A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, a collection of short stories, exhibits both the joys and the challenges of reading someone as brilliantly absurd as Victor Pelevin. As with most short story collections, the selections are a mixed bag, but in a different way: some stories are light and surreal while others are simply confounding. At times, Pelevin addresses universal themes with tremendous insight; at other times his satire is so specifically Russian that anyone not well-versed in the history of the country will likely struggle to grasp the subject matter. And, although he appears to be striving for a light mood in some stories, the gloomy and pessimistic specter of the former Soviet Union is always present.
I would describe A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia as both a tribute to Dostoyevsky and a radical departure from him. These characters are loners who are simply not aware that they are loners. For example, The Tarzan Swing is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s story, The Double. It comes as a shock to Pelevin’s protagonist to realize that he is carrying on a conversation with a companion that might be nothing more than his shadow. Unlike The Double, however, the protagonist remains uncertain whether his “companion” is real.
Pelevin’s characters wander through their post-perestroika days in a dreamlike state obsessing on the meaning of life. They exist outside of themselves and seem to accept that the physical world is compromised by spatial and temporal impossibilities, that a teapot can contain a universe, that dream landscapes are superimposed on real ones and that Russia is but a sewer cover away from China. And while Dostoyevsky’s characters are prisoner to paranoid delusions, Pelevin’s characters always seem to find themselves faced with the empty but ultimately self-satisfying prospect of solipsism.
The titular story tells the tale of a traveler who becomes hopelessly lost in central Russia and is transformed into a werewolf. Surprisingly, he likes it and he finds it a very liberating experience. This story, told in a linear manner, is no doubt the most accessible of the entire volume. Pelevin gives us stunning detail so we are able to feel how the character moves and smells and sees. The story’s placement at the beginning of the collection provides the perfect entree to the lunacy that is Victor Pelevin’s trademark.
The Ontology of Childhood is more difficult to grasp, but it is a more accomplished piece of writing. This story in the second-person is a chilling recollection of growing up in a prison and blends powerful remembrances of dark pessimism with expressions of
Pelevin’s uncanny ability to render eerie, off-center dreamscapes makes him the Salvador Dali of literature. He is a wordsmith who successfully mixes the sublime with the ridiculous and comes up with wildly turbulent tales that are always more than interesting and thought provoking. They are, in their essence, nothing short of good literature.
★ ★ ★ ★
A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia by Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. Pub. 2010 by New Directions. Paperback, 224 pages. ISBN13: 9780811218603