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BOOK REVIEW / Fiction

The Daily Buzz of Human Existence

THE LIFE OF INSECTS by Victor Pelevin Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 180 pages

March 16, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

'When asked what his studies of nature had revealed about God," J.B.S. Haldane, the renowned British physiologist and philosopher, is said to have replied: "An inordinate fondness for beetles." So reports Douglas Chadwick in the latest issue of National Geographic, whose cover is adorned with the carapace and serrated mandibles of a French Guyanan long-horned beetle, as elegant in his blacks and reds as the latest Armani torso.

With beetles making up one of every four species on Earth, it will come as no surprise, at least not to entomologists and fanciers of the more exotic stories of Kafka and Gogol, that the Russian Victor Pelevin has populated the universe of his second novel, "The Life of Insects," with a menagerie of beetles, ants, moths, cockroaches and flies.

And yet the species Pelevin describes are very much the garden variety that a Westerner might expect to find in the rotting stump of post-perestroika Russia. Bumbling through the environs of a crumbling resort hotel on the Crimean shore of the Black Sea, a couple of mosquitoes named Arnold and Arthur try to inveigle an American entrepreneur into a half-baked joint venture. Natasha, a young ant who rebels against the accordion-playing survivor mentality of her burrowing mother by pupating into a greenbottle fly, looks for action in the restaurant, her limbs "covered with dark hairs and end[ing] in delicate pink suckers, as if two half-open mouths waited invitingly on each of her palms." Maxim and Nikita, a pair of local potheads, find themselves metamorphosing into hemp bugs with every inward breath.

*

But be forewarned: There are few easy anthropomorphisms here. Although it's Sam, the American mosquito, who comes to suck the blood out of Russia and pick up its flies--"Sam," whispered Natasha, "is there a lot of [dung] in America?"--these are the rare transparencies in Pelevin's "Animal Farm"-yard.

Nor is comedy Pelevin's only color. One scene, a quiet bit of philosophy passed on by a father to his son as they walk to the beach, is as moving as any slice of Turgenev. And the pathos of its payoff, when the young dung beetle finally reaches the strand, is pure Chekhov.

What is truly stunning is the whole-cloth originality of Pelevin's vision. His characters break in and out of their human cocoons with an ease that would be the envy of any morph-master. The author defies the reader to gum the simple taxonomic labels of political, existential or absurd onto his novel. Instead, he asks us to look with the split vision of the scarab beetle, using feel as much as logic.

Undoubtedly Pelevin owes an enormous debt to his translator, Andrew Bromfield, whose English puns are so apropos that one could not imagine them working as well in their original Russian. Together, the two writers have created "The Life of Insects" as a virtuoso performance, at times as deep-hearted as a Tchaikovsky pas de deux, at others as light-fingered as "Flight of the Bumblebee."

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