Pelevin's 'Homo Zapiens': in intricate absurdity, truth


February 10, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

"Tatarsky, of course, hated most of the manifestations of Soviet power," Victor Pelevin declares of the central character of his new novel, "but he still couldn't understand why it was worth exchanging an evil empire for an evil banana republic that imported its bananas from Finland. But then, Tatarsky had never been a great moral thinker, so he was less concerned with the analysis of events (what was actually going on) than with the problem of surviving them."

The novel is Homo Zapiens (Viking, 256 pages, $24.95). Babylen Tatarsky, an earnest but accepting innocent, is a traveler through the brutalities, banalities and insanities of post-Soviet Russian life -- a spiritual cousin of Candide, Gulliver, Tom Sawyer, and Alice stepping into mad worlds.

Stuck in a dead-end sales job, Tatarsky is enlisted by an old school chum, Sergei Morkovin, who is writing advertising copy for a living, mostly for television. This is presented as the fate and fortune of literature students or scholars in the post-Soviet market economy. Advertising prospers in an insane world in which money is borrowed, lent, stolen and squandered in huge quantities. An ad agency can grab it as it goes by. Lots of it.

As the novel moves forward, Tatarsky rises in income and influence, to the highest levels of television and marketing -- which is Pelevin's intricate, illusionary metaphor for the entire post-Soviet society, economy and polity.

One American consumer product after another is marketed. This is the apparent source of the bulk of hard, and thus valuable, currency. Many of Tatarsky's ads are rich exploitations of Russian and other Western literature, of spiritual matters and the metaphysical. Pelevin prances wonderfully around New Age banalities. Slogans in the main are so utterly contrary that they seem to ring true: "Beverley Kills / A Chuck Norris Enterprise," a restaurant.

"Homo Zapiens" is a concept of the mass of modern humanity -- a population zapped by television, the empty-shell replacement of "the already deluded Homo Sapiens."

The principle is put forward in an elaborate sermon or manifesto that is delivered to Tatarsky by automatic writing through a ouija board. The author is Che Guevara, writing from the other world. The 14-page essay is a splendid sendup of Marxist cant, laced with postmodernist academic babble. It makes arguments in terms of ostensibly Buddhist theology, much of it attributed to Lapsang Suchong of the PuEr Monastery. It brims with mad, opaque ideological certainties.

All of this absurdity is augmented by a seemingly endless supply of psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine and LSD. This adds a layer or more of the fantastical, of unreality. Almost everybody drinks huge amounts of vodka and beer. They do all of it at virtually any time of the day, making the illusionary seem commonplace.

Whether in the real world or only in the mind, the story rollicks along with few breaks or soft spots. Midway, I briefly felt overburdened with detail. The surreal began to bog me down. Then, just before boredom arose, the action picked up, accelerated, and roared into the last 60 pages.

This is Pelevin's eighth book, of which three have been collections of shorter fictions. In 1996, I was excited by the first Pelevin novel to make it to the U.S. market, Omon Ra. I found it a sophisticated satire that used the Soviet space program as an absurdist metaphor. On reading Pelevin's third novel, Buddha's Little Finger, in 2000, I wrote here that his "work has progressed from charming and exciting to statuesque and enduring." In Homo Zapiens, Pelevin's sophistication -- and his sureness of craft -- have expanded significantly. This is a brilliant, complex, multileveled, fully mature book.

For all the magic and madness, Pelevin emerges as an acutely perceptive observer and analyst of social and economic realities. His genius is in baring truth by presenting it as paradox. Life's surface is presented as insane, random -- a moral kaleidoscope image, ever-moving, nonsensical but full of human beauty.

His rich plays on Babylonian history, on Egyptian pharaonic spirituality, on Biblical textual interpretation, on American marketing concepts and motivational folderol are exquisite. The narrative voice takes absurdities very seriously -- so, finally, the message is that everything serious is absurd.

Near the book's end, Tatarsky's boss and mentor, Morkovin, is bringing him toward full understanding of the forces of life, but Tatarsky is not yet ready for ultimate initiation. "For the time being," Morkovin says, "let me just say the world isn't run by a 'who', it's run by a 'what'. By certain factors and impulses it's too soon for you to be learning about. Although in fact, Babe, there's no way you could not know about them. That's the paradox of it all ..."

There is a riotous art exhibition near the climax, "the cutting edge in design" of "monetaristic minimalism." The show amounts to walls ornamented by sheets of paper affixed with sober official seals testifying that $17 million -- or $8.5 million or more or less -- were paid for a Picasso, a Goya, a Valesquez. The actual works are stored somewhere else, since everyone recognizes that the importance of the art is not what the objects look like, but that the market declared it was worth a great deal of money, which got paid.

Other such ironies compose a deliciously sardonic portrait of contemporary Russia -- and by extension perhaps the human race. Everything important has a dark side, an absurd obverse. Verities are elusive; hypocrisy is trumped only by self-delusion.

In the end, however, Tatarsky finds the ultimate Truth. That's one of many compelling reasons to read the book.

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