I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Dissolution of the totalitarian Soviet regime brought Russia democracy of an imperfect sort. But much of the euphoria of the early nineties has dissipated in the face of new realities. Russia turned in just a few years from one of the most equal countries on the planet to among the least so, as a handful of gangster-businessmen hijacked the state’s most attractive assets.
Using the upheaval of late-Soviet and post-Soviet society as his raw material, Victor Pelevin has spent the last decade producing works of exceptional humor, beauty, and insight: four novels, a novella, and many short stories. His latest novel, Homo Zapiens (Viking), follows the career of Babylen Tatarsky, a failed young poet who becomes a copywriter in Russia’s burgeoning advertising industry. He adapts Western marketing concepts to the “post-Soviet mentality,” encounters Sufi-mystic Chechen gangsters and the ghost of Che Guevara, experiences synthetic satori through agency of entheogenic drugs, and winds up involved in a Sumerian-Masonic conspiracy that controls the “virtual” government of Russia: three-dimensional digitized dummies on TV whose movements are scripted by screenwriters. After reckoning with the dissipation of the Soviet past and the cynical facts of a freshly materialistic world (“initial accumulation of capital is also final”), Tatarsky comes to glimpses, however imperfect, of an underlying, unchanging, and perfect reality.
The mystic and carpet salesman Gurdjieff advises us that dream and waking are equivalently subjective states, each far removed from the objective reality sometimes called God. The subjective state “reading a work by Victor Pelevin” is somewhat difficult to classify. It is rather less like waking and rather more like high-quality dreaming, and despite its subjectivity, suggestive of unsayable reality: that the puddle reflects the sun, but also that the sun reflects the puddle, but also that neither of these is the case.
Leo Kropywiansky Your writing career began as the Soviet Union was dissolving, a dissolution that has brought greater literary freedom, capture of the press by oligarchs notwithstanding. Could your second novel, Omon Ra, given its irreverent treatment of the Soviet system, have been published five years earlier than it was, during the time of Gorbachev? Or during the time of Chernenko?
Victor Pelevin Actually, I don’t think we can use the term “was dissolving.” It attributes some continuity to the process. The Soviet Union collapsed in a flash. But even in 1990, when I was writing Omon Ra, nobody in Moscow expected that the collapse would ever happen. I don’t remember the exact dates, but I do remember that I finished the book days before the coup that finished the Soviet Union. So it might well be the last novel written in the USSR. It would definitely have been possible to publish Omon Ra in the late Gorbachev era, as Gorbachev was exactly the person who gave Russians the widest freedom of speech they’d ever had. Others didn’t add anything to it. Chernenko’s time was a very different story—it was still possible to be put into a loony bin for writing things of that kind.
LK Then, Omon Ra was written with some confidence that its writing would not land you in the loony bin. A counterfactual: if there had been no Gorbachev, say if Chernenko-ish or Brezhnev-ish times had prevailed for a decade or more, do you believe you would have still written Omon Ra, self-publishing it or burying it in your backyard? Or would it have never been written at all?
VP Well, I’d rather put it this way: it was written with some confidence that its writing actually took place in the loony bin. Writing Omon Ra, I sometimes felt scared of what I was doing. But this fear was residual, like white noise—there was no real danger. The political aspect of this book wasn’t really important to me. I didn’t write a satire of the Soviet space program, as the book was branded both in Russia and abroad. It was a novel about coming of age in a world that is absurd and scary. My part of the scary world was Russia, so I wrote a book where the space quest—a metaphor of the entire Soviet myth—became a background. The book was dedicated to the heroes of the Soviet Cosmos, not just “space.”
A counterfactual? I really don’t know what to say. Counterfactuals deal with abstract situations, but not a single book was ever written in an abstract situation. Books are only written in concrete circumstances.
LK What is the first book that you can remember reading as a child? Do you recall your response to it?
