Review: The Yellow Arrow (Жёлтая стрела)

The Yellow Arrow was the first of Victor Pelevin’s books to appear in English translation and provides an excellent introduction to his distinct writing style. Although only a novella comprised of ninety-two pages, The Yellow Arrow seems to capture post-Soviet Russian society just as well as any other book twice or thrice its size. Pelevin is noted of course for his post-modernist approach to Russian literature as such was the trend in post-Soviet Russia. In fact, Pelevin’s works are considered to be the most ‘postmodern’ of contemporary Russian prose. The Yellow Arrow was the first Pelevin book I ever read, and I was not disappointed.

“The Yellow Arrow” of the title is a train traveling towards a ruined bridge; a train that seems to have no beginning or end, and it makes no stops. From this simple premise, Pelevin creates an absurd and sometimes abstruse allegory of life. The narrative works on many levels and provides an entertaining and metaphysically speculative foray into where we are all headed.

The focus of the book is on the life of a solitary passenger (Andrei) on the train. Told in the third person, the reader lives inside the mind of Andrei, with full access to his thoughts and experiences. Andrei becomes the protagonist for open-ended speculation about the meaning of life on the train. Early in the narrative, Andrei sits in the restaurant car of the train and speculates (in a passage that provides a resonant connection to the meaning of The Yellow Arrow):

“Watching the hot sunlight falling on the table-cloth covered with sticky blotches and crumbs, Andrei was suddenly struck by the thought of what a genuine tragedy it was for millions of light rays to set out on their journey from the surface of the sun, go hurtling through the infinite void of space and pierce the mile-thick sky of Earth, only to be extinguished in the revolting remains of yesterday’s soup. Maybe these yellow arrows slanting in through the window were conscious, hoped for something better-and realized that their hopes were groundless, giving them all the necessary ingredients for suffering.”

Much of The Yellow Arrow circles around the concept of self-realization. Andrei feels the pull of purpose, but he doesn’t have a framework around defining it. He only comprehends the need to be somewhere else:

“I want to get off this train while I am alive. I know this is impossible, but I want to do it, because to want anything else is sheer madness. And I know that the phrase ‘I want to get off the train while I am alive’ does have a meaning, although the words which make it up have no meaning. I don’t even know who I am. Then who will leave this place? And where will he go? Where can I go to, if I don’t even know where I am—at the point where I started to think this, or at the point where I finished? And if I tell myself that I am here, where is this ‘here’? And what does it mean, ‘I tell myself’” (39)?

The train becomes a deep-seated metaphor for lives in society, for those who live those lives with unquestioning acceptance and for those who don’t – those who wonder about the train and about whether there’s anything else outside of it.

Life, society and work are all trains we never realize–save for brief moments–that we are riding. Like passengers, we are often afraid to intrude on each other, or to comment on the ride, and so we miss out on finding the name of our destination or the model of the engine that drives us. While a short work, Pelevin succeeds in creating a compelling world that challenged this reader to consider what it means to think and to question in a society that encourages unquestioning acceptance. The conclusion is that one should always do so.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin. Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. Pub. 2009 by New Directions. Paperback, 92 pages. ISBN13: 9780811213554

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