Saturday, July 29, 2017

Victor Pelevin, Chapaev and Void (1996)

The English translation of this novel has two different titles: it's either The Clay Machine-Gun or Buddha's Little Finger, depending on whether it was published in Great Britain or the US.  Neither of these is an attempt to approximate the original Russian title, which I have used to title this post so as not to destabilize US/Britain relations by appearing to engage in favoritism.

Right, so Vasily Chapaev (1887-1919) was a Red Army commander during the Russian Civil War. Since then, he's become sort of a folk hero, and along with his assistants, his aide-de-camp Petka and machine gunner Anka, he's the subject of various Russian jokes.  You can look them up on the extremely famous Internet!

The protagonist is one Pyotr Voyd, who, via a case of mistaken identity, becomes the aide-de-camp in question ("Petka" being a diminutive form of "Pyotr").  Only there's something strange about this situation; there's an awful lot of Buddhist-ish philosophizing about what reality consists of, whether there's anything outside consciousness, and what, then, consciousness consists of.  At one point, he visits Valhalla (a Buddhist sort of Valhalla, however) with a kind of god of death.  Also, he keeps having dreams where he's a patient in a psychiatric hospital in the present (ie, 1990's), where one of the doctors is studying split personalities.

There are some really great setpieces in here, and also some fairly tedious dialogues as they discuss these abstruce philosophical concepts.  They're intermittently interesting, but they frequently veer uncomfortably close to stoned dorm-room philosophizing.  A lot of drugs are done.  And that's all.

I mean, really, that's all.  As you'd probably guess, it doesn't just turn out to be a straightforward matter of Pyotr being a guy from the present hallucinating about the past, but whether it turns out to be anything at all is an open question.  For all of Pelevin's obvious talent, this appears to me to be a lot of potential that ultimately goes nowhere.  I suppose you could argue that that's a problem endemic of postmodernism; I, as you can imagine, would politely disagree with you, but I think the charge makes sense here.  Whatever you want to call it, this novel is interesting enough that I may pursue others of Pelevin's works in the future, but this one left me feeling a bit empty (see what I did there?), and even if that's on some level intentional, I'm not wild about it--though I should leave open the possibility that for Russians, living in Russia with Russia's cultural milieu, the whole thing might resonate much more strongly.  Also, it DOES feature an excerpt from "Waiting for the Miracle," so that's to it's credit.


Post a Comment

<< Home