VP My first book—strangely enough, I remember it. It was The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, a satirical novel written in the early Soviet era. This book is incredibly funny. It is also very good—Nabokov placed it on his hero’s bookshelf next to his own chess novel, which means a lot if you remember how he treated all things Soviet. But I read it at the age of five and didn’t find it funny at all—though I managed to finish it. I remember my awe and horror, my feeling of how horribly complicated and dangerous was the task of being a grown-up.
LK Your training and first career were as an engineer. How and when did you decide to take up writing?
VP I was in my middle twenties at that time and was a postgraduate student. A funny thought came across my mind about secret heirs of Stalin still living in a system of underground caves and tunnels under Moscow. It wasn’t the first funny thought in my head but it was the first time I decided to put it down. As I was doing it, this thought developed itself into a short story. I can’t say that the story was very good, but I liked the feeling I got when I was writing it—it was like nothing else I knew. So I started to write short stories.
LK Do you ever miss engineering? With its finite problems, as opposed to the more open-ended ones posed by fiction writing?
VP I can’t say I miss engineering. Perhaps one of the main reasons was that in Russia this field of human activity poses much more open-ended (even metaphysical) problems than writing.
LK In the US, the metaphysics implicit among engineers, and it is only implicit, is a simple form of logical positivism. Although I’ve known a few engineers who secretly dabbled in the occult. This I take to be an understandable response to spending one’s workdays within the confines of a too-narrow worldview. How exactly is it that Russian engineers are able to find, within their professional lives, a healthy outlet for their metaphysical yearnings?
VP The only American engineer I ever met was a Buddhist monk in Korea, so I can’t totally agree with you. As for metaphysics in the professional life of a Russian engineer, it is of a very different nature. To explain it I have to go back to the origin of the term. As you know, metaphysics literally means “after physics” in Greek. It was a general designation for everything placed after things pertaining to physics in the compendium of Aristotle’s works. In Russia, when you are trained as an engineer, you spend several years studying theoretical physics: from mechanics and electricity to elementary particles. And this training is quite deep and serious. After you graduate from your institute you are assigned to some factory where you have to work for three years (at least it was like this when I was a student and factories were still working). What happens next is they give you a crowbar, a padded coat and a cap with earflaps, and you are entrusted with the leadership of three stone-pissed proletarians (you can’t use the term “worker” here as they never work). And your task is to remove ice in the backyard. That was the metaphysics of engineering in Russia. I say “was” because these days nobody removes the ice anymore.
LK In 1992, Russia privatized some of its state-owned companies. Citizens received vouchers that could be exchanged for shares in companies. This was early in your career as a writer, perhaps while you were still writing Omon Ra. Did you receive a voucher and if you did what did you do with it?
VP Yes, I did receive it (I think I was writing The Life of Insects at the time, but I’m not sure). Mr. Yeltsin’s government said it was my share of the motherland and, symbolically enough, it amounted to the value of a vodka bottle. I responded with an act of symmetrical symbolism: together with my nation I squandered it on alcohol.
LK Sometime after your youthful reading of The Twelve Chairs, you came across the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, who you have in the past cited as a primary influence. Which of his works did you first read? What would you say is the most important lesson you have drawn from his works for your own writing?
VP The first Bulgakov book I read was The Master and Margarita. As for the lessons I drew, I’m afraid there were none, though it overturned all ideas I had about books before. At that time I wasn’t reading books to draw lessons from them. On the contrary, I often skipped lessons to read the books I liked. That was exactly the case. I read it at 14 in a library during school hours, as it wasn’t published in the USSR as a book at that time, but was only available as a publication in a literary magazine with lots of omissions. I really don’t think we get a lesson when we meet something we like. I’d rather say we get a lesson when we meet something we don’t.
LK You are of course right. Lesson is a nasty little word to use in this context. Surely, however, the overturning at age 14 of old ideas about books was something that ultimately affected your writing? Were there any especially oppressive old ideas from which that book liberated you?
