Dog beneath the skin

<strong>The Sacred Book of the Werewolf</strong>

<em>Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfie

The outrageous wordplay in Victor Pelevin's latest novel begins with the naming of its Chinese heroine, Hu-Li - which roughly translates into Russian as "what-the-fuck?". Here, as elsewhere in the fiction of Russia's most fashionable writer, the joke is a complex literary one, embracing past and present. Dostoevsky claimed in A Writer's Diary that a Russian could express anything and everything with that same unprintable word. It is the cornerstone of an obscene language called mat - from the Russian word for "mother", as in "fuck your mother" - still widely used today, even by Vladimir Putin, apparently to disconcert political rivals.

This use of a dirty vernacular may explain Pelevin's appeal to Russia's Generation X, but his popularity extends to other urban subcultures. His characters think and speak the language of the Russian street even when, as in The Life of Insects (1993), they metamorphose into ants or dung beetles. Strange miracles occur in his novels, followed by disenchantment. In Generation P (1999), Soviet teenagers drink Pepsi because it's the fizzy pop of freedom.

Pelevin's latest novel, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, published in Russian in 2005 and now translated by Andrew Bromfield, takes a Kafkaesque premise similar to that of the insectile Homo Sovieticus, but cleverly transforms the vulgar anecdote into a parable of ordinary life, if such a thing exists in today's Russia.

The setting of the novel is a Moscow transformed by the fall of communism into a lupine paradise, a kind of wolf orgy. All the diabolical powers inside the mafia, the secret services, the oligarchy and the Kremlin are either secretly or openly werewolves. Here Pelevin is merely re cycling an old idea. Russian lycanthropes are not confined to fairy tales. In his short story "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia", a young apparatchik rampages through a forest and howls at the moon. "This was something very difficult to express in human language," observes Pelevin, who revisits the difficulty in his latest book.

The she-wolf is a new development, however, though Hu-Li is actually a 2,000-year-old fox now working as a teenage prostitute in a swanky Moscow hotel. True to its pedigree, this 21st-century Gothic novel is presented as a clumsy literary forgery, found in "dramatic circumstances" on the hard disk of a laptop computer while the author was out cycling in a nearby park. The precise nature of the drama is unexplained by a "commentary of experts", but the half-melted frame of the bicycle and a star-shaped area of scorched grass are not the only extraterrestrial clues. "Members of the public observed a bluish glow above the treetops, ball lightning and a large number of five-coloured rainbows," say the experts.

In the opening chapter, Pelevin's foxy lady becomes, literally, a femme fatale when one of her clients, a Sikh businessman, plunges to his death from a fifth-floor hotel room, for reasons that have to do with a magic spell cast by Hu-Li's "fluffy, flexible, fiery-red" tail. Pelevin's imagination also casts a spell. He pokes fun at his characters' self-image without abandoning sympathy for them.

Like earlier Russian satirists, Pelevin uses fantasy as a kind of social commentary. This "sacred book", for example, tells the moving story of a love affair between two supernatural creatures, the vulpine Lolita and a werewolf who also happens to be a lieutenant colonel (as Putin was) in the KGB, or, at any rate, in its successor, the Federal Security Service. Alexander's magical powers invigorate the Russian oil industry, but the intensity of his love for Hu-Li leads to a demotion in the shape-shifting world: "He jerked convulsively and fell on his back, as if his tail had suddenly become so heavy, it had pulled him over. Then he began rapidly jerking his arms and legs in a horrible way (like people with cranio-cerebral injuries do), and in a few seconds he was transformed into a perfectly ordinary mongrel from the street or the local rubbish tip - a dog."

Inventive and playfully philosophical, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf pulls off a kind of magical realist balancing act. Pelevin's creatures are utterly bizarre, yet vividly so, because he gives them recognisable quirks of personality, as if to mock the reader's assumptions about reality.

The heroine's self-obsessing and her narcissistic riffs on the meaning of life give the novel a universal theme. But other aspects of the satire are more specific to Russia and its literature, and in some cases may even require a knowledge of absurdist classics by Gogol, Bulgakov and Zamyatin. Fortunately you don't have to be a literary scholar to get the jokes, or to savour the irony of a narrative voice that skilfully mixes hallucination with verisimilitude.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters