Friday, 29 April 2016

Review: The Sacred Book of the Werewolf - Victor Pelevin

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I spend half my life seeking the wild rush of bliss that is discovering a writer I've previously not read (I admit it, I have a problem) and this is the drive behind at least half the random shit I bring back from the library. Still, as I picked up this one, the name Victor Pelevin rang a bell and not because he was - as a quote on the cover suggested - he was the "zen Buddhist Will Self from the former evil empire." Although, that is an undenaibly formidable set of images.

Turns out the reason it seemed so familiar was because I already had a Pelevin novel at home that I had never quite been in the mood for reading. Still, this one with its promise of werewolves, sex work and a spontaneous combustion seemed rather more up my street. In fact, it looked so incredibly weird that it might even be one of those books that you only ever seem to get in translation, that completely ignore Anglocentric ideas of acceptable genre, subject matter or writing devices. And, in all fairness, it does.

This is a clever book, a lurching, strange mish-mash of styles, themes and characters. Sudden changes of register throw the reader as our slightly prim narrator veers from playful discussions of sexuality to heated philosophical arguments and back again via passionate defence of Nabakov. Combine that with its engagement with the politics of Russia and its fraught relationship with  black gold. Throw in some myths and folktales and it should have been my kind of thing entirely.

Alas, it wasn't a book I could love with an open heart. Something about it was a little colder and more didactic than I find easy to engage with; part of this is a problem inherent in attempting to create a sacred text. If one does not 'buy' the precepts of the form of Buddhism there described, one is left a little bored by the earnestness with which they are proposed. There was also the occasional clumsiness with which the autobiographical (and romance) aspect of the plot combined with the spiritual journey of A Hu Li. At times, a pitch perfect indictment of spiritual disintrest and the way a brutal free market undermines all attempts at interpersonal sympathy and warmth, at others it felt like two badly realised concepts, crammed in together.

Also, from my rather left-wing persepctive, perhaps some of the commentary on sexuality, gender and essentialism was not entirely palatable. However, Pelevin is a skillful enough writer that in the main his narrator and his characters remain constructs, rather than authorial mouthpeices; in personal matters, at least.

There was, also, the issue of translation. Pelevin seems to be a writer much enamoured of the pun - his narrator's name apparently translates into Russian as "What the fuck", something that is sadly lost in translation. Other plot points, especially names, encountered similar problems - an unfortunate state of affairs that is nobody's fault, really. Except perhaps mine, for being unable to read this in Russian.

For all that, it was a fascinating, intelligent and mind-bending book. Pelevin draws characters with great care, balancing grossness, prejudice and real passion against the possibility both of redemption and monstrosity. Where it worked, this was an immersive experience that lingers in the head, raw and uncomfortable. Where it didn't, it perhaps had the misfortune to be a little dull, but otherwise an ambitious and interesting read. I'll check out some of his other stuff, some time. When I'm in the mood for it.