"Post-modern" is a term that appears next to Pelevin's name in many reviews. Post-Soviet is another. Both words are goofy and pretentious. The first is so banal and cerebral that all friction with reality that could give this stupid term meaning has worn off completely. Post-modern is a dirty shoe filled with dried sweat of hipster pseudo-intellectuals that I'm not trigger happy to put on.
Post-Soviet is also a trite label but I think this one has more utility. I don't think Pelevin ever sits before a blank piece of paper wondering how to write a "post-Soviet Russian novel." If he did so he would write books that most of us wouldn't want to read.
And yet this fella does live in --and his fiction does describe-- post-Soviet Russia.
So what is post-Soviet Russia?
Imagine a little girl who is promised a birthday party. Her portly grandma whispers in her ear about the fantastic party she will have and how her melancholy and malnourished life will get better after this party. The excited girl runs home from school anticipating this wondrous, life-changing event and when she gets home she finds her alcoholic father chasing his vodka with the remnants of her birthday cake. He feels guilty, this guilt morphs into anger and he slaps her on the face, begins to tearfully apologize and finally falls into a drunken stupor on the floor before her small feet.
Picture the sense of emptiness, disillusionment, despair and cynicism that defines her little heart at this imagined moment and you will get an idea of the bitter, alienated core of post-Soviet Russia.
Russians were promised a new beginning as the empire was tumbling down but instead they entered a new battlefield where they got lucky enough to play both the parts of the cowboys and the Indians. This battlefield was called "an emerging democracy with a developing market economy" and they were supposed to relish every moment.
The cherished democratic ideals of the west became a hollow PR sludge in the minds of many Russians. Communism was dead, maybe God was alive and maybe not. Crime rose, births fell, economy spiraled, orphaned kids were sniffing glue out of plastic bags and minty fresh documentaries informed the newly freed Russians about the bloody crimes of the Bolshevik regime.
Souls despaired and narrowed their goals to survival. Some made money, made millions. Provincial girls dolled themselves up to marry an oligarch or at least get to be his kept woman. Provincial boys buffed themselves up to maybe... serve on the security team?
Anyways, you get the picture. Times were shady in the motherland. This utter lack of meaning combined with Russia's historical hunger for the DEEPEST meaning possible made for the reality Pelevin so aptly describes.
A certain mystical vacuum opened up in Russia's "post-Soviet" heart and Pelevin filled this vacuum with mythic beasts from his fertile imagination. I am a Moscow-born American transplant and for me it is easy to imagine that vampires and werewolfs lurked among the hustlers and corrupt bureaucrats in Russia's glistening hotels, casinos (now closed by big papa aka V.V. Putin), and fancy restaurants.
Both the time and place were right for dark magic. It falls rather neatly into the Russian puzzle - as Bulgakov discovered all the way back during Stalin's merciless reign.
Not only does dark magic fit into the puzzle but it often seems like it is the only thing that can make this puzzle make sense.
And here we get to gist of the matter. Pelevin doesn't introduce magical reality into his fiction for the sake of fiction. He does it for the sake of reality. He uses it as a scalpel, a philosophical tool to cut away the fat. To stab our reality in its heart so it can bleed out its essence.
Post-Soviet Russia is a beautiful, enigmatic and (alas!) often sinister black hole. Dark magic unlocks Russia and Russia unlocks our universal human condition. You could even say it unlocks our post-modern existence if you really want to.
And through this majestic process, Pelevin... loses many of his readers who want a straight and narrow story about magical creatures doing supernatural things. They don't want these magical creatures to have long discussions about Russia because they don't see themselves in Russia; they don't see Russia as a mirror of their humanity.
And yet other westerners glance into that mirror and see our common universe when they read folks like Dostoevsky, Gogol and count Tolstoy.
Nah, here they want a story about a werewolf. A simple one if possible. "Mr. Pelevin, you promised me a werewolf and I got a story about a Russian soul navigating through the swamp, looking for meaning."
Mercifully, great novels don't live in the world where the customer is always right.
Because Pelevin is a talented writer many equate him with the world he describes; they see him swimming comfortably in the currents of cynicism. I don't... I see the cynicism but I don't see the comfort.
This book is a story of finding enlightenment through love. Not cynical at all. This really is a quintessentially Buddhist book. Almost a morality tale like Lolita.
But maybe I'm not making any sense at this point. Try to enjoy this book, this is great literature.
Trust me on this. 74% of Amazon reviewers found voted my reviews to be helpful. And we Russians know that democracy is never wrong and the other 26% are idiots anyway... so who cares what they think?
Well, I wrote what I could. Now I better run off, there is a cow skull in Siberia I want to howl to.