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by Bamber Gascoigne

Viktor Pelevin (b. 1962)


Novelist and short story writer, a member of the perestroika and post-Soviet generation of authors, who turned away from conventional realistic prose in favor of postmodern artistic devices. Pelevin's kaleidoscopic play with styles, philosophical problems, ideals, and national myths and refusal to explain his work have earned him a reputation as a controversial but nevertheless thought-provoking voice on the Russian literary scene.

"My father's plans on my behalf failed to inspire me with any real confidence-after all, he himself was a Party man, and he had a perfectly good Russian name, Matvei, but all he had earned for his efforts was a miserly pension and a lonely, drunken old age." (from Omon Ra, 1992)

Viktor Pelevin was born in Moscow, where he was brought up in a Soviet nomenklatura family. Pelevin's mother Zinaida Efremova was a director of a grocery store. His father Oleg was a military officer, who taught at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Oleg Pelevin was not a Party member. He died in 1999. 

Pelevin spent his summer vacations on a Moscow army base and later recalled that it "was like a big playground full of soldiers." Pelevin himself was never interested in a career in the Army, but he loved to draw fighter planes in his school notebooks. He studied in the elite School Number 31, where he learned English.

At the age of 14 Pelevin read Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita in a library during school hours. Although the novel had gone through censorship, and had lots of omissions, the unexplainableness of it all offered a liberating experience which had a primary influence on Pelevin's thought. "The Master and Margarita didn't even bother to be anti-Soviet, yet reading this book would make you free instantly," he said in an interview. ('Oboroten Spectres: Lycantropy, Neoliberalism ansd New Russia in Victor Pelevin,' in Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, WReC Warwick Research Collective, 2015, pp. 100-101)

To avoid the military service, Pelevin entered in 1979 the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering (MEI), where he took part in a secret project to protect MiG fighter planes from flying insects. After graduating in 1985, Pelevin applied for the PhD program. He also studied the Moscow’s Gorky Institute of Literature. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked in a design office and as an editor of Science and Religion (Nauka i religiia) magazine. In 1991 – the year when the Soviet Union collapsed – Pelevin's literary studies came to an end when he was expelled from the Gorky Institute. He was accused of being "isolated". At that time Pelevin was finishing his first novel, Omon Ra (1992), which was published in the literary magazine Znamya. In addition, he had a job as an editor of the publishing company День (Day). 

In his early twenties, inspired by Carlos Castaneda's writings, which circulated in samizdat copies in Russia, Pelevin also tried to grow a peyote cactus, without much success. "This plant needs a lot of sun radiation and a special kind of soil to produce the amount of mescaline sufficient to summon his noble spirit," Pelevin later wrote. "So, despite the fact that the number of buttons I ate would have made Don Juan whistle in respectful disbelief, the result was nil, or very close to it".

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarchs, fantasy replaced science fiction as the most popular form of speculative fiction in the country. Pelevin's first work of fiction was a fairy tale, Koldun Ignat i ljudi (Sorcerer Ignat and The People). The Blue Lantern (1991), a collection of prose, won the Little Booker Prize for Short Stories in 1993 and established him as one of the most interesting writers in Russian postmodernism. In the short story ''Problema vervolka v srednei polose' (1993) Pelevin suggested, that werewolves helped the Bolsheviks to win the White Army.

The title of Omon Ra combined the Russian word for "special police forces" with the name the ancient Egyptian sun god. In this post-Soviet fantasy, Pelevin made a parallel with a search for freedom and a suicide mission mentality. Noteworthy, he has admitted that before writing the novel, he did no research on the Soviet space programme (partly because the work is more about the inner cosmos), one of the national achievements of which the USSR was most proud. The naive narrator, Omon Krivomazov has always dreamed of the outer space, his escape to the fact that his country was "just a series of crumby little rooms, which smelled of garbage". Eventually he is selected to the cosmonaut program and adopts the code name Omon Ra. Omon's mission is to fly a supposedly "unmanned" spacecraft to the dark side of the moon. Because he cannot return after landing, he is ordered to commit suicide. From outside the moonwalker looks like a large laundry tank and its steering mechanism is built from a bicycle. "We just didn't have the time to defeat the West technologically," explains Colonel Urchagin. But it turns out, that the whole story of the glorious Soviet space program is a fabrication. When all illusions are dispelled, there is nothing but emptiness. Some critics have found the ending flat and insipid which only accentuates Pelevin's stand that perhaps all roads lead "nowhere". Nevertheless, the novel made a profound contribution to the revival of the anti-totalitarian satire.

