"Just where did you learn all this," she murmured. "Where, for example, did you learn the word metaphor?"
A prostitute at an exclusive underground sex-club paints her body green and slowly morphs into a mantis. A trio of rich tourists somewhere in the south of France chance upon a deaf-mute magician and suddenly find themselves transported to ancient Egypt. A group of reporters follow the case of a recently deceased policeman with a penchant for necrophilia. A millionaire suddenly discovers he can become even richer by walking around the city with large sums of money in his pockets. A Muslim boy is trained, from youth to adulthood, to be a perfect killing instrument in the hands of "God."
Such are the five sundry and ostensibly unrelated stories collected, for the first time, in Victor Pelevin's new collection, bearing the unlikely title of P5: The Farewell Songs of the Political Pygmies of Pindostan. (The alliteration, of course, is lost in translation; in the original Russian, the five words comprising the title [прощальные песни политических пигмеев Пиндостана] as well as the number 5 [пять] all begin with the letter P [П], as does Pelevin's last name, for that matter).
* SPOILERS AHEAD *
The opening story, The Room of the Singing Caryatids, is the longest and perhaps most finely realized of the five stories, approaching in length the size of a mini-novella. The very first sentence introduces us to our protagonist, Lena, who is auditioning for the part of a singing geisha at some ungodly nightclub. She gets the job, with eleven other lucky girls, only to find that the situation is, well, weirder and more demanding than she originally thought.
She is to work at a posh underground nightclub reserved exclusively for Russia's new high-and-mighty elite, standing (in perfect serenity) with three other girls on a malachite pedestal inside a frescoed room. They are to be a kind of sideshow attraction to the rest of the club's many offerings--the famous "singing caryatids." Caryatids (Καρυάτιδες), we are told, were the sculpted female figures in ancient Greece, "serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar, supporting an entablature on their heads."
Lena, together with her three co-workers (the original twelve girls are divided into teams of four) is required to anoint her entire body with an unscented green ointment, so much so that she ends up looking like a perfectly polished malachite statue, and is administered a shot before each seance (which lasts, on average, between 24 and 48 hours). The drug they are given, she finds out later, is a new invention entirely, manufactured, as it is, from the dried-out bodies of mantises (which are able to sustain complete immobility for days on end while they wait for their prey). [Note the similarities here to Naked Lunch].
Little do the girls (or their pompous, bombastic employers) know, however, that in conjunction with immobility, they are given many other mantis-like habits and qualities, primarily the drive to devour their sexual partner(s) after each copulation. The scene in which this finally occurs is described rather comically. Lena puts her hands around her client's largish bald head and pulls. The man begins to squirm and wriggle and squeak, his face grows increasingly gray and his eyes become bloodshot, then suddenly the muscles come apart and the cervical spine is crushed: Lena succeeds in beheading her fellow-mantis. The last thing that flashes in her mind, before she is killed by the security guards, is "And here is beauty."
I enjoyed this story thoroughly, filled as it is with Pelevin's customary quirky humor. I laughed like the drain, especially, when he described Lena looking at a political poster portraying Russian voters in front of booths--the country's electoral body that Lena mistakenly thinks of as the body electro-oral.
The following story, bearing the clunky title of Khufu's Crocodile-Feeding, is probably my favorite. Three young Russian tourists (two men and one woman), driving a car through the foggy south of France, chance upon a clown-like magician (prestidigitator, as they call him) ready to show them a few tricks in exchange for a few coins.
The tricks are obviously quite mundane and are easily explained by one of the men; the magician then proceeds to play them a recording relating the story of the ancient pharaoh named Khufu, who was cursed to ruin all Egypt in the course of his mad and heretofore unparalleled project of building the largest pyramidal tomb in human history. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were employed during the course of construction and, upon completion, Khufu's soul was forever trapped in the prison of his own making. [The parallels with Peter the Great's project to build Saint Petersburg are obvious; it used to be a grim joke, among the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th century, that Petersburg stands on bones.]
The three Russian tourists remain unaffected by the story and take their leave, refusing to pay the magician anything at all. Belatedly, he convinces them to allow him to do one final trick. He asks the older of the two men for his watch (Swiss and hugely expensive), puts it in a bag and proceeds to break it on the pavement with a small hammer. Thinking that the watch must have been exchanged, at the last minute, for something else and that the clown will give it back to them unscratched and unbroken, the trio is in for a surprise when the magician hands over to them... the pitiful remains of the expensive Swiss watch which he has just broken in front of their eyes with a hammer.
Telling the other man to fuck the bastard up, the owner of the now-broken watch still cannot quite believe in his misfortune. The magician runs away, the three friends systematically proceed to obliterate his meager and scanty belongings (he shakes his puny little fist at them from a safe distance, dancing around in one spot in terror and rage), and leave.