VP Since it happened a long time before I started to write, there’s no way to determine how it affected my writing. However, the effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination). The Master and Margarita was exactly this kind of book and it is very hard to explain its subtle effect to anybody who didn’t live in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s books were very anti-Soviet, but they didn’t liberate you, they only made you more enslaved as they explained to which degree you were a slave. The Master and Margarita didn’t even bother to be anti-Soviet yet reading this book would make you free instantly. It didn’t liberate you from some particular old ideas, but rather from the hypnotism of the entire order of things.
LK What books have you most enjoyed reading in the last few years? In particular I wonder if there are any American authors among your recent favorites.
VP I can’t say I read too much fiction. I liked Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders, but his best story I read so far was “I Can Speak!™” published in The New Yorker. I liked some stories by David Foster Wallace and plan to siege his Infinite Jest one infinite day. Talking of the old guard, I like Robert M. Pirsig. The real heroes in his books are concepts rather than humans, and they change and develop like characters do in more traditional novels: this is incredible.
LK The ghost of Che Guevara appears in your most recent book, Homo Zapiens, propounding a theory of television as either (1) switched off, in which case it is like any other object, i.e., not any more or less difficult for the unquiet mind to pay attention to than, say, a rock, or (2) switched on, in which case it guides the attention of the viewer to such an extent that he becomes “possessed,” “techno-modified,” “a virtual subject” and no longer himself. In August of 2000, the Ostankino TV tower in Moscow caught fire, interrupting broadcasts for several days and rendering all television sets as objects of type (1). Was there a perceptible change of mood among Moscow citizens at that time?
VP I think so. People were getting nervous and irritated, like drug addicts without a routine injection. But there were a lot of jokes about it nevertheless. As for me, I hadn’t been watching television for a long time by that moment, so I didn’t experience any personal problems.
LK A big change over the last decade has been the decline in the influence of Russia’s military, which was called upon to fight a difficult war in Chechnya even as morale was falling and resources available to it were shrinking. Your father, who I understand passed away several years ago, was himself in the military. How did he view this decline in influence?
VP My father was a rather strange Soviet military man, and never had any particular influence as such. He wasn’t even a party member, which made him kind of a white crow and impeded his career badly. It wasn’t his choice to join the military: the Soviet Union started its missile program when he was a student in Kiev, and many students from technical institutes were drafted to serve in this new branch of armed force as officers. Your consent wasn’t necessary for this at that time. I never had access to the inner workings of my father’s soul but I think he never totally identified himself with the Red Army’s military might, though he was a good specialist. At the time of the decline he was much more concerned with his own health, which was deteriorating quickly. But I think that, like many people who spent their entire lifetime in the USSR, he was too stunned by its demise to take any ensuing events seriously.
LK In Homo Zapiens, the Russian government is portrayed as “virtual”: three-dimensional dummies on TV whose movements are scripted by screenwriters. This device seems particularly apt in describing the Yeltsin government, held together as it was with television coverage, funding from tycoons and the IMF, multiple heart bypasses and so forth. Do you believe it has become any less apt now, under the leadership of Putin?
VP Phenomenologically any politician is a TV program, and this doesn’t change from one government to another. But if you want me to compare the government we had under Yeltsin with the one we have under Putin, I won’t be able to do it. Not only because I don’t watch television. For this kind of assessment you need a criterion. I guess the right one would be the way the government handles the economy, because its primary function is to take care of the economy. Politics is usually the function of the latter. To pass a judgment here you need to understand, even approximately, how the economy works. In the Western economy you have a set of instruments that allow you to make this assessment even if you are not a specialist. It is always clear whether it is a bull market or bear market. So you can say: bull market, good government, bear market, bad government (I know it is an oversimplification, but still). But these instruments are not applicable to the Russian economy because its very nature is different. The essence of your business cycle here in Russia is that you always have a pig market, which means that you don’t get whacked as long as you pay the pigs. And sometimes you get whacked even if you pay because it is a real pig market. Russian economy is the dimension where miracle meets subpoena and becomes state secret. How do you compare the numerous different governments that preside over this? The only criterion would be personal appeal of the ministers: a goatee fashion, a necktie color, et cetera. But for this you have to watch television.
