Russia's number one

The Blue Lantern

Victor Pelevin, translated by Andrew Bromfield <em>Faber and Faber, 178pp, £6.99<

In the Russian popular imagination, Victor Pelevin is the emblem of the hollow certainties of the post-Soviet era. As a cultural and publishing phenomenon, the satirist continues to incite the critics, especially after he audaciously called his previous novel Generation P (published here as Babylon), by which he may or may not mean Generation Pelevin. In his rare interviews, he can appear brash, even thoughtless, happy to consign much of his nation's culture to the dustbin. In an interview in the Times, he rubbished his contemporary writers for "feeding off Stalin's corpse" - as if forgetting that he was born under Khrushchev, not Yeltsin, and that he himself draws inspiration from the absurdities of the Soviet system.

As a writer, however, Pelevin is endearing, agile and best suited to the sprint. The Blue Lantern is a republication of the short stories that launched him in 1991, smoothly translated by Andrew Bromfield. They are all unassuming forays into fantasy and phantasmagoria, realms prophetically mapped out by the dis-sident Andrei Sinyavsky in the 1960s as the Russian writer's only remaining sanctuary.

For Pelevin, the ludic principle reigns supreme, whether he is playing innocent games of perception - the world as seen by a cat or a shed - or discussing mortality. Depth, psychological or otherwise, is anathema. Like many of his contemporaries, he relishes the inventive possibilities at the cusp of different realities, especially that of death. Unlike them, he rejects the danse macabre in favour of the cheeky pirouette. In the title story, one of the best of the collection, the afterlife is discussed in a school dormitory. "D'you know how people end up as corpses?" Tolstoy asked. "Sure," answered Crutch, "they just up and die."

Understandably, Pelevin has been charged with "infantility", but childishness is part of his charm. He glides unapologetically into the surreal, abandoning a dull, achingly familiar reality.

Pelevin's humour finds its most fertile soil in Babylon, a witty satire of the nascent advertising business in Russia. His irony, also "infantile", is not "irony-lite", as Suzanne Moore once described the affected superiority with which we try to distance ourselves from the realities that we inhabit; nor is it the high-octane irony of the great Russian tradition of coruscating polemics.

Unfortunately, Pelevin is about the only contemporary Russian writer of whom most English readers have heard and, as a result, his promoters and critics seek to "position" him - how he would laugh - in the Russian tradition of the fantastic inspired by Gogol. They might find fresh ammunition in the last story of The Blue Lantern, where a tundra shaman brings dead souls back to life. But they would still be wrong.

The prose-poet Gogol, who famously begged Pushkin for plots, invested all his energy and brilliance in language, the true engine of his satire. Pelevin does nothing with the Russian language beyond an enviable facility for metaphor. Nor does he fascinate us with his personality and, as Nabokov wrote of Gogol, potter on the brink of a private abyss. Instead, he is happy to take a humorous view around and beyond the very public canyon of modern Russia. Telling wonderful and funny tales is enough for him - as it was for the 100,000 (mainly young) Russians who bought The Blue Lantern before its author became the elusive demigod in sunglasses that he is today.

Oliver Ready is the literary editor of the Moscow Times

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you