat-processing machines who had died long ago and whose portraits hung on the walls of the libraries.
You can certainly never tell with Sorokin (some critics have even argued that he likes the genocidal vegetarians), but it does sound as if the writer being parodied here is… Sorokin. Which might be a promising sign.
Throughout much of the 1990s, the vastly more popular Viktor Pelevin was actually considered a sub-branch of Sorokin—if not exactly a Sorokin for dummies, then at the very least a Sorokin you could hug. He employed a number of the same techniques—word games with ideological speech, stories in the form of academic reports, parodies of revered authors (in one of Pelevin’s best early stories, “The Blue Lantern,” Tolstoy, swapping scary tales at sleep-away camp with little Kolya and Vasya and the gang, grows angry and throws a shoe at Kolya)—but his narratives were always grounded in the consciousness of a single sympathetic character. And he wasn’t hell-bent on destroying literature: many of his jokes (he is in large part a satirical writer) depended on the reader conjuring up a visual image of what Pelevin described; also, his characters were perpetually discovering occult texts, secret written messages, and other logocentric artifacts. Pelevin may have been a first-generation post-Soviet, but he was a second-generation postmodernist.
He was also very much drawn to reflections on the state of Mother Russia. The Life of Insects (1994) described how one group of insects helped a foreign group of insects suck Russia dry. The Yellow Arrow (1993) concerned life on a speeding train from which passengers cannot disembark, and which is heading, everyone knows, toward a decayed bridge. Even when he wasn’t allegorizing about Russia, Pelevin was turning it into metaphor: in Omon Ra, the narrator Omon (named, by his ambitious father, after the Soviet acronym for riot police) spends his youth dreaming of outer space, and seeing all around him bright lights, like the stars, and huge, shiny machines, like spaceships. And then, at fourteen, in a cramped little guardroom in a parking garage, he gets drunk for the first time, and he realizes something:
And suddenly I was revolted by the thought that I was sitting in a crumby little room, which smelled of garbage, and revolted by the fact that I had just drunk cheap wine from a dirty glass, and by the fact that the whole big country where I lived was just a series of crumby little rooms, which smelled of garbage, where people had just been drinking cheap wine, and most of all, I was upset by the fact that it was these self-same smelly little rooms that emitted all those endless multi-colored lights that so touched my soul whenever fate brought me past a window that was placed high above the capital, at night.
In Pelevin’s early books, these reflections were about Russia, but also about more than Russia. Some had a mystical dimension, which, if it was often of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull variety, nevertheless lent Pelevin’s work an ambition it might otherwise have lacked. In his public persona, too, he was true to this. For one thing, he was famously reclusive. A devoted Buddhist, he was often going to Tibet; when journalists managed to catch up with him, he was always wearing sunglasses and a forbidding leather jacket; his utterances were gnomic and guarded. Even after the 1997 publication of Buddha’s Little Finger (Chapaev i Pustota), in which lengthy discussions of Buddhism were combined with an account of the early Bolshevik years, turned Pelevin from a cult author into a best-selling cult author, he remained out of the spotlight.
In recent years, though, Pelevin has grown increasingly topical, and vulnerable, therefore, to the vicissitudes of Russian political life. Generation P (Homo Zapiens in the US), completed shortly after the August 1998 collapse of the ruble, was dedicated “To the middle class: in memoriam.” It followed the adventures of Vavilen Tatarsky, a poet turned adman whose rise in the advertising industry eventually leads to his learning the dark secret of Russian politics—Yeltsin and the rest are just computer-generated images. As in The Matrix, they do not exist. There are some references to ancient Babylonian deities in Generation P, but you can tell the novelist’s heart isn’t in it. The new Pelevin, though still a Buddhist and by no means a member of the literary talk-show circuit, has clearly been watching a lot more television. His unit of composition is no longer the traditional scene or epiphanic moment, but the quip.
With his latest book, The Dialectics of the Transition Period from Nowhere to Nothing (Dialektika Perehodnogo Perioda iz Niotkuda v Nikuda), a novel plus assorted short stories, Pelevin moves to a new level of topicality. Nearly all the stories deal with Russia in the Putin era; all of them have plots just sturdy enough for Pelevin to roll out his jokes about political and consumer trends. Though the familiar postmodern devices are still there (bold-faced brand names; a long story about a mad Ph.D. dissertation), Pelevin has at last ceased to be a discount Sorokin; he is, for the moment, more like a glorified David Letterman.