LK Reading philosophy is in some ways a disease, like alcohol or drugs or dog racing or any other addiction. I wonder what Western philosophers you have found most compelling. In particular I wonder if, like the moth Mitya in The Life of Insects, you have a particular affinity for Marcus Aurelius. Here I think of the Marcus Aurelius who insists upon an inner self that can’t be, except by its own assent, corrupted by the outer world. This seems to be a recurring theme in your works: the primacy of the individual mind in the face of a dangerous external world, whether the Soviet one or that of post-Soviet wild capitalism.
VP If we put it your way, the most compelling Western philosophers in my life were Remy Martin and Jack Daniels. They compelled me to do many things I otherwise would never think of. If seriously, I don’t take professional philosophers seriously even when I understand what they say. Philosophy is a self-propelled thinking, and thinking, no matter how refined, only leads to further thinking. Uncoerced thinking gives us the best it can when it subsides down and halts, because it is the source of nearly all our problems. As far as I’m concerned, thoughts are justified in two cases: when they swiftly make us rich and when they fascinate us with their beauty. Philosophy could sometimes fit into the first category—for instance, if you write “The Philosophy That Burns Fat” or something like “The Philosophy of Swimming with Sharks without Being Eaten”—but it would be an exception. Sometimes philosophy fits into the second category (also an exception), and Marcus Aurelius is exactly the case. I read his book many times when I was a kid but I’m not sure I understood his philosophy—I was simply captivated by the noble beauty of his spirit. By the way, I read somewhere that Bill Clinton’s favorite quote came from Marcus Aurelius: “One could lead a decent life even in a palace.” The very notion of Western philosophy as opposed to Eastern seems to me quite dubious and arbitrary, though Bertrand Russell wrote a very good book on its history. This label implies that your mind starts to generalize in a different manner when it is placed in a different geographical location. But how would you classify Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy—as Eastern or Western? As for the self, it is a very tricky notion. We should define it before we use it. I prefer the term mind. I think you are absolutely right when you say that my theme is the primacy of the mind. But the external world is also your mind because the categories external and internal are purely mental. Mind is the ultimate paradox because when you start to look for it you can’t find it. But when you start to look for something that is not mind you also can’t find it. Mind is the central issue that interests me as a writer and as a person.
LK I think the insight that mind can’t be found, as not-mind cannot be, could arbitrarily but not unusefully be called “Eastern.” Certainly it is not, as pepper and potatoes are not, indigenous to Enlightenment France. “Western” philosophy I take to be a line of thought (“insanity” is Bertrand Russell’s term) insisting that there is a substance called “mind,” which line of thought was terribly compelling for a long time, philosophers and readers gravitating to it as men to the bottle or dog track, as moths to the lamp, and residues of which are still so much among us that one might call it the default worldview. Although like the dog track or bottle it is ultimately unsatisfying, or at least has its limits. Which led Huxley, William James, Nietzsche, and others of catholic tastes to study “Eastern” thought, I imagine as a sort of antidote. Which leads me to my next question. You have been a student of Zen Buddhism for some years now, and its influence on your works is pervasive. How did you first become interested in Buddhism?
