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That 'one big thing' may be love

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf A Novel Victor Pelevin Viking: 335 pp., $25.95

September 07, 2008|Jonathan Levi | Jonathan Levi is a founding editor of Granta.

To PARAPHRASE the Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but a werefox -- who looks to the untutored eye like a 15-year-old Muscovy nymphet peddling her body in the National Hotel, but is, in fact, over 2,000 years old -- is searching for the one big thing."

The heroine of Victor Pelevin's "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" is, in fact, a 20-century-old werefox named A Hu-Li (which in Chinese means "the fox named A," but in Russian is an unprintable insult). Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, A Hu-Li disguises herself in a human body that makes Humbert Humberts go ga-ga. Werefoxes, she tells us, derive their nourishment by sapping the sexual energy of humans and by chicken hunting. But the one big thing -- for this 2,000-year-old virgin -- may just be the love of a super werewolf, himself disguised as a high official in Russia's successor to the KGB.

A Hu-Li's hunting trips are vintage Pelevin, as wildly inventive as anything in his previous novels. On a visit to one client, A Hu-Li finds a cigar clipper in the shape of a recumbent Monica Lewinsky. "It was a great little gadget," A Hu-Li remarks, "to my mind the only superfluous touch was the American flag that Monica was holding in her hand: sometimes just a tiny weight is enough to shift the balance and transform a piece of erotica into kitsch agitprop." On another business trip, she finds a book of criminal tattoos, including one of Bill Gates being devoured by worms and, my favorite, a horse-mounted dragon-killer in an apocalyptic scene "entitled 'Saint George driving the lesbians off Tverskoi Boulevard.' "

Then she talks about her one tattoo, two lines from a poem by W.H. Auden, "I am a sex machine. And I'm super bad." There's only one problem with her tattoo, besides the fact that it wears off after 20 years. The lines she quotes are fake-Auden, written by the American satirist Ian Frazier in a 2002 parody for the New Yorker called "The New Poetry." Unfortunately, neither A Hu-Li nor Pelevin seem to know this. Does Pelevin expect us to believe that A Hu-Li subscribes to the New Yorker and read Frazier's essay like an earnest student, missing the punch line?

One suspects that Pelevin failed to get Frazier's joke the way, say, his comrade, Vladimir Putin, failed to get the joke when Misha Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia. Novels in translation are always collaborations among author, translator and editor, so it is difficult to know whose ear was out of tune on this one. But sadly, this one gaffe is symptomatic of a general dissonance. Although at times the novel comes off as a piece of erotica, more often it devolves into kitsch agitprop.

A Hu-Li's hunts are filled with neo-Brechtian political asides about life in contemporary Russia. "The elite here is divided into two branches, which are called 'the oligarchy' (derived from the words 'oil' and 'gargle') and 'the apparat' (from the phrase 'upper rat')." Or: "The reforms you have heard about are by no means new. . . . Every time the reforms begin with the declaration that a fish rots from the head, then the reformers eat up the healthy body, and the rotten head swims on." Still, one longs after a while for a little Weill, to make these slogans sing.

But it is when A Hu-Li's tail is pulled, causing her infinite shame from a life of, well, prostitution and chicken theft, that the reader starts to wonder whether his own tail is being yanked. On the path of A Hu-Li's spiritual enlightenment, Pelevin mixes a bit of the immaterialism of Bishop Berkeley, the reincarnation of Buddha and a sprinkling of Nordic fairy tales about wolves, Red Riding Hoods and Gingerbread Pharmacies of psychedelia.

The disappointment is that this shallow 15-year-old comes off as, well, a shallow 15-year-old. It doesn't matter that she once dallied with the 18th century Chinese poet Yuan Mei or knew Rousseau, Dostoevski and Tolstoy. She may have sucked up their ideas, like a willing grad student, but she hasn't developed a tongue of her own. There is a reason why Lolita doesn't narrate "Lolita." Pelevin knows this. And his Venus in fur knows this too. Perhaps that voice was lost in translation.

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