Upon returning to Moscow recently from a stay in a Buddhist monastery in South Korea, the Russian novelist Victor Pelevin received a surprise phone call from an Orthodox priest. Why, the patriarch demanded to know, had Pelevin — unlike the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or the even greater Leo Tolstoy — neglected his Christianity? ’’I told him I hadn’t neglected my Christianity,’’ Pelevin says. ’’I grew up in an atheist country! He was unconvinced. He said that because I was popular with the young, I had a responsibility to set a good example. I was polite to the old man, but his expectations of me were ridiculous. I’m a writer. I have a responsibility to no one.’’
Nearly anywhere else, this remark would seem like a harmless expression of artistic self-assertion. But no country is more haunted by the spirit of its dead writers than Russia; even today writers still occupy an emblematic position in society. Yet just as Moscow has escaped its Communist torpor for the willful chaos of post-Soviet life, so the Russian image of the novelist is no longer that of reverent seer or even heroic dissident. Rather, if anyone embodies the new image of the writer in Russia it is the 38-year-old Pelevin, a laconic semi-recluse with a shaved head, a fashionable interest in Zen meditation and an eccentric attachment to dark glasses. (He is seldom seen without them.)
Even as pulp fiction and pornography increasingly fill Moscow bookstalls, Pelevin has emerged as that unusual thing: a genuinely popular serious writer. He is almost alone among his generation of Russian novelists in speaking with a voice authentically his own, and in trying to write about Russian life in its current idiom. It’s a finger-clickingly contemporary voice: wry, exaggerated, wised-up, amused. His mode of writing about low life in a high style, his talent for the fantastic and the grotesque and his interest in drugs, computer games and junk culture have resonated with a generation for whom the novel was becoming too slow a form. And he is, unlike many fellow Russian writers whose fiction is largely preoccupied with the trauma of the Soviet past, not in flight from present difficulties. In fact, he embraces them with the ruthless ardor of a child pulling wings off a butterfly.
’’Generation P,’’ Plevin’s most recent novel, was a summer sensation in Russia, selling more than 200,000 copies. (The translation to English is still being completed.) The book tracks the adventures of a skeptical intellectual, Vavilen Tatarsky, who becomes a kopiraiter — an advertising copywriter — adrift in a glamorously corrupt Moscow. He spends his days devising Russian versions of Western slogans: ’’Gucci for Men — Be a European, Smell Better.’’
The title is clearly a reference to America’s jaded Generation X. But what does the ’’P’’ mean? ’’It could mean any one of three things,’’ Pelevin says. ’’It could stand for Pepsi, or Pelevin, or’’ — he uses a vulgar Russian slang term that can be translated loosely as ’’absolute catastrophe’’ — or all three of these at once.’’ So Pelevin’s generation of liberal freedoms and designer excesses is also the generation of criminality, corruption and despair. ’’I feel disgusted by everything about my country,’’ he says. ’’In the Soviet times you could escape from the evil of the state by withdrawing into the private spaces of your own head; but now the evil seems to be diffused everywhere. We are all tainted by it.’’
Spend any time in Moscow and you will soon discover that no other writer polarizes opinion quite like Victor Pelevin. To the influential critic Andrei Nemzer, he is an ’’infantile writer producing books for an infantile society.’’ To Igor Shaitanov, a professor of literature at the Russian State Humanities University, Pelevin is a ’’phony’’ whose fiction has a ’’dangerous emptiness.’’ And yet, step outside the cloistered world of Moscow’s literary intelligentsia, and you will find fierce adherents. Natasha Perova, the editor who first discovered him, calls Pelevin ’’the voice of a generation, who is taking the Russian novel in new directions.’’
Pelevin’s most committed readers — those who post his short stories on the Internet and swap his books at nightclubs as if they were samizdat — are the disaffected young, who must see something of the surreality of their own lives reflected in his cool, ironic prose. ’’He’s the only writer who seems to be writing about the way we live today, with all its absurdities and heartaches,’’ says Katya Loktova, a 19-year-old student at Moscow State University.
Pelevin smiles when I ask him about his young readers. ’’You know,’’ he says, ’’they ask me the strangest questions. ’Mr. Pelevin,’ they say, ’have you ever made love while on Ecstasy?’ Other writers are asked what they think about Yeltsin or the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia’’ — he begins to laugh — but I’m asked about sex and Ecstasy.’’ Pelevin has become such an icon for Russian youth that the country’s new Green Party tried to enlist him this past fall as its candidate for prime minister in 2000. ’’At first I was flattered to be asked,’’ Pelevin told me. ’’But when I thought about it I was disgusted. I didn’t want my image exploited in this way. Politics in Russia is all about which group of people can control the most money. The Greens are no different.’’
The disjunction between those who think Pelevin is a fraud and those who see him as the ideal chronicler of the new Russia was dramatized strikingly when his 1996 novel ’’Chapaev and Emptiness’’ (to be published in the United States by Viking this spring as ’’Buddha’s Little Finger’’) was excluded from the short-list of that year’s Russian Booker Prize, the country’s pre-eminent fiction award. Igor Shaitanov was chairman of the judges that year, and he defended his jury’s unpopular decision by likening the novel — a hallucinatory recasting of the life of Vasily Chapaev, a mythical Bolshevik hero — to a computer virus. ’’It’s just too dangerous to support or transmit this kind of cultural image,’’ Shaitanov said. ’’Works like this act like a cultural virus — they destroy the cultural memory.’’
