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'The Sacred Book of the Werewolf'
By VICTOR PELEVINReviewed by LIESL SCHILLINGER
Victor Pelevin projects a bitter philosophy of modern times through the voice of a shape-shifting nymphet-narrator.
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By LIESL SCHILLINGER
Published: September 26, 2008
In this satirical, erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world, Victor Pelevin gives new meaning to the words “unreliable narrator.” The story is told by a shape-shifting nymphet named A Hu-Li, a red-haired Asiatic call girl who is some 2,000 years old but looks 14. Her name, said aloud, sounds like a Russian obscenity, but it derives from the Chinese expression for fox spirit, huli jing — an epithet that doubles in China as a put-down for a lascivious home-wrecker. By day, A Hu-Li lives in a dark warren under the bleachers at an equestrian complex in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow; by night, she works the high-end Hotel National, hunting investment bankers.
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That insight underlies Pelevin’s new novel; and though it may sound cynical, it’s not meant that way. He doesn’t understand “truth” and “lie” as a simpler thinker might, and by grounding his ideas in fantasy, putting them in the words of his demonic muse, he has removed the need to make the distinction. In her guileful storytelling, the supervixen enfolds the precepts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Sikhism, along with the theories of Wittgenstein, William of Occam, Freud, Foucault and, especially, Berkeley. (A Hu-Li’s lover’s idea of pillow talk: “Everything only exists by virtue of perception.”) While writing her own Internet pornography ad for whores.ru, A Hu-Li teasingly draws from the fairy tales of Aksakov, the poetry of Blok, the writings of Nabokov. To spice up a casual encounter, she daydreams of Suetonius — who inspires one of her especially sadistic group sex sessions. Needless to say, she handles the allusions with an admirably deft touch.
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Alexander calls his lover Ada — a nod to her Internet name, to Nabokov and to the Russian word for hell. She nicknames him Shurik, deliberately suggesting the name of the dog Sharik from Bulgakov’s story (famous in Russia) “Heart of a Dog,” about a cur who turns into a proletarian and becomes so annoying that he has to be stopped. Their werefox and werewolf games begin with lovestruck “tailechery” (a form of transcendental canine commingling) but detour into more dangerous sport as A Hu-Li and Shurik initiate each other into secret passions. She likes to put on an evening gown, drop by farmhouses and horrify the occupants by nabbing their hens and bolting, transforming into a werefox as she flees. He likes to rally with other F.S.B. werewolves in the frozen north, howling at a cow skull on a stake in hopes of necromantically summoning oil from the substrate into Mother Russia’s waiting pipelines. Watching this scene, seeing the cow’s skull, A Hu-Li is reminded of a grim Russian fairy tale about a slaughtered cow who takes pity on an orphan and sends the girl gold from the grave. Touched, A Hu-Li adds her own soulful lament to the cacophony: “We were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred $100 a barrel.” In response to her emotion (she thinks), oil comes burbling up the stake. Shurik laughs at her sentimentality. “It’s my job to get the oil flowing,” he scoffs. “And for that, the skull has to cry.”
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Werewolf literature is an offshoot of the man-and-beast genre and an abiding preoccupation of this author. In his early story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” Pelevin sent an unsuspecting young man to a village near an old collective farm to take part in a gathering of werewolves, creatures whose existence he had not previously suspected. “What are werewolves, really?” he asks the leader of the pack. “What are people, really?” the leader retorts, baring his teeth.
For a man as steeped in Nabokovian wordplay as Pelevin is, it can be no mistake that in the Russian version of “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” he chose the word oboroten, which means shape-shifter or, literally, someone who turns back to what he was before, instead of vervolk, which he used for his earlier werewolf tale. Could this choice be a comment on present-day Russia? Is there a moral to Pelevin’s story? What are changelings, really? Those are questions best answered by A Hu-Li.
Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
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