Victor Pelevin blazes forward with 'Buddha's Little Finger'


If deep in your heart you believe the human condition is perfectible, this book is not for you. If you are afflicted with the notion that reason of any sort -- social arithmetic, economic logic, ideological discipline -- can make human life or human history neatly coherent and thus manageable, this is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you have the capacity to laugh at orthodoxy and the courage to make that laughter raucously ridiculing -- and if you can keep three more-or-less simple ideas in the air at the same time -- don't miss this book. You will never forget it.

It is "Buddha's Little Finger" by Victor Pelevin (Penguin Putnam Inc., 352 pages, $24.95).

In the third sentence of the first paragraph, Pelevin writes, "above them, [in Moscow] ... there was the same grey sky, like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God." A few pages later, the narrator, Pyotr Voyd (yes, void), says, rather cheerily: "In my situation to die was every bit as natural and reasonable as to leave a theatre that has caught fire in the middle of a lacklustre performance."

Those were among the first -- but far, far from the last -- images of such perfect clarity and originality as to take my breath away.

It is against the backdrop of such resignation and gracefulness that the blackly rollicking, gambolingly grim stories of this novel evolve, unfold, unwind. Throughout, the book careens and wallows, yowls and murmurs. It is driven by the profoundest sense of irony, fueled by Pelevin's awesome ability to dance with the absurd.

The story takes place in two distinctly different eras and locations. The first 1919, in an outpost of the Russian Civil War; the other in the 1990s in an Army psychiatric hospital in Moscow.

The modern Pyotr, a poet and a relatively minor literary figure, is arrested and committed to the military madhouse for daring to rhyme the words Red and mad. His "treatment" is full of insane political rationalizations -- and drugs that propel him into another level of consciousness.

In that state, he is recruited to become his 1919 self by Vasily Ivanvich Chapaev, brilliant, mythological Bolshevik military leader. Pyotr serves him as political commissar and cavalry commander against the White Army.

Time is completely scrambled. The novel's form could be branded dialectic fabulist surrealism, but it deserves more respect than that sort of polysyllabic, strangulating pigeonholing. Let me call it a joy, an exquisiteness, an outrage -- and a blazing promise.

Is one reality -- or the other -- a dream, or a set of dreams, or a hallucination of Pytor's government-certified schizophrenia? To try to nail down the corners of ostensible realities is folly, artistically defeating. The truth is that Arnold Schwarzenegger and CNN, "Godfather III" and "Pulp Fiction" all belong in the Bolshevik revolution, where they turn up.

Through all of it, there are immensely entertaining, more-or-less Socratic explorations of psychiatry, Marxism, cocaine, medical practice, politics, vodka, spirituality, Marist theology, Western and Asian philosophies, the Upanishads, Russian cultural nationalism. A good deal is made of conflicts between Aristotle and Plato -- and of the role of Kant.

There is a visit to a grotesque Valhalla, populated not by fallen heroes, but by thugs, murderers, the scum of the earth, who died perpetrating banditry. There is a marvelous riff on the Russian equivalent of the lava-lamp fad, with theological implications.

The title of the book draws on a deft touch of modernist Buddhism dear to the heart of Chapaev.

"Many millennia ago," Chapaev instructs, "there lived the Buddha Anagama. He didn't waste any time on explanations, he simply pointed at things with the little finger of his left hand, and their true nature was instantly revealed. ... It's a long story, but in short it all ended with him pointing to himself with his little finger and then disappearing. All that was left of him was that finger from his left hand, which his disciples hid in a lump of clay."

That lump forms part of a clay machine gun that is wielded by the beauteous and maddeningly elusive Anna, whom Pyotr fervently yearns for. It's a long story.

This material has much to do with the interplay of dream and reality, and thus of the absurdity of literal and linear reality. There is a great deal of lingering on the edges of ecstasy and lone redemption. It's a book full of quaint hope.

Pelevin was born in Moscow in 1962, the son of a Red Army officer. He studied engineering and later was a student at the Gorky Institute of Literature. He is vastly popular among Russian youth -- this book sold more than 1 million copies in the original -- and reviled by the Russian literary establishment.

This is his third novel. There have been two volumes of short stories. I do not read Russian, but this translation, by Andrew Bromfield, is wonderfully crisp, smooth, sophisticated and colloquial.

There are suggestions of Hermann Hesse, especially "Steppenwolfe," about it, as well as echoes of Kafka. Pelevin is immensely informed in literature. Certainly the Russian canon, but also by much other Western literature. There is lots of playful familiarity with Shakespeare, Dumas, Lewis Carroll.

Four years ago, I praised Pelevin's earlier novel, "Oman Ra" as "a beautiful piece of work: deeply sad, sweetly joyful, riotously funny." I found that work offering promise for a new blossoming of Russian literature.

The leap of richness and sureness from "Oman Ra" to "Buddha's Little Finger" is enormous. Pelevin's work has progressed from charming and exciting to statuesque and enduring. If that progress continues Pelevin could well become a towering figure of Russian -- and world -- literature.

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