Something happens, however, as they look for their car, which they did not initially intend--they get lost in the fog. Moving about with their hands outstretched, they call out to one another with muffled voices. And it is here that something truly hair-raising finally occurs. [Think The Lottery by Shirley Jackson]. One of them suddenly shouts that they will be killed if they are late, sure as shit, but this only increases the others' panic. They continue to pant, and curse, and run--faster, faster--symbolic of Russia's meteoric and absolutely disastrous economic takeoff?--the fog suddenly lifts, and here they are, Khufu's slaves in ancient Egypt, returning, after a short (too short) break to the building of the Great Pyramid. I swear, I felt like standing up and applauding Pelevin on the spot!
The third story, Necroment or The Death-Cop (ment [мент] in Russian carries approximately the same meaning as cop does in English) concerns the Head of Moscow's Militia luring unsuspecting "beginners" to his spacious and out-of-the-way country-house, after which they are never heard from again. Initially, rumors circulate that he's a homo, and that there's nothing easier, in order to get promoted, than to come for a brief two-day visit to his remote country-house and spend some quality time with him in his specially designed baths.
When enough young men disappear (yeah, around 180!), the press begins to follow him around, an official investigation ensues, and consequently he blows his brains out. Afterwards we find out that he may or may not have been a homosexual (and ultimately it doesn't even matter) but his plan was simple: to root out as many faggots from the city's militia-unit as possible: poison them, burn them, mix their ashes with asphalt, pave new roads and highways with them, etc. (He has a specially constructed crematorium fitted for this exact purpose behind his house). His inspiration, although he would die before he admitted it, is Pindostan or America: "Eurasia is lost; only Pindostan knows the way forward; and so it is, that wherever it goes, the rest of us duly follow."
After all is over, the country is in an uproar, with most of the people concluding that those fucking homos probably didn't deserve any better, and the Eastern Orthodox Church debating whether it is entirely appropriate to consecrate the newly built roads now or at least to light candles there for the dead (and deciding against it).
"Why," Pelevin writes, "does it happen that all these people who were so thoroughly and publicly soul-fucked every day since they were born are so afraid to touch someone who was allegedly fucked up the ass? It's because they want to keep absolute anal virginity for their Lord, this is very important in their religion."
The fourth story, Friedman's Space, is the shortest and in many ways the most disappointing of the five. It involves a rich businessman who, traveling alone late one night with lots and lots of cash in his pockets seems unable to cease finding other people's cash every way he goes: on the pavement, under the benches, near the garbage-bins, etc. Taking up the old dictum that like attracts like, he deliberately stuffs a bag with one million dollars, goes out at night, and lo and behold, finds another million dollars lying idly about in a park. The sole message of this exceedingly brief story is that infinite wealth is like one of those mysterious black holes that astronomers know very little about--it swallows up the object, whatever it is, whole, but the empty image continues to hover on the periphery, giving off the illusion that it (the object) is suspended in permanent immobility in front of the black hole, still. (The point: oligarchs are empty shells, walking around and pretending to be living people; in point of fact, they ceased to exist a long time ago and the image of them that we see with our eyes is a relativist illusion).
The last of the stories, entitled The Assassin, is in many ways the most powerful. Seemingly unconnected to the other four, it takes the reader eight centuries back to the hallucinatory, medieval Holy Land. A poor boy named Ali is found on the street by a rich and powerful warrior; he adopts him (along with dozens of other dispossessed street urchins) and takes him to his hidden castle, where he undergoes special and thoroughly brutal training. His mission: to become a perfect instrument of vengeance on behalf of Allah, guided and instructed by his human representative on earth--Ali's master and father-like patron Allahddin (a weird, if not improbable mix of Allah and Aladdin).
He is trained to kill--and it doesn't matter who as long as he is given a direct order (by God, of course)--and so he kills soldiers, generals, rich and lecherous merchants, Christian pilgrims, etc, etc. As a reward, he's given a glimpse of the paradise that awaits him: Allahddin allows him to enter a secret garden, filled with beautiful women and prepubescent boys and plenty of delicious and sweet foodstuffs. Soon, Ali begins to notice that something is, as it were, amiss: several of the supposedly perfect Houri are old (and others are sweaty and smelly), the boys have been overused by his predecessors (one of them continues to run back and forth to the lavatory [what, a loo in paradise?], his stomach violently upset), the supposedly pristine grass conceals signs of leftovers and drops of vomit.
Soon, Ali begins to understand the importance of what he's witnessed, concludes that no man will ever be capable to help another enter Paradise, and runs away.
I particularly liked the following passage: "How strange and wondrous life is," he thought. "When so much beauty lies at our fingertips--so much beauty, that even the most skillful of painters would be incapable of making it better, and here, in the middle of this heavenly garden is a young man trying to get into Paradise--by killing other men. This path, he was once told, is the path of true submission."
Overall, this five-story cycle comes across as some sort of weird hybrid of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Although the stories are apparently unconnected, several leitmotifs run to and fro in between them, like threads. Insects are omnipresent; from the praying/preying mantises of the first story to the shiny black flies infesting Allah's "paradise" in the last one. Everything, no matter how outlandish or alien it seems, is ultimately connected to the Russian state of affairs in the here and now--and the end result is rather similar to Ilya Khrjanovsky's infamous 4.