Victor Pelevin, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

Publisher: Penguin Books
2009, 333 pages, paperback, $15

initially, victor pelevin’s novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf seems creative. Fox ladies, werewolves, Buddhist philosophy, literary allusions, Taoist exorcists, sleazy modern Russia–all written in a humorous tone. What’s not to love? Everything, it becomes apparent.

The book is narrated by A Hu-Li, a fantastical, Chinese werefox living in Moscow. Her ancient race is immortal, genderless, beautiful, and dependant upon human sexual energies for sustenance. Like most of her kind, she pretends to be a young and innocent prostitute to entrap and feed upon horny victims, but she never engages in real sexual activity. Instead, she relies upon her engorgeable ‘tail’–the only fox-like thing about her–to weave illusions on her poor customers. As the men fantasize, alone in bed in orgasmic paroxysms, she entertains herself by reading scientific tomes. If the spell is somehow broken mid-process, the men see through her tricks and become violent and suicidal. This happens one day, leading her into the seductive clutches of a member of the Russian secret police–a werewolf, in disguise. And thus, the plot begins!

This all may sound creative. The problem is that it isn’t. How many recent movies, books, and graphic novels deal with ancient endangered mythical races living in modern metropolises, eking out a living incognito, tied in an uneasy relationship with the weak-minded humans around them? Films like Blade, Twilight, Underworld, Hellboy, Let the Right One In, among many others have worn this concept thin. Please, let the undead and immortal finally get some rest.

Perhaps it may seem unfair to compare this aspirant of literature to pop-culture. It isn’t, though, because the narrator constantly alludes to pop culture: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Matrix, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, The Passion of the Christ, The Lord of the Rings movies, Splinter Cell, Final Fantasy VIII, Britney Spears, Robert De Niro, Tarantino, Mel Gibson, and Monica Lewinsky, are among the dozens of obnoxious cameos. At one point, the main character is on the verge of forcing three policemen to have sex together as she robs their police station. Before she does so, she remembers Suetonius’ anecdote on how Emperor Tiberius was said to watch his ‘spintrii’ have sex together to excite his aging libido. “This story fired my imagination–in my own mind I even translated ‘Splinter Cell’ (the title of an innocent computer game about Tom Clancy) as meaning ‘The Sect of the Splintrii’.” First, possibly the narrator–though I suspect the author–is wrong. The game isn’t about the breathlessly exciting life of a grey-haired, pot-bellied, former real estate agent-turned author; it is based in Tom Clancy’s fictional universe and is the title of a series of novels other, less famous, writers ghostwrite. Second, for how long will these cheap allusions remain meaningful? Third, and most importantly, what is the point of that Splinter Cell allusion? It isn’t funny, nor is anything larger built from it. It’s simply tossed into the novel, as are most of the other name brands and celebrities and movies. Pelevin may be trying to make a point about modern, commoditized Russian culture, but in making the point he shouldn’t tire the reader with labored and self-consciously cool allusions.

Defenders may point to his insertions of Buddhist, Taoist, and Nordic philosophy, as well as allusions to Wittgenstein, Berkeley, Nabokov, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Rousseau, Blok, Spengler, Steiglitz, Shakespeare, Wagner, and Pushkin–among dozens of others–as sufficiently clever, interesting, deep, or weighty, but Pelevin’s philosophy is half-baked and hardly intelligible, and the literary references are fleeting and used merely to burnish his dull narrative abilities.

But, beyond all this, what is most irritating about this book is the style. The narrator is supposed to be in millennial-year-old range, yet why does she think more like the annoyingly precocious high schooler her customers imagine her to be? This is how she describes watching junkies shoot-up: “They became like trolls from beyond the grave, crushed by the weight of some eternal curse–like soldiers in the ghost army in the final episode of The Lord of the Rings.” It might seem I’ve been sloppy in providing the context, but no–that’s all there is concerning Peter Jackson’s 2003 fantasy epic. This is, we are led to believe, how this creature who has witnessed epic battles, been inside glorious palaces, and spoken to some of the most famous people in history, thinks: like your twelve year-old cousin.  

Would a super-intelligent, vastly-experienced being be unable to develop a maturity and wisdom that the bumbling human race commonly develops? As the mysterious and sinister secret police official escorts her into a dark garage towards a ‘fantastic black car’–a Maibach–she contemplates whether to get in. He’s given her a suspicious story about needing her help choosing a gift for another woman. She knows that “in situations like this, you should clear out at the first opportunity.” But, being the infinitely wise and aged being that she is, she decides to get in because, “[she] was wondering what the interior of the car looked like.”

One particularly annoying conceit is that these foxy ladies think in parallel tracks. In other words, while humans can only follow one line of thought at a time, the foxes can think independent, parallel streams. The author chose to show this using indented, numbered lines of thought. He also chose to show it too often. This conceit is silly, ineffectually done, and tiresome. Also, the author sometimes violates his own rules by having the points, within one list, refer to each other. Regardless, lists don’t interest me, and just when I thought I’d reached the last one–here comes another!

Victor Pelevin is Russian. The book is translated from Russian. His name is imposingly Russian. Surely, this man must know Russia, I thought. And yet, I was surprised by how little I felt I knew Russia after reading this. The narrator makes constant quips about Russia’s privatizing frenzy, how everything is for sale, how schlocky the culture is, how the next generation grew up on Pepsi, how corrupt the government is. “The elite here is divided into two branches, which are called ‘the oligarchy’ (derived from the words ‘oil’ and ‘gargle’) and ‘the apparat’ (from the phrase ‘upper rat’).” Yes, this is mildly–very, very mildly–humorous…perhaps. But page after page of this makes Victor Pelevin resemble the worst type of stand-up comedian: the type that relies on variations of a one liner for a whole career. Moreover, who hasn’t heard all this modern-Russia-is-dysfunctional stuff? This is all stereotype and clich&eacute, and it’s been done better by Gary Shteyngart.

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf lies in the strange territory of being not good enough to be taken seriously, nor enjoyable enough to be packed on a beach trip. The cover isn’t attractive enough for it to find a home on the coffee table, nor is the binding impressive enough for the book to sit prominently on the bookshelf. Skim it in the library.

–Juancarlos Feliciano