The central themes in Pelevin's work are the nature of reality, the relationship between phenomena and observation, and the sense of identity, as in The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, in which the heroine looks like a 14-year-old girl, but is actually some 2,000 years old werefox named A Hu-Li, a Lolita hunting for clients; her name means in Chinese "the fox named A". "Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that names are the only thing that exist in the world," states the narrator. "Maybe that's true, but the problem is that as time passes by, names do not remain the same – even it they don't change." At the beginning of the novel, A Hu-Li tells that when her name is spelt in Russian letters – A Xули – it becomes a Russian obscenity.  She is the creator of the novel we are reading, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf.  

Nothing is what it seems to be in Chapaev i Pustota (1996, The Clay Machine-Gun), in which the story takes place in two realms. In one, the narrator Pyotr Voyd, a decadent poet, tells of his travels with the legendary Bolshevik commander Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev, a real historical figure, who died during the Russian Civil War. In the other realm Pyotr is a patient in a mental institution, and describes his fantasies to the psychiatrist. As Petka he is Chapaev's faihful sword-bearer. Chapaev is portrayed as a Buddhist guru and a hallucination; in Soviet propaganda he was hailed as an illiterate "genius of military art." Pyotr's "psychological journal" could be read as a reminder of Gogol's 'Diary of a Madman'. "Nothing there exists, so to speak, in reality," Pelevin writes. "Everything depends on who is looking at it." There is no difference between reality and nightmare, "it's all a dream." The chairman of the jury for the Russian Booker Prize eliminated the novel from the competition on the grounds that "works like this act like a cultural virus – they destroy the cultural memory".

The Life of Insects (1997) reflects the Buddhist thought that nature is a kind of spiritual embryo that is present in within all beings. The Kafkaesque novel consist of fifteen interlock stories, in which the characters seem to exist simultaneously both as human beings and different species of insects in a multilayered spacetime. A father, a scarab, tells his son that there is nothing but dung. "And the purpose of life is to push it along in front of you." Then he is crushed under a huge red shoe with a stiletto heel. Natalia, a young fly, asks the visiting American mosquito Samuel Sacker, what he was doing in France. "The usual thing, sucking blood," Sam replies. "That's not what I meant. Did you go just because you felt like it?" Not exactly. Some friends invited me to the annual Proust festival in Combray."

Pelevin's cult best seller Generation "P" (1999), a satire of contemporary Russia and the children of Marx, Pepsi and TV, who in fact chose Pepsi "precisely the same way as their parents chose Brezhnev." This critique of neoliberal capitalism follows the adventures of Babylen Tatarsky in the advertisement business, which appears as surrealistic as Babylen's acid trips, where there is no difference between virtual reality and the actual world. The hero's first name was composed by his father from the ideals of communism and the sixties, from Yevtushenko's famous poem 'Baby Yar' and Lenin. In an interview Pelevin has said, that Generation Pizdets "means a generation that faces catastrophe" (The Observer, April 30, 2000). The "P" in title also refers to an obscene Russian word, "pizdets".

The outside world was completely shut off in Shlem uzhasa (2005), in which the characters are virtual voices in cyberspace labyrinth, trying to figure out if are they dead or alive, and realizing soon that somebody is monitoring their conversation. The titular helmet is a not a hat or apparatus, but a mind, "the place where everything else is produced out of nothing." In his introduction Pelevin writes, "If a mind is like a computer, perhaps myths are its shell programs: set of rules that we follow in our world processing, mental matrices we project onto complex events to endow them with meaning."

Empire "V" (2006) was about the initiation of a young man into the spiritual life of vampires and their language. The title refers to the era of Vampire Rule, to distinguish it from the nazi Third Reich and "the Fourth Rome of globalism". Noteworthy, Russian vampires not only drink blood, but like zombies, they eat bodies, too. In Pelevin's story, the human race serve as a milk-cow to these superhumans, providing them nourishment, a kind of drung called bablos. This essence is distilled from money circulation.

Pelevin has visited South Korea several times, and stayed there in a Buddhist monastery. "Part of the attraction of Buddhism for me is that it enables me to empty my head of all the junk of modern living," Pelevin has said in an interview (The New York Times, January 23, 2000). Pelevin avoids literary circles, rarely gives interviews, at least in his own country, and keeps his personal life private. Although typecast as a postmodernist by many critics, Pelevin himself has rejected this label. The critic Aleksandr Arkhangel'sky declared in his review of Chapaev i Pustota, that Pelevin's postmodernist games are banishing genuine feelings and destroying Russian national culture and identity. A pro-Putin youth group organized in 2002 "book exchanges" in the street where works by controversial writers, including Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, could be traded for "wholesome" ones by the former socialist realist writer Boris Vasil'ev, who in turn dissociated himself from this demonstration. 

