The Hall of the Singing Caryatids
The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.
My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.
Let me back up and discuss the plot. Lena auditions for a job in an underground club that caters to the whims of elite clientele. At this point, one can imagine any number of perversions to come, though the book is more in line with Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog than Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Lena gets the job partially because she can sing but also because she looks good naked standing on one leg. The job involves posing as a statue—literally. The girls in the hall are frozen thanks to a shot synthesized from praying mantises. Yeah, it sounds pretty weird, but in the context of the book this all makes sense. It gets stranger, as the girls, in their statue state, are able to communicate with a praying mantis, all while humming and singing for the amusement of largely absent customers. Any hope the reader has for outrageous sex or overly grotesque metaphors of state power and female subjugation are dismissed when the book turns away from such easy shocks and moves toward more impacting territory. This book subverts expectations and writes its own rules, asking for the reader’s trust as it settles on disturbing and oddly beautiful conclusion.
The usual descriptions of post-modern, post-post-modern, magic realist, sci-fi, or absurdist are too heavy with cultural baggage to convey what Pelevin achieves in this tale. While these elements are present, they are not employed in common fashion. Pelevin seems giddy with his literary tinkering, moving the story away from the obvious outrages in the work of his countryman Vladimir Sorokin. There is plenty of opportunity for Pelevin to turn the underground sex club into a Caligula-like romp, but when the one and only sex act finally arrives it is encapsulated with: “And they danced the dance that engenders new life.” Pelevin is not going to waste time and space dwelling on these details, especially when what follows is so much bigger. The end result is a brief, powerful book that is equal parts humorous and unsettling.