No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010/20: The Sacred Book of [the] Werewolf -- Victor Pelevin

We feel for a man's secret heartstrings, and when we find them we play 'Ride of the Valkyries' on them, and that brings down the entire edifice of the personality. In fact, nowadays that's not so very terrible. The edifice of the modern personality is more like a dugout than anything else -- there's nothing in it to collapse, and its conquest hardly requires any effort at all. (p. 95)

A Hu-Yi is neither human, animal nor demon: she is a magical fox. (As narrator of the novel, she uses the feminine pronoun, though apparently magical foxes are sexless, because immortal.) Thousands of years old, the twenty-first century finds her working as a high-class prostitute in Moscow, hyponotising her clients into believing they've had the best sex of their lives. Meanwhile, A Hu-Yi reads a book. (She finds Stephen Hawking halfway between horror and humour, and enjoys discussing Paglia.)

There are, of course, other magical foxes around. A Hu-Yi's sister E has married an English aristocrat, Lord Cricket, who has read too much Crowley and ended up with some improbable beliefs. Chief amongst these is his conviction that the time is right for the coming of the Super-Werewolf. In fact, if he can perform the correct ritual, he may even become this mystical being.

Then A Hu-Yi (forced to advertise on the Internet for clients after an assignation goes wrong) encounters a real werewolf, and falls in love for the first time in her very long life.

No good can come of it.

Foxes think in layers: A Hu-Yi has as many as five inner voices bickering. Quite a few of her thought processes are transcribed as numbered lists. They are noted more for reflecting and repeating opinions than for having original thoughts. A fox's mind is simply a tennis racket you can use to keep bouncing the conversation from one subject to another ... let me remark modestly that my simulated thought almost always turns out better than the original. To continue the tennis analogy, my return improves on every hard shot. (p. 136) A Hu-Yi is also fearsomely well-read (she's had plenty of time); endlessly amused by humanity (she is delightfully rude about Freud: basing the analysis of your own behaviour on Freud is about as helpful as relying on Carlos Castaneda's peyote trips. At least Castaneda has heart, poetry. But all this Freud has is his pince-nez, two lines of coke on the sideboard and a quiver in his sphincter. (p.166)); somewhat prone to lecture her new-found love on philosophy of a Zen cast, and uncomfortable with what she discovers about the magic that underlies the modern world.

I'm only happy with the ending of this novel if I think of it as a fairytale. It's a rollicking read, full of a dark humour that seems typically Russian to me though I am probably basing this largely on Bulgakov and Pushkin. There are some extremely funny scenes, and I like the framing narrative, but I'm not convinced the sleight-of-hand is completely successful.

Incidentally, the title of the book is given as The Sacred Book of Werewolf on title page and in frontmatter, and I think in the actual text: the cover shows it as The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Possibly the cover art was proofread by whoever let several jumbled sentences through in an early chapter of the book (though not elsewhere, at least not that I noticed).

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