“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?


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
By Victor Pelevin
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Reviewed by Margarita Shalina
336 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780670019885
$25.95
A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >