contemporary russian lit / cultural

Review: A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

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
profound hope.

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

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12 thoughts on “Review: A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

  1. “Pelevin’s characters wander through their post-perestroika days in a dreamlike state obsessing on the meaning of life.”

    ^This. Pelevin, paradoxically, manages to capture the zeitgeist of Perestroika and post USSR Russia better, than any “realist” writer. OTOH – there is literally nothing worth reading by Pelevin, written after 1999. In some way, his last 90s novel – “Generation “P”” – was also his last good one.

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    • ‘OTOH – there is literally nothing worth reading by Pelevin, written after 1999. In some way, his last 90s novel – “Generation “P”” – was also his last good one.’
      Funny, but I think I’ve heard that before. The only Pelevin books I’ve read to date are Werewolf Problem, The Yellow Arrow, The Blue Lantern and Omon Ra. All pre-1999, I believe. And all pretty good.
      Well, now I suspect Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы isn’t going to be that great.

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  2. Agree. His earlier stories were wonderful, funny and profound. But after “Generation P” I lost intellectual contact with him.

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      • It took me some time to form this into something coherent. In short – despite wearing a different mask (loner, non-conformist, anti-mainstream counter-culture type) Pelevin was part and parcel of the (still existing) wave of Russian post ’91 artististic intelligentisia (who were, for the most part, more mainstream, realist, cliquish and avaricious). All of them could be characterized as the following – hopeless exalted nihilists. People, who saw no future for This Country, who ceaselessly picked at its wounds and pockmarks in present, and who viewed its past as something dark and foreboding, even not trying to cry about the “Russia That We Have LostЪ” (“Чапаев и Пустота” was my second Pelevin novel, with “Принц госплана” being the first).

        These people didn’t get the message that after January 31 1999 our country began changing. And life, you know how it is – you adapt, or you are becoming left behind. Pelevin failed to adapt – his “new” books, like “Dialectic of Transitional Period from Nothing into Nowhere” and “The Sacred Book of the Shapeshifter” I couldn’t even stomach – and that’s only “early new” Pelevin. My friends who were much more faithful to him say that, indeed, Pelevin of today “уже не торт”(*)

        ____________
        * Word play. “Торт” – sweet cake; “уже не тот” – said about writer/singer/director, who used to deliver but nowadays became at best mediocre.

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  3. Probably it’s my personal attitude, but most of the time reading his later books I was desperately trying to figure out what the hell it’s all about. Take for example his novel “T”. I got to admit I’m not very fluent in Buddhism and Kabbalah, but I suspect the author tends to prefer form over substance, which becomes so elusive that you in the end can’t get rid of the feeling that you have been cheated. Literally. Because you gave your money for trash.

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  4. Looking forward to his new novel! One of the best Russian authors out there imho. His early works are brilliant. My all time fav is Chapayev & Pustota. I read & reread it many times. It was an addiction. Later his works became ‘flat’, ‘two-dimensional’. I know he really likes money (nothing wrong with that) – I’ve worked in a literary agency which worked with him in the Russian & CIS market. So the businessman in him took over. I enjoyed ‘T’ though. The upcoming novel is positioned as the resurrection of the ‘old Pelevin’. I hope it’s true to a degree.

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  5. Oh! Forgot to mention The Life of Insects. I really enjoyed that book as well, partially because I’m an insectophile, but also because of the interesting message: we are the insects always trying to find the light, but finding only darkness, pushing along a ball of dung (our corporeal body) and never rising above our materialistic predicament. And so on.

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