VP A French Structuralist (a rather modern Western line of thought) might say that both “mind” and “substance” are born in the discourse. This would quite coincide with the position of Madhyamika Prasangika (a rather ancient Eastern school) that all objects, physical and mental, including “mind” and “substance,” are but labels issued by mind. On the other hand, you could find Eastern systems saying that mind has substance, some of them saying that it is the only substance. There have been so many views in the last 3,000 years that whenever we use the term “Western philosophy” we have to redefine it at a certain moment, getting back to the nature of thinking behind the term, as you did. “Western philosophy” is a bit like the name of that biblical soul dweller who introduced himself as Mr. Legion. Generally, it is the vagueness of the subject that allows people to talk about the East and the West at such length. When the theme is so indistinct you can say almost anything and it would safely fit one of the existing clichés. Somebody could say that Eastern philosophy denies that it exists while Western philosophy pretends that it exists. A lower mind—like mine—might add that the real Western philosophy is “money talks bullshit walks” while the real Eastern philosophy is “ultimately money walks too,” written in small font under “money talks.” When you mentioned Enlightenment France, it opened another interesting possibility of comparing the essence of Western and Eastern thought, via the different meaning attributed to the term Enlightenment. Do you know Van Morrison’s song “Enlightenment, Don’t Know What It Is?” I just thought it could make a wonderful Marquis de Sade aria.
I became interested in Buddhism—and other religions—when I was a kid. At that time religious literature of any kind wasn’t easily available in the USSR, but we had tons and tons of atheistic reference books and methodological manuals for lecturers on scientific atheism. They were available in any library and described various religions in such detail that one could call these books a Soviet equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience. I used to read these books at the air defense base near Moscow where I spent most of my summertime. I still can’t understand why atheist lecturers needed to know so many things about Taoism—perhaps to be able to fight it in the Moscow region if the pandemic were to begin. Well, Buddhism seemed to me to be the only religion that didn’t resemble the projection of the Soviet power onto the domain of spirit. It was only much later that I understood that it was exactly the other way around—the Soviet power was an attempt to project the alleged heavenly order onto Earth. Well, Buddhism was totally out of this vicious circle and there was something so strangely compelling and soothing about it.
LK I understand that in the past few years you have been traveling to Asia to further your studies in Buddhism. Which countries have you visited?
VP First of all, I can’t really say I study Buddhism. I’m not a Buddhologist. I can’t even say I’m a Buddhist in the sense of rigidly belonging to a confession or a sect, following rituals, et cetera. I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind. But it is not too different from the moral teachings of other traditions. I visited South Korea several times to participate in the Buddhist practice. I also visited China and Japan but without any direct connection to Buddhism.
LK Your subject matter is deeply Russian. As equally it is informed by and interested in Asia. Do you believe you will always live in Russia, or have you thought of living abroad for an extended period?
VP If you say it’s deeply Russian I don’t dare to argue, though the very fact that you were able to understand what I’m writing about might mean that it is not so deeply Russian. Or maybe it means that there’s nothing deeply Russian in being a Russian these days. As for living abroad, well, everything is possible. But so far I’m not making any plans.
LK I withdraw the “deeply Russian” and simply claim your works are “Russian.”
The logic is prior to knowledge of Russia or of Victor Pelevin’s works: Pelevin the empirical Russian writes about the empirical Russia, so unless he’s removed himself entirely from his works, they are Russian. Do you believe there’s less to being Russian these days? Or are you referring to a belief, which is on a different level, that humankind has no essence, with corollary that Russia has no essence?