That said, some of the jokes are very good. The short novel Numbers (Chisla) relates the adventures of Stepa, a banker whose affection for the number “34,” and consequent antipathy to “43,” determines all his business moves. Simply by following his numerological instincts, he grows rich. “Life, and the era, were so absurd in their depths,” comments the narrator, trying to account for Stepa’s success,
and economics and business were so dependent on God knows what, that anyone basing his decisions on sober analysis came to seem like an idiot trying to ice-skate in the face of gale-force winds. Not only was there nothing to push off from, but the very instruments with which he’d hoped to get ahead had become dead weight, pulling him to the bottom. Meanwhile, everywhere around him the rules of ice-skating were displayed, optimistic music blared from the loudspeakers, and in the schools children were prepared for life by being taught triple-axle jumps.
Those are the Yeltsin years, and for Pelevin, who is compulsive about noting each particular period (you sometimes feel as if he’s going to announce the end of the Era of Last Week), those years are very much a thing of the past. Coming upon a stack of literary and academic journals from that time, Stepa thinks that “under their covers burned the final sunset of an era that seemed, to its contemporaries, so inhumanly cruel and predatory, but was in fact so naive, so pathetic, and so earnest.”
The new era is a much harsher place. It is characterized by a vague foreboding and a constant sense of being watched. For Stepa, this begins when his krysha (literally roof, or protection), two idiosyncratic Chechen brothers who argue about Allah and mysticism on their way to a shoot-out, are murdered at that shoot-out by an agent from the secret service (FSB). After that, the FSB becomes Stepa’s krysha, and a monitor of all he does.
Numbers is Pelevin’s weakest novel, and much of its weakness can be attributed to the sort of complacency that overtakes a novelist too sure of his tools. But some of the faults feel endemic to the period in which Pelevin now writes. Ian Watt once argued that the very existence of the novel as a form was predicated on a political and social order sufficiently respectful of the individual “to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature.” Novels have of course been written in societies where no such attitude obtains, but in Numbers the breakdown occurs precisely at the point where the individual should demonstrate his independence. The first part of the book, covering the Yeltsin years, feels thin and unmotivated for the very reasons Pelevin adduces for Stepa’s riches: the world made no sense, and neither did individual actions within it. The second part of the book feels weak because Stepa is always being watched and corrected by the secret service. His freedom of choice is constrained by their ability to see him, and an old question returns in a new form: If the FSB exists and it controls everything, can there be such a thing as individual free will?
Pelevin’s answer would seem to be that in an era of increasing repression, freedom must be smuggled through in small doses, the kind that fit in cigarette packs. So it is that in Numbers, Pelevin, whose jokes have always been visual or verbal and often long-developing, delivers his best line in the form of an actual joke. It is told by Myus, Stepa’s British semiotician girlfriend, who believes that Russia has entered a new historical phase. “All significant social transitions are very quickly reflected in the folklore,” she explains. The tumult of the 1990s was expressed in a series of jokes in which a beat-up old Zaporozhets (the Soviet Fiat) crashed into a 600-series Mercedes at a traffic light; the mafiosi would then jump out of the Mercedes and shake down the poor intellectual in the rickety Zas.
In Putin’s Russia, things have changed. “At a traffic light,” Myus tells the joke,
a 600-series Mercedes crashes into the back of a black Volga with tinted windows. The mafioso jumps out of the Mercedes and begins breaking all the Volga’s windows. Finally he breaks the back one and discovers a colonel from the FSB. “Comrade Colonel!” he says. “Here I’ve been knocking and knocking, and you don’t open up…. Tell me, where do I put the money?”
Funny, and true, but it fails to cheer poor Stepa. “That’s not a joke,” he murmurs unhappily. “That’s life.”
Pelevin has become a quipping social satirist and critic of globalism and consumerism—one of many, to be sure, but he is welcome. Yuri Druzhnikov is now in Davis, California, where he is a professor of literature; he receives high marks on www.ratemyprofessors .com for his generous grading and his “laid-back attitude.”
Sorokin alone remains on the treacherous path of high art. He is not yet fifty. Perhaps now, at half a century, he will undergo a conversion. Perhaps on the road to Petersburg, or possibly just at the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, the scourge of the Tolstoyan realists will be confronted by the Old Man himself. Books are just ink on dead paper, he will tell Sorokin, but they are all we have. The world is inhuman enough already, and our country is again being plunged into darkness. You have the rare power to make the page come to life—use it! And as for your friend with the jokes, Tolstoy will add, tell him I get it. Tell him, Ha ha.
December 16, 2004