8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, which is just out from New Directions in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this last night. And I completely agree with Vince’s review: this is a strange, surprising, unsettling, great book. I’ve not read a lot of Pelevin, but after finishing this, I decided to go back and start Homo Zapiens . . .

I’ll be posting more about Hall of the Singing Caryatids in the near future (in a “Why I heart Scott Esposito” post), but for now, I just wanted to mention a few disparate things:

1) Thanks to Vince for reviewing for us. All of our reviewers are spectacular, but I think Vince deserves a special shout-out for so consistently writing interesting, solid reviews. (You can read the all here.)

2) If you have a review in with us and are anxiously awaiting to see it appear, don’t fret! For once (thanks to Six, our current intern), we actually have a backlog of pieces to run. That is not the usual situation, so forgive me for cherishing it. We’re actually set through the holidays, which means that we’ll have good shit to post while everyone is dreading enjoying their family time!

3) This deserves it’s own post, but props to ND for fixing their website. I haven’t explored this as much as I should, but it only took 30 seconds to find The Hall of the Singing Caryatids and download the cover image. This is compared to spending 30 minutes screaming at their old site and its annoying incompleteness. Thank you, ND people. If only all publishers could take your lead.

And now, the opening of Vince’s review:

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.

Click here to read the full piece.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Margarita Shalina (bookseller at St. Mark’s, translator, reviewer, all around multi-talented person) on Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which actually came out last year (hey, no one said we had to be timely). Here’s the opening of her review:

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

Click here for the full review.

7 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What a crazy idea that was—to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed!”

Pelevin has a great knack for relaying the oddities of the Russian condition in terms that almost anyone can understand. Product placement in Generation “P” revealed to the rest of the world that, yes, young people of the post-communist era did indeed choose Pepsi, or perestroika, but with the same freedom as when their parents chose Brezhnev, that is none at all. This time Pelevin’s leitmotif is the Russian folktale. In Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Pelevin has dusted off the characters of fox and wolf—stars of the traditional Russian folktales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev in the mid nineteenth century. In Sacred Book, Pelevin has personified fox as a sex worker and wolf as an FSB agent.

In Russian folktales, fox is the perpetual trickster. In keeping with this Pelevin’s fox is a prostitute named A Hu-Li. The name itself is a profanity in Russian to match her occupation which translates to “[s]omething like living in America and being called Whatze Phuck.” A Hu-Li is a two thousand year old were-creature who adores Nabokov and resembles a Lolita—“nowadays everybody’s read Lolita, even the Lolitas.” She engages clients at high end Moscow hotel bars, takes their money but does not have sex with them. A session with A Hu-Li, the trickster fox, is a chimera. A hypnotic suggestion channeled through the power of her glorious red tail—“the organ that we use to spin our web of illusion.” While the client is immersed in splendid fantasies copulating with the hotel bed sheets, A Hu-Li feeds off of the sexual energy produced by the lone client and sits flipping through a glossy magazine. When she momentarily nods off her client, a Sikh businessman, “slips off the tail” and in a state of shock proceeds to throw himself from the hotel room window, “One of my sisters used to say that when a client slips off the tail during an unsuccessful session, for a few seconds he sees the truth. And for a man this truth is so unbearable that the first thing he wants to do is kill the fox responsible for revealing it to him, and then he wants to kill himself . . .” A Hu-Li finds herself surrounded by wolves, that is, the FSB (nee KGB, nee NKVD, nee CHEKA.)

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp meticulously reduced the Russian folktale to a series of functions. Unfortunately, he ignored class. Russian folktales seem to be split into two categories—the mundane folkloric tales pertaining to commoners and the grandiose fairytales dealing with royalty. In the former fox and wolf cohabitate, are occasionally spouses and live modestly among both the human and the animal denizens of the forest. These tales do not always contain a “hero” and tend to be anecdotal. All creatures are at the mercy of the cunning little fox as she lies, cheats and steals from them. However, there is no place for fox in the latter category, the grandiose fairytales that deal with themes of usurpation, murder, intrigue and betrayal in the once upon a time kingdoms of Russia. Unlike fox, bear or cow, it is the grey wolf alone who can cross over and fluidly operate both among the forest dwellers and the royals. The power struggle for control of the kingdom is especially the domain of the wolf as the power struggle for control of Russia is the domain of the FSB. The wolf is a facilitator usually servicing a wronged prince, the “hero” proper. He is capable of reanimating the dead and has the ability to transform into a horse or even a human being. The wolf’s interference consistently changes the outcome of what appear to be deadlocked situations. In the grandiose fairytales the wolf is his own man, so to speak, as all around him man is wolf to man.

Alexander is the FSB werewolf who steals A Hu-Li’s heart. He and the other werewolves maintain files on citizens and work at extracting oil from the ground of northern Russia by howling at the moon. Their howls are lamentations meant to draw tears from an ancient folkloric brindled cow skull patched together by steel bands. If the wolves’ lament filled cries draw tears from the skull the earth will produce oil. “_I know what you think of us—no matter how much you give them, Little Khavroshka won’t get a single drop, it will all be gobbled up by these kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses and the other locusts who obscure the very light of day. You are right, brindled cow, that is how it will be._” “Kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses” refers to YUKOS, the short lived non-state owned Russian oil and gas company, a product of post-perestroika privatization it was dismantled by the Russian government amongst charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement with its head Khodorovsky tried and sentenced to a Siberian prison in 2005. In Pelevin’s folktale, Alexander the FSB wolf is awarded The Medal for Services to the Motherland for his heroic oil extracting howls.

Everything goes well for fox and wolf until fox affectionately kisses wolf for the first time transforming him into a dog. As in the folktales a wolf, regardless of how noble or heroic he is, will be doomed to play the hapless fool at the mercy of the little trickster fox as long as they occupy the same story and since A Hu-Li is the narrator of Sacred Book it is very much her tale. Alexander the wolf becomes a black dog of misfortune that “happens” to people and to things. Initially emasculated and ousted from the FSB werewolf pack for having turned from a gray werewolf into a black dog he is depressed and filled with resentment until Alexander realizes that he carries misfortune with him everywhere he goes and that this willful misfortune can be utilized by the FSB.

‘I was just thinking, maybe I should go to work. To find out how things are going.’

I was staggered.

‘Are you serious? Aren’t three bullets enough for you? You want more?’

‘You get these misunderstandings in our profession.’

Pelevin has always played with symbolic narrative by marrying the fantastic to the doldrums of contemporary life. In Life of Insects, Pelevin’s characters are savvy little bugs with identities and agendas all their own, unnoticed in the grander scheme of things they are completely engrossed in the dramas of modern life nonetheless, tiny negligible representations of bustling individuals at large in society. In the case of Sacred Book, the outcome is satire or a veiled Russian state of the union address where sex workers and FSB agents seek to evolve into a higher being, a sort of messiah that all were-creatures await called the super-werewolf and “the super-werewolf can’t be caught by the tail.” Perhaps Pelevin is attempting to relay that Russians have been living their lives in a perpetual state of moral ambiguity going back as far as the ancient folktales. In such a state, why shouldn’t a fox or a wolf or a sex worker or an FSB agent aspire to evolve into a higher being?

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