VP I often think that logic is the missing link between prostitution and law (if we assume there is a gap between them). Logically, my inner lawyer can claim that your writing is more Russian than mine based on the following evidence derived from our exchange: first, you are the one to be strangely interested in this particular issue; secondly, you seem to use the term Russian more often than I do; thirdly—attention of the jury, please—your surname is much more Russian than mine (it sounds like Mr. Nettles for a Russian ear, while Pelevin means nothing at all or me at best). However, as the former CIA director used to say, Thank God I’m not a lawyer. I won’t argue that my books are not Russian because they certainly are. But what does it mean for a book to be Russian? Does it mean being soaked in Orthodox Christianity or a belief in the messianic role of Russia, or any seriously taken ideology, the way it often happened in the last two centuries? In this sense I don’t think I fit the definition as I was never inspired by anything of the kind. Does it mean following the Russian literary tradition? The only real Russian literary tradition is to write good books in a way nobody did before, so to become a part of the tradition you have to reject it—a condition necessary but not sufficient. If you are talking about the reflection of the uniquely Russian life experience, it is just a different combination of the same ingredients that comprise the uniquely French or uniquely German life experience when mixed in another proportion, these ingredients being suffering and joy, hope and despair, compassion and arrogance, the words of love, the cries of hate (I’m listening to Genesis at the moment, sorry), and so forth. Everyone of us is acquainted with each of the ingredients, that’s why you can read Anton Chekhov and I can read Kinky Friedman. But since empirically your life is always a narrow moment that takes place right now, you can’t perceive all these ingredients simultaneously. You can experience them (or describe them when you write) only in a sequence, one after another, thus making the entire difference between various national lifestyles purely statistical. It could matter in life but not in a book. And even in life it matters only if you make it matter. So there’s nothing Russian about being a Russian. More than that, Russian subject matter does not exist at all. Neither does any other. If you try to write something long and coherent about Russia, you won’t be able to do it: even if your first sentence is about Russia, your second and third will have to be about something else. And ultimately you will end up writing about yourself. In my life I have written maximum ten or twenty sentences about Russia, I guess. As every other writer on this planet, I can only write about my mind. However, I understand that the most touchingly naive notions often make the most effective marketing weapons, and when the invisible hand gives you a gold finger at the dawn of your days, you enter into a solemn bond to carry supermarket shelves inside your head for the rest of your life. In this respect the so-called subject matter is nothing compared with the sincere belief in the existence of nonfiction.
LK I pause here only to note I prefer to translate my deeply Slavic surname as “Of or having to do with nettles (of the stinging variety).” My next question I fear may be more ill-posed even than my others. I dare it only out of an honest interest in your answer. Fiction and poetry use words, which are inherently reductive, in an attempt to say or at least point at that which is unsayable. Your own works refer to this frequently. For example, the Sirruf in Homo Zapiensnotes that “any insight of true breadth and profundity will inevitably be reduced to words. And the words will inevitably be reduced to themselves.” While it is your craft and livelihood, and your works achieve a great measure of success in pointing at the unsayable, have you ever imagined reaching a point where writing no longer interests you, or is no longer necessary for you?
VP I’ve just finished a short story on this subject: about the limits imposed by words. It was my attempt to rewrite The Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von Hofmannstahl. This is a very interesting topic. The very idea that words are inherently reductive comes into existence within the realm of words and is comprised of words. If you say that there’s something that can’t be spoken about, you contradict yourself because you are already speaking about this unspeakable thing. The only difference is that you use the words unspeakable and unsayableto speak about it. I think that unspeakable might be the only possible one-word oxymoron.
Words can never be reduced to themselves because they simply don’t have anything that could be called a self. They only come into relative existence as objects of your mind and their meaning and emotional charge may vary significantly from one person to another. What exactly can they be reduced to? Words are the only way to deal with the mind, as mind is also a word and you can only tackle one word with another. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing beyond words. But it is beyond words only when we are silent about it from the very beginning.
As for the point where writing no longer interests me—I reached it for the first time five minutes after I had started to write my first short story. But on the sixth minute I felt that writing interested me again. If we take this to be my cycle, I reach this point approximately twelve times every hour that I dedicate to writing. So I don’t have to imagine reaching it, I know it very well. But this point is never the final one. I think there’s no final point at all. Life is a bitch, and then you die. Death is a bitch, and then you are born. Writing is very much like this, as it is living multiple short lives within your longer one.
—Leo Kropywiansky lives in Boston, where he works as an economist specializing in Japan and broader East Asia. He is working on a first novel, entitled South-by-Southeast Denver, a meditation on weather modification, paleo-ichthyology, the hangover of Cold War militarism, romantic love in its unilateral, bilateral, and triangular forms, and other disorders of selfness inherent in the samsaric condition.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee