Novel of the week

Babylon

Viktor Pelevin <em>Faber, 250pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571202470

Viktor Pelevin is one of the funniest novelists writing today, and this book, impressively translated by Andrew Bromfield, is an antidote to anguished moralising over Russia and its souls. Even more than Pelevin's great satire (and first novel), Omon Ra, its tone is set in a key of detached irony - perhaps, in the ruins of the Soviet Union, the only one available to a writer with no professional interest in Russia's fate.

If the Latin Americans invented magic realism, the Russians, in this century, invented diabolic realism - with the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, especially his Heart of a Dog and his nightmarish Master and Margarita as the early masterworks. In diabolic realism, the narrative pounds along in "real" time, but takes loops into dream, hallucinations and reveries, which reappear again in the "real" life, complete with voices, other-worldly stratagems and characters who may or may not be "real". Bulgakov wrote in the early days of the Soviet experiment (and was spared from repression by Stalin himself); Pelevin is an early inhabitant of wild Russian capitalism - his theme here - and is repressed by nothing more noxious than growing fame and recognition.

With the collapse of Soviet power, Tatarsky, who had been about to settle for a Soviet literary career translating poems from the "languages of the peoples of the USSR", becomes, through a friend, an advertising copywriter - a profession, wholly new to Russians, which allows Pelevin to hold up a glass to the madness of his society.

One of the reasons why Pelevin has become so popular in the west is that, with a pin fashioned from the popular disillusionment, he bursts the illusions and rhetoric that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Tatarsky", he writes, "hated most of the manifestations of Soviet power, but he still couldn't understand why it was worth exchanging an evil empire for an evil banana republic." When he is given a commission to write a commercial for The Gap, Tatarsky writes: "Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilisation. Now there is no more culture, no more civilisation. The only thing that remains is The Gap. The way they see you." This, like many of Tatarsky's slogans and narratives, is a wonderful blend of the high banality of advertising with a sustained satire on contemporary Russia.

In Tatarsky's penultimate job, he works for an organisation writing the script for public events in Russia, in which actors, or computer-simulated models, play the required parts of Boris Yeltsin and other public figures. In one virtual confrontation, Salaman Raduev, a Chechen warlord, and Boris Berezovsky, Russia's most influential capitalist (both real-life figures), play a game of three-dimensional Monopoly. "Nowadays," Berezovsky tells Raduev, "people find out what they think from television. So if you want to buy a couple of streets and sleep well, first you have to buy a TV tower." (Berezovsky controls Russia's largest TV network, and is said to have had close connections with the Chechen gangs.)

As the book develops and the satire becomes more vicious, the anger shows through the detachment. Tatarsky, to whom things happen rather than are made to happen, acquires his status symbol of a Mercedes, and enjoys feeling above the herd. But then he reflects: "Just take a Mercedes, even . . . a great car, no denying that, but the way things are arranged round here, all you can do with it is ride from one heap of shit to another." The heaps of shit that make up today's Russia - peopled by men and women crippled by their Soviet past, a prey to the post-Soviet beasts who have taken freedom to mean an opportunity for ruthless self-enrichment - exist because neither leaders nor led tried hard enough to do better. Yet again, for the intellectual, the only escape is into the inner life, or into irony.

John Lloyd is the author of Rebirth of a Nation: an anatomy of Russia

This article first appeared in Are the loonies coming back?

2000-04-24