Early in Victor Pelevin’s novella, the heroine picks up a glossy magazine called Eligible Bachelors of Russia and peruses its rosy profiles of minor oligarchs, written by PR agents. Tucked inside the magazine is another publication, Counterculture, that rails against the ruling class with revolutionary slogans and profanities. Lena has a hard time reconciling the former’s pornographic interest in capitalism with the latter’s apoplectic fear-mongering. But her companion, a petite Russian beauty with “an Asiatic slant to her eyes,” says it’s all part of the same hipocrisy. “I don’t see why we should have any complexes about the job. Because everyone’s a prostitute nowadays, even the air—for letting the radio waves pass through it.”
Lena and her friends are literally prostitutes. They’ve been hired to decorate one room of an underground pleasure palace that Russia has built, in secret, to appease and distract its new-money tycoons. Each of the four girls stands in a corner of the room, painted to look like a stone, and pretends to hold up the ceiling like a decadent Greek caryatid. If any of the tycoons want her, she must step down and do whatever they please. So it goes in Victor Pelevin’s writing. Oh, and the girls take a drug that helps them hold still, which is made from a toxin found in praying mantises, so they begin to hallucinate that a giant insect is telling them to slough off their mortal bodies and become one with all creation.
A slim novella, The Hall of Singing Caryatids showcases Pelevin’s knack for letting all the detritus of modern-day Russia wander into his pages. Like the glossy magazines and revolutionary pamphlets that Lena reads, it is a place for Russia’s schizo personalities to meet and argue with each other. “Human reality,” Lena discovers, “does not consist of time and space, but of various whisperings, mutterings, outcries, and other voices.” In Pelevin’s Russia, the polyphony of human reality has been reduced to an absurdly stark choice—either blind allegiance to a corrupt state, or cheap faith in a useless resistance. So the author searches for a third way out. Having no interest in token opposition (“A pocket dissident,” says one character, “is something like an evil dwarf jester in cap and bells. In glamorous circles it’s actually regarded as rather chic to be one,”), he proposes something even more absurd: communion with animal spirits through government-engineered drugs.
If you’re familiar with Pelevin—his borderline farce, his taste for the supernatural, his merciless skewering of the social order—you’ll find, in this novella, a succinct recapitulation of his major themes. And if not? Fuck it. Who else can pack a spy school for prostitutes, fake quotes from Kate Moss and Vladimir Nabokov, a martial art based on curse words, and a guy called The Last Russian Macho into 100 pages? Pelevin’s writing doesn’t need to be analyzed. It’s a guided dream through all the stuff that gets redacted from Russia’s state-sponsored press releases. It’s the literature that Russia deserves.
- Brian Hurley