Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Readings: A Russian Postmodernist

Although much of my reading time has lately been taken up by trying to follow simultaneously the presidential campaigns, the financial crisis, and the baseball playoffs--not to mention both pro and college football on the weekends--I have still been slowly enjoying the novel Buddha's Little Finger by contemporary Russian novelist, Victor Pelevin (of whom, more here).

The novel's structure is deliberately dream-like, with a large cast of characters, whom one can never quite pin down to one identity, shifting abruptly in and out of various bizarre situations and milieus, all the while involved in musings and conversations on esoteric philosophical and religious topics.

The excerpt that follows is taken from a section in which three Russian gangsters are conversing around a campfire, under the influence of 'shrooms. The man who does most of the talking here is recounting a time when, feeling uncharacteristically bad after committing a murder, he notices a pamphlet in a kiosk on the street entitled "Life Beyond the Grave" and impulsively buys and reads it:

XX“… Turns out life under Stalin was like life after death is now!”
XX“I don’t get you,” said Shurik.
XX“Well, look, under Stalin after death there was atheism, but now there’s religion again. And accordin’ to religion, after death everyone lives like they did under Stalin. Just you figure it the way it was. Everybody knows there’s this window lit up in the Kremlin at night, and He’s there behind it, and He loves you like a brother, and you’re shit-scared of Him, but you’re supposed to love Him with all your heart as well. It’s just like in religion. The reason I remembered Stalin is I began wonderin’ how you can be shit-scared of someone and love Him with all your heart at the same time.”
XX“And what if you’re not scared?” Shurik asked.
XX“That means you’ve no fear of God. And that means the punishment cell.”
XX“What punishment cell’s that?”
XX“There wasn’t much written about that. The main thing is it’s dark and there’s this gnashin’ of teeth. After I read it I was wonderin’ for half an hour what kind of teeth the soul has…nearly lost my marbles over it. …”

This novel is wildly funny in places. Once one gets used to its chaotic structure, the effort it takes to read it is well repaid.