In October, the same Booker drama was tediously repeated when ’’Generation P’’ was ignored by the judges. When asked about it, Pelevin was imperiously unconcerned. ’’I expect nothing less from the literary establishment,’’ he said. ’’They know I have no interest in their world of committees, reviews and prizes. All I can say is that my books have now sold almost one million copies in Russia. I have my readership. The Booker means nothing to me.’’
While he may disparage his critics as ’’incredibly stupid, mean, venomous,’’ Pelevin has deliberately detached himself from the Russian literary mainstream, refusing to attend parties, readings or conferences. He reads very few, if any, of his peers. He cites the Russian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov as an influence, yet expresses deeper affection for foreign writers: Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse and, even more unfashionably, Robert M. Pirsig, author of ’’Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’’ ’’I want no part of any literary world,’’ Pelevin told me. ’’The only thing that matters to me is trying to produce something that’s true to my vision and that people want to read. To me celebrity is virtual. That you have your picture in the papers. Big deal.’’
In his own country, at least, Pelevin never gives interviews and refuses to be photographed or appear on television or radio. Very few people even know what he looks like. What he desires most — or so he claims — is to be ignored, to be left alone in peace to write and dream. ’’Part of the attraction of Buddhism for me is that it enables me to empty my head of all the junk of modern living,’’ he says. ’’I really hate all the attention. It’s harmful to me and stops me from getting on with my work. I can only begin writing again once I know that people have forgotten about me.’’
Such willed withdrawal from the ephemera of celebrity culture to which Russia is as much attached as any country in the West has, naturally, only increased Pelevin’s allure. Who is this reclusive Buddhist in the dark glasses who writes such strange, penetrating novels? Is he for real? Russian Vogue was so eager to secure an interview with Pelevin this past summer that a senior editor invited him out for lunch and then secretly recorded their entire conversation. She confessed her subterfuge only at the end of their lunch. ’’By then,’’ Pelevin says: ’’I was too drunk to care.’’ As for the ever-present dark glasses, he says, ’’I’m naturally shy. I hate physical attention. It’s torture. I’m wearing these sunglasses now while I’m talking to you and in pictures because it’s the only way I can be photographed without being photographed, if you see what I mean.’’
Pelevin and I are chatting in a sushi bar on the old Arbat, the main tourist drag of the city. After a late summer heat wave during which temperatures climbed uncharacteristically into the low 90’s, the severe cold has returned. The extremity of the weather finds an echo in the extremity of life in the city itself: there is war in the Caucasus, unease on the streets after a terrorist bombing campaign and gossip about the ailing Yeltsin giving way to Putin, a former K.G.B. hardliner, a succession that would take place, symbolically, on the very last day of the old century. The new Moscow seems to be passing inexorably through its Weimar phase — it is an intoxicating, dangerous place, where taxes and wages go mostly unpaid, where citizens openly drive stolen cars and where voracious prostitutes, their lips swelled by collagen injections, patrol the corridors of the international hotels.
Pelevin remains at once exhilarated and repelled by this near-anarchy. In September, he packed up again, first staying two months in Germany before moving on to South Korea, where he planned ’’to avoid the millennium hype’’ by spending the winter months deep in meditation among the Buddhist monks. ’’When I’m away in Korea, spending all day meditating, everything in the world seems to disappear into silence,’’ he says. ’’I stop smoking, I’m disciplined and I can concentrate on what’s important. Living in Russia drains you if you’re an intelligent person. We have no civil society, and people have no protection from corrupt rule. Ordinary people are much worse off than they were under Communism; you simply cannot survive on your pension or money from the state.’’ Pelevin himself is fortunate; he now earns around $50,000 a year from his writing, making him wealthy by typical Russian standards — and allowing him to escape the country for months at a time.
Unusually for a Russian writer, he did not grow up surrounded by writers, intellectuals and dissidents. His parents were part of the old-style Soviet nomenklatura: his father was a military officer, and his mother was an economist from the Russian enclave of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. He remembers the long summers of his boyhood being spent happily on a Moscow army base. ’’I really loved the place, actually,’’ he recalls. ’’It was like a big playground full of soldiers, a great place to excite the imagination.’’
Memories from this period informed his first novel, ’’Omon Ra’’ (1993), set during the long stagnation of the Brezhnev years. As a child, Omon is fascinated by flight and deep space and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut, a heroic Soviet man in the model of Yuri Gagarin. In his late teens, he enrolls as a cadet at the Zaraisk flying school and begins a grueling training program. His aptitude and diligence impress the authorities, and soon he is selected to be the sole pilot on a one-way, supposedly ’’unmanned’’ mission to the dark side of the moon. Omon realizes that such a journey means certain death, his death, but he has no choice and sets off for the moon only to discover, at the end of the novel, that his ship never really left the ground, that the entire Soviet space program is an elaborately choreographed fake. Pelevin’s satire, written in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s fall and scornful of the heroic bombast of the past, had all the daring and swaggering hauteur of a young man’s debut. Richard Bernstein, writing in The Times in 1996, praised ’’Ra’’ as ’’wicked, clever and poetic.’’
