Few names bear as much resonance for the Russian ear as Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, the Red Army hero made into a subject of national folklore by an endless stream of jokes and by a largely fictitious 1934 Soviet film that portrays him as a morally complex, obscurantist leader. In The Clay Machine-Gun Victor Pelevin refashions the myth to the point of absurdity - just as in his first novel, Omon Ra, he refashioned the myth of the Soviet space industry. This Red Army hero swills moonshine in the bath-house when he should be giving orders, and harangues his companion Voyd (Petka in the film) on the illusory nature of reality and on the need to empty one's soul.
The novel, unlike the film, does not entirely revolve around Chapayev. Here he is just one among a host of "teachers" propagating the virtues of the void in a book that one Russian emigre, the critic Alexander Genis, was quick to call Russia's first "Zen Buddhist novel".
The astonishing success of the novel among Pelevin's largely youthful fan base shows how the author has succeeded in capturing a mood of apolitical resignation. As Chapayev tells Voyd, "The way the world is arranged, you always end up answering questions in the middle of a burning house". But you don't actually try to put the fire out, he might have added. The novel's construction is complex. The preface informs us that the "document" we are about to read was written in 1923, by the chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation, and that it represents "the first attempt in the history of culture to embody in the forms of art the Mongolian myth of the Eternal Non-Return". This is one of many deliberate anachronisms that shape a novel whose fixed point of reference is a contemporary psychiatric ward. There the top doctor is training his four patients - Voyd among them - to share and so expunge their dark obsessions. For Voyd, that fantasy is his adventures with Chapayev, for another an interview with a sectarian Japanese businessman, for another a drug-influenced evening with a pair of criminals.
The reminiscences serve as a vehicle by which the patients can recount the pseudo-Platonic dialogues they each - coincidentally - held (with Chapayev, the Japanese businessman or the criminals) on the nature of the void. Dialogue forms the basis of the book and overshadows the torturous, circular construction.
Within the dialogues, Pelevin spins story on story, shifting between time and place, and tangling the multitudinous plotlines. In the preface he gives an alternative title, "The Garden of the Diverging Petkas", in tribute to his literary hero Jorge Luis Borges. But the lucidity of the prose and Pelevin's talent as a pure fabulist sets him closer to Borges's contemporary Italo Calvino. In his early work, Pelevin, like Calvino, is at his best in the simple world of one-dimensional but hugely sympathetic characters who are diametrically opposed to one another for dramatic and comic effect.
Unfortunately, collections of fables tend to make for messy novels as Calvino, who never wrote a novel until he wrote one about writing fables, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, understood. The Clay Machine-Gun would work much better as a set of short stories. One is left with the feeling that Pelevin planned the novel as a complex social satire - hence the psychiatric ward and the phony treatment, a device made canonical in Russian literature by Bulgakov and Chekhov for reassessing who is sane and insane in a society that seems to be losing its marbles. But the targets of the satire (new Russians, Hollywood) no longer seem fresh, and the heavy-handed and over-elaborate framing construct required to tie them all together is exactly the kind of literary conceit that Pelevin, with his direct, colloquial syntax, is famed for eschewing. The result is a novel that entertains and frustrates in equal measure.
Oliver Reddy is books editor of the "Moscow Times"