Werewolves have fascinated the Russian author Victor Pelevin since at least 1998, when he published a collection of stories called A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia. In the title story, a man accidentally witnesses a pack of werewolves transforming in the forest, and he gradually joins them in hunting down an enemy. That’s about it. The story feels like a contemporary Russian folk tale, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything in particular. It’s moody and fun. And clearly it’s still on Pelevin’s mind, since the boss werewolf, a scary figure known as Colonel Lebedenko, also turns up in his latest novel, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf.
A Hu-Li belongs to an international sisterhood of immortal werefoxes. She looks like a teenage prostitute (and Pelevin is quick to riff on his ur-text, Lolita) but she’s actually a mangy, four-legged animal with a bushy red tail that enthralls people when she exposes them to it. Being thousands of years old, she is mostly interested in the peculiar political and social habits of her adopted country, Russia, and in big philosophical questions like “How do we know we exist?” and “What is the mind?” So yeah, she’s not your average protagonist. Decades ago she had sex with Fyodor Dostoevsky. She says it was “nothing special.”
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf hinges on a romance between A Hu-Li and a shadowy government agent named Alexander. Alexander is a werewolf, and he’s running a secret operation to conjure oil from the ground in Siberia. The two of them have crazy animal sex together. But she’s calm and philosophical, while he’s ambitious, emotional, and patriotic. Their troubled relationship gives Pelevin plenty of occasions to rant about Russian history and literature, the evils of global capitalism, and the best ways to apply Buddhist teachings. Some of his explanations of were-creature ecology feel as tiresome and absurd as bad science fiction. But I’m pretty sure Pelevin intends it that way. The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is a ramshackle thing, full of stagy asides, fake science, and dead-end tirades. But its details offer a devious commentary on the modern state of affairs. A Russian thug is described as “wearing a stylish black suit from Diesel’s ‘rebel shareholder’ collection.” A scheme by the werefoxes to punish England for the sport of fox-hunting is laid out succinctly: “In the north of England there are several privately owned castles where aristocrats are bred from the finest stock and raised specially for hunting by foxes.”
Pelevin’s book doesn’t really hang together. It’s a mash-up of hilarious profanity, earnest spirituality, serious political criticism, and offbeat myth-making. You don’t really believe this book. But you might love the hell out of it. I did. Near the end, A Hu-Li observes that “The only true answer to the question ‘what is truth’ is silence, and anyone who opens his mouth simply doesn’t know the score.” It’s a good thing this Russian crackpot decided to open his mouth anyway.