My stopover in Moscow - in Russia's Central Federal District - is represented by the novel "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" by acclaimed contemporary author Victor Pelevin.
In this satirical, erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world, Pelevin gives new meaning to the words “unreliable narrator.” The story is told by a shape-shifting nymphet named A Hu-Li, a red-haired Asiatic call girl who is some 2,000 years old but looks 14. Her name, said aloud, sounds like a Russian obscenity, but it derives from the Chinese expression for fox spirit, huli jing — an epithet that doubles in China as a put-down for a lascivious home-wrecker. By day, A Hu-Li lives in a dark warren under the bleachers at an equestrian complex in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow; by night, she works the high-end Hotel National, hunting investment bankers.
While she may look like an ordinary (albeit exceptionally alluring) sex worker, A Hu-Li is a supernatural creature, a “professional impersonator of an adolescent girl with big innocent eyes” who ensorcells her clients by whipping out her luxuriant fox tail before each tryst and setting it a-whir like a pinwheeling ray gun, beaming hypnotic carnal fantasies into her customers’ minds. Although the men feel the telepathic pleasures in the flesh, a hotel spy-cam would reveal that the vixen took no physical part in the gymnastics. The men frolic alone.
However, early in the novel, as A Hu-Li plies her trade, her signals get jammed when she brushes up against a member of the F.S.B. (the new K.G.B.), the “captain of the hit men’s brigade.” Alexander Sery (his surname, which means “grey” in Russian, is also a euphemism for the black market) is “unshaven, sullen and very good-looking,” with a “fierce, wolfish” mien, for which there’s a very good reason. Alexander is a werewolf, and A Hu-Li’s shifty vulpine defenses prove useless against his crude lupine brio. His greyish-yellow eyes burn into her retinas, but the “most significant thing,” she notes, is that his face “was a face from the past. There used to be a lot of faces like that around in the old days, when people believed in love and God.”
Alexander calls his lover Ada — a nod to her Internet name, to Nabokov and to the Russian word for hell. She nicknames him Shurik, deliberately suggesting the name of the dog Sharik from Bulgakov’s story (famous in Russia) “Heart of a Dog,” about a cur who turns into a proletarian and becomes so annoying that he has to be stopped. Their werefox and werewolf games begin with lovestruck “tailechery” (a form of transcendental canine commingling) but detour into more dangerous sport as A Hu-Li and Shurik initiate each other into secret passions. She likes to put on an evening gown, drop by farmhouses and horrify the occupants by nabbing their hens and bolting, transforming into a werefox as she flees. He likes to rally with other F.S.B. werewolves in the frozen north, howling at a cow skull on a stake in hopes of necromantically summoning oil from the substrate into Mother Russia’s waiting pipelines. Watching this scene, seeing the cow’s skull, A Hu-Li is reminded of a grim Russian fairy tale about a slaughtered cow who takes pity on an orphan and sends the girl gold from the grave (a story told to her by Shurik, just prior to this episode). Touched, A Hu-Li adds her own soulful lament to the cacophony: “We were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred $100 a barrel.” In response to her emotion (she thinks), oil comes burbling up the stake. Shurik laughs at her sentimentality. “It’s my job to get the oil flowing,” he scoffs. “And for that, the skull has to cry.”
It’s a joy to read Pelevin’s phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pair’s longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Bromfield’s English text is fleet and magical.
Animal parables lie at the heart of every culture. Usually such tales are meant to instruct human behavior, but Russian folktales are unusual because they so often lack a moral. Instead, they portray bleak or unjust situations in mesmerizing language, making a fable of resignation itself. Russian children grow up on stories like the adventures of Alyonushka and her thirsty brother, Ivanushka, who turned into a goat after he drank water from a hoof print.
Werewolf literature is an offshoot of the man-and-beast genre and an abiding preoccupation of this author. In his early story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” Pelevin sent an unsuspecting young man to a village near an old collective farm to take part in a gathering of werewolves, creatures whose existence he had not previously suspected. “What are werewolves, really?” he asks the leader of the pack. “What are people, really?” the leader retorts, baring his teeth.
For a man as steeped in Nabokovian wordplay as Pelevin is, it can be no mistake that in the Russian version of “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” he chose the word oboroten, which means shape-shifter or, literally, someone who turns back to what he was before, instead of vervolk, which he used for his earlier werewolf tale. Could this choice be a comment on present-day Russia? Is there a moral to Pelevin’s story? What are changelings, really? Those are questions best answered by A Hu-Li.
The above review was written by Liesl Schillinger for the New York Times Book Review © 2008.
Apologies from myself for my tardiness in posting a review of this fascinating book. Whilst pursuing my ‘virtual’ round the world trip, occasionally I am distracted by real world events in my life and, as I have occasionally before, will need to recourse to existing reviews to keep my travel journal up to date. Where possible I shall return to add my own views: but please be assured that when I add a third party review I will only be if that review fully endorses my own opinions about a book and destination. As does the one above!
As I mentioned earlier I have divided the seven largest countries in the world up into their main regions, so as to be truly representative. Therefore I have split Russia up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. Having starting my journey within Russia in the most internationally well-known Central Federal District courtesy of Moscow, I now make my way to a much more contentious region.
The next stop on my journey is to a small town called Alkhan Kala with occasional forays to Grozny. Both of these locations are based within the republic of Chechnya. Whilst Chechnya is officially located within Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District, it is involved in a long and bloody battle with Russia for independence. It is this struggle and its tragic consequences that form the backdrop to my next book: “The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” in which the author, Khassan Baiev (a Muslim Chechnyan surgeon) describes his harrowing experiences throughout the Chechnyan-Russian wars of the 1990s and the 21st Century - and the personal implications of following the Hippocratic Oath by treating both Chechnyan and Russian fighters alongside innocent civilians.
And so, warily, I prepare to leave Moscow. Sadly, travel from Moscow to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is complicated due to the conflict, so I stay on a few days whilst I arrange complicated Visas and a safe route into the country. Fortunately, Chechnya's airport is finally open again for the first time since the start of the war. Planes to Grozny leave 3 times a week from Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Estimated flying time is 2 hours and 30 minutes. Having been lucky enough to secure such a flight I arrive in my destination of Chechnya. I shall post an update on this leg of my journey soon.