Pelevin, who studied engineering at the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering, did not begin writing fiction until his mid-20’s, and he was slow to find a readership. After college he worked as a journalist and in advertising as a copywriter (echoes of ’’Generation P’’). He wrote stories in stolen moments. That ’’Omon Ra’’ was published at all owed everything to the acuity of Natasha Perova, who read one of Pelevin’s first published stories, ’’The Blue Lantern,’’ and was excited to see more. ’’When we met up he handed me the manuscript of ’Omon Ra,’’’ she told me. ’’I could see immediately that here was a born writer with his own voice and natural style.’’
’’The Blue Lantern’’ is a magical evocation of childhood wonder. A group of boys at a summer camp spend the night wondering if their lives are but a dream and the world around them a chimera. Perhaps they are even dead, no more than lingering, evanescent spirits. Perhaps they never lived at all. As with much of Pelevin’s early fiction, the story ends on a note of heightened transcendence, with one of the boys lost in a kind of rapture as he peers at the blue lantern burning outside his window, his consciousness teetering on the edge of dissolution, on the very edge of silence. Pelevin’s longing to find moments of repose like this — to elevate himself beyond the white noise of his daily life — may have inspired his interest in Zen Buddhism. Even when he is in Moscow, he spends many hours each week in deep meditation. And his fiction certainly has a hazy, hallucinogenic quality, as if following the trajectory of a drug trip: luminous, allusive, utterly illogical.
While he is in Moscow, his young female fans would be surprised to discover, he still lives with his aged mother. (He kept me away from his apartment, possibly sharing the embarrassment many Muscovites feel about living in cramped high-rise blocks.) His mother leaves him in peace, he explains, and if ’’I know where she is, I don’t have to worry about her all the time.’’ Pelevin has a longstanding girlfriend, Nina, who works in advertising and wants to marry him, but he remains stalled by indecision. ’’Do you think I should get married?’’ he asked me, glancing at my wedding ring. ’’Well, if you love Nina, why not?’’ I said.
’’It’s not such a good idea bringing up children in a country like Russia, and, anyway, I go away so often.’’
’’What does Nina think about that?’’
’’She thinks I’m a fool.’’
How serious, then, is Victor Pelevin? Having spent time with him in Moscow and London, I would venture that there is something genuine in his retreat from fashionable society, in his search for silence amid the clumsy clamor of contemporary life. At the same time, he seems to derive a perverse pleasure from the aura of intrigue that surrounds him. A Buddhist ascetic who enjoys some of the worst excesses of consumer society (Cohiba cigars, late-night partying); a semi-recluse who eagerly engages with and chronicles contemporary life; an author who despises the Russian literati yet welcomes the attention of foreign journalists. Even his dark glasses simultaneously deflect and command attention.
When Pelevin and I were sitting in the sushi bar on the Arbat, there was an abrupt, drenching storm. People ran for cover, taking shelter in shop doorways. When the rain ceased, they began to move again, slowly stretching their limbs. ’’Look at them now,’’ Pelevin said, ’’they look like mannequins coming to life.’’ To me, they simply looked like wet people who had been standing still for a long time. But Pelevin is the kind of writer who can see anything he wants, and this gift for discovering strangeness in the most ordinary circumstances is there in the phantasmagoric quality of the fiction. If his books are about anything, they’re about willed alienation, about the inward freedom of prayer and meditation. ’’To cope in the old Soviet times many people lived in this state of inner exile,’’ he explains, ’’particularly if they didn’t want to be dissidents and go to prison. They took jobs as, say, janitors and had all the official papers. So they acted in the world, but it was all a pretense. They really lived in a world inside their own heads.’’ If the outer turmoil reaches such a level, he says, ’’where else can one go?’’
As for Victor Pelevin, his own journey appears scarcely to have begun. The writing life stretches before him like a turbulent ocean of discovery, and, like Gogol, whom he sometimes recalls, he is enraptured by the fantastic nature of Russian reality. Unlike his fellow novelists, he will never be content merely to linger on the past, so rich is the fictional potential of the society in which he finds himself. That is, unless he decides to follow the path of Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov and Brodsky into becoming a writer in exile. ’’My dream,’’ he says, ’’is always to be on the move. If I had enough money that’s how I would live. I would leave Russia and simply keep traveling, keep moving on, never settling anywhere for long. I hate being connected to one place; it blisters the mind.’’
Yet as Pelevin well knows, Russia is both the inspiration for, and engine of, his fiction; she is his tarnished muse. In permanent exile, you suspect, Pelevin would wither into aimlessness as a writer and begin drifting, like a buoy without its moorings. No, far better to stay, to continue holding up a mirror to a sick society, even if he sometimes dislikes the portrait staring back at him in the glazed mirror of his prose.