As an experimental writer with a penchant for fantasy themes and the surreal Pelevin has been compared to Sorokin, whose work is however more nihilistic and provocative. Dina Khapaeva has argued in Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Projects (2013) that Pelevin carries on the legacy of Gogol in his experiments with nightmares. In Viktor Dotsenko's book Voina Beshenogo (1999), one of his many novel's about the nationalistic action hero Mad Dog, "Viktor Poverin" is smeared as a propagandist of drug use.

For further reading: Companion to Victor Pelevin, edited by Sofya Khagi (2022)  'Oboroten Spectres: Lycantropy, Neoliberalism ansd New Russia in Victor Pelevin,' in Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, WReC Warwick Research Collective (2015); Narratives of Nothing in 20th-Century Literature by Meghan Vicks (2015); Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project by Dina Khapaeva (2013); Literature, History and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia, 1991-2006 by Rosalind J. Marsh (2007); Russian Literature 1995-2002 by N.N. Shneidman (2004); 'The Tower of and the Labyrinth: Conspiracy, Occult and Empire-Nostalgia in the Work of Pelevin, Prokhanov' by Keith Livers, in The Russian Review (October 2010); World Authors 1990-1995, ed. Clifford Thompson (1999); 'Viktor Pelevin 1962-' by S. Dalton-Brown, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Ludic nonchalance or ludicrous despair? Viktor Pelevin and Russian postmodernist prose' by Sally Dalton-Brown, in Slavocic and East European Review (75/2, 1997)

Selected works:

  • Sinii fonar', 1991
    - The Blue Lantern and Other Stories (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 1997)
  • Omon Ra: povest', 1992
    - Omon Ra (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 1994)
    - Omon Ra (suom. Arja Pikkupeura, 2002)
  • 'Problema vervolka v srednei polose', 1993 (in Russkii rasskaz XX veka)
    - A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories (translated by Andrew Bromfield; contains A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, Vera Pavlovna's Ninth Dream, Sleep, Tai Shou Chuan USSR, The Ontology of Childhood, Bulldozer Driver's Day, Prince of Gosplan, 1998)
  • Zheltaia strela, 1993
    - The Yellow Arrow (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
  • Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, 1996 (2 vols.)
  • Chapaev i Pustota, 1996
    - The Clay Machine-Gun (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 1999) / Buddha's Little Finger (U.S. title, 2000)
    - Film in production: Buddha's Little Finger, prod. Rohfilm, dir. Tony Pemberton, release date 2012
  • Zhizn' nasekomyrkh, 1997
    - The Life of Insects (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 1996)
    - Hyönteiselämää (suom. Arja Pikkupeura, 1999)
  • Generation "P", 1999
    - Babylon (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2000) / Homo Zapiens (U.S. title, 2002)
    - Generation P (suom. Arja Pikkupeura, 2000)
    - Film 2011, prod. Generation P, Rambler Media, Room, dir. Victor Ginzburg, starring Vladimir Menshov, Renata Litvinova, Mikhail Efremov, Andrey Panin
  • 4 by Pelevin: Stories, 2001 (translated by Andrew Bromfield; contains Hermit and Six-Toes, The Life And Adventures of Shed Number XII, Vera Pavlovna's Dream, Tai Shou Chuan USSR)
  • Vstroennyi napominatel', 2002
  • Dialektika Perekhodnogo Perioda iz Niotkuda v Nikuda, 2003
  • Sviashchennaia kniga oborotnia, 2004
    - The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2008)
  • Shlem uzhasa, 2005
    - The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2007)
    - Kauhukypärä: Theseuksen ja Minotauroksen myytti (suom. Arja Pikkupeura, 2005)
  • Relics. Rannee i neizdannoe, 2005
  • Vse rasskazy, 2005
  • Empire "V" = Ampir "V", 2006
    - Viides maailmanvalta: yli-ihmisen tarina (suom. Arja Pikkupeura, 2009)
  • Fokus-gruppa, 2008
  • P5: proshchal'nye pesni politicheskikh pigmeev Pindostana, 2008
  • Zal poyushhix kariatid, 2008
    - The Hall of Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2011)
  • Vse povesti i esse, 2009
  • DPP (NN), 2010
  • S.N.U.F.F., 2011
  • Ananasnaia voda dlia prekrasnoi damy, 2011
  • Betman Apollo / Batman Apollo, 2013
  • Lyubov k trem tsukerbrinam, 2014
  • Smotritel, 2015
  • Lampa Mafusaila, ili Krajnjaja bitva chekistov s massonami, 2016
  • iPhuck 10, 2017
  • Iskusstvo legkikh kasaniy, 2019 [The Art of Subtle Touches]
  • Nepobedimoe solntse, 2020 [Invincible Sun]
  • Transhumanism Inc., 2022

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