The Russian-literature allusions in Victor Pelevin’s novel begin right at the beginning. Not with the Lolita epigraph at the head of chapter 1—though that is anything but timid—but in the preceding “Commentary by Experts.” Here is the kind of textual apparatus that Nabokov so enjoyed, in which the voice of authority comically enhances the simulated nonfictional status of the text. And it’s not only Nabokov who classes up the joint in The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, the tenth offering from Pelevin, himself Russian (and still only in his mid-forties). The author parcels out a dense array of references to Russian giants such as Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Chekhov. And then there’s this passage, concerning Dostoyevsky’s encounter with the ageless, shape-shifting prostitute who serves as Pelevin’s narrator and protagonist: “I won’t include it in these pages, out of respect for Russian literature, but let me just say that the red spider in The Possessed once crawled across the hem of my sarafan. . . . Ah, all the titans of the spirit to whom I have given my amusing little gift!”
A book that ventures so many intertextualities, and the implicit comparisons that follow them, has to proceed with a confident step, so Pelevin cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. Thematically, he revisits the folkloric werewolves that beguiled him in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia (1998), this time through the character of one A. Hu-Li, whose name apparently translates from Russian thus: “So Fucking What?” She’s a “fox,” as she terms herself, a sort of she-werewolf, who has lived more than two thousand years, forsaking the China of her youth for the Bitsevsky Park section of contemporary Moscow. Hu-Li feeds on the sexual energy of men, and she is able, with her foxtail, to spin carnal fantasies around her johns, so that she can dine happily on them, without fear of intervention. The novel opens with a mishap, however, a rather shocking murder, after a Sikh whom the fox has met at the hotel National accidentally catches a glimpse of her in the brief interval before she has completed her fantastic transaction with him. The narrator is forced to dupe a couple of security guards into finishing off the Sikh, whereupon she flees the scene.
Werewolves! Russia! China! Murder! You would be forgiven for imagining, on the basis of the foregoing, that The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is a high-concept fantasy novel, one full of incident, since so much compelling narrative is laid out before us in the book’s early pages—like a fine antipasto. And indeed, gussied-up SF/fantasy has been a reliable approach in Pelevin’s oeuvre. But were you to believe that the novel at hand were going to pursue the death of the Sikh and its moral consequences, or even to investigate the change in Hu-Li’s fortunes as a result of the murder, you would be quite mistaken.
What follows, instead, is an interrogation by the Russian Federal Security Service, in the person of a ketamine-addicted thug called Vladimir Mikhailovich, who then gives way, in the course of things, to his superior, Alexander, an upper-level administrator, who is good-looking, ruthless, amoral, and a werewolf. Hu-Li, whom Alexander refers to as Adele and Ada (further to the Nabokov preoccupation), falls in love with her interrogator, and they have a lot of sex, and he takes her to exotic places, including a petropolis where oil is actually summoned from the ground by baying in lupine fashion.
Ada, or Adele, or A. Hu-Li, has two sisters, foxes who also attempt to survive (and feed) in the ruthless world of men, and their e-mail correspondence takes up a major portion of the book. Here, for example, is the message E. Hu-Li sends in response to Adele’s notion of moving to England:
Do you think you’ll be better off here? Understand this—the West is just one big shopping mall. From the outside it looks magical, fantastic. . . . In actual fact, there are three roles you can play here—the buyer, the seller, or the product on the shelf. To be a seller is vulgar, to be a buyer is boring (and you still have to earn your living as a seller), and to be the product is repulsive. . . . All the rest is simply show.
These epistles become a little bit talky, a little bit discursive, a little bit given, as in the passage above, to didacticisms on literature, consumerism, the end of Soviet times, Eastern mysticism (which the author has studied assiduously), and so forth. Likewise, A. Hu-Li, rather conveniently for Pelevin’s purposes, has a tendency to order her thoughts with copious lists. Listing, she avers, is native to her. Thus passages like the following:
In actual fact “contemplation of the heart” cannot be separated from “contemplation of the mind,” because the correct performance of the techniques requires consciousness to be layered off into three independent streams: 1) the first stream of consciousness is the mind which remembers all its dark deeds from time immemorial. 2) the second stream of consciousness is the mind which spontaneously and unexpectedly makes the fox tug her own tail. 3) the third stream of consciousness is the mind as the abstract observer of the first two streams and itself.
And this is not to mention a long dialogue between Alex and Hu-Li on the subject of Bishop Berkeley, in which the nonexistence of all nonperceived matter is put forth with enough force as to rock the foundations of the narrative itself:
Berkeley assumed that perception has to have a subject, and so the coins that rolled under the cupboard and the socks that fell behind the bed were solemnly interred in the cranium of a Creator specially created for that purpose. But how do we deal with the fact that Berkeley’s God, in whose perception we exist, Himself exists mostly in the abstract thinking of certain representatives of the endangered European race?
That is, if all is illusion, why is this story, in which we are investing some effort, since it offers very little story and lots and lots of philosophizing and many pop-cultural references (Hu-Li mentions The Matrix a half dozen times, and for some reason, she is also preoccupied with Camille Paglia), a story at all?
In the end, it probably all comes down to Hu-Li herself. If you are going to read The Sacred Book of the Werewolf in the context of contemporary narrative literature, as you may well do if you’re reading this translation, you are going to attempt to read Hu-Li as though hers were the voice of a two-thousand-year-old shape-shifter and prostitute, which is to say not as the voice of a former engineering student from the former Soviet Union, now a novelist, who happens to be male. When you read the book this way, you are going to be somewhat frustrated, at first, since the book repeatedly fails on the grounds of realism. In the more oblique passages, which is to say the somewhat tiring ones, one speaker sounds much like another: “We sat in silence for a while, gazing into the darkness. Then he asked: ‘But even so. What do people have language for, if it gives them nothing but grief?’ ‘In the first place, so they can lie. In the second place, so they can wound each other with the barbs of venomous words. In the third place, so they can discuss what doesn’t exist.’”
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that a writer this committed to Nietzschean (or postmodern) literary deceit wouldn’t bother himself over the realistic portrayal of a woman or over the daunting thought that there have been only a couple novels from the past thirty or forty years in which a male author has successfully imagined a female narrator (Norman Rush’s Mating being, arguably, the best example). Yet as a result of the novelist’s carefree attitude, we ultimately stop regarding these characters as characters at all, or at least that was my reaction. More exactly, we stop believing until the last seventy-five pages or so, when the doomed love affair between Hu-Li and Alex takes an abrupt turn for the tender. A certain transformation befalls poor Alex, one that I am loath to give away, and all at once, almost inadvertently, we find ourselves in a sort of nineteenth-century romantic opus, complete with a little Kung Fu digression about how the super-werewolf is in us one and all. That Pelevin manages, finally, in a tale with no shortage of high literary aspirations, political allegories, and tracts on modernity, to make us care about these personages must be part of the spell that Hu-Li weaves around those she encounters. All at once, as if by enchantment, we want to care, deeply, and we do.
Rick Moody is the author of several novels and story collections and a memoir. His most recent work, Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas, has just been issued in paperback by Back Bay Books.