Among contemporary Russian authors, it is the satirists who have made the most headway in English translation. That's not surprising, as authors like Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin pick targets that translate well: corruption from out-of-touch legislators, the super-rich pursuing personal gain over social good, and a mindless celebrity culture. What distinguishes these authors from their western counterparts - other than their sheer viciousness - is their eagerness to blend surreal, sci-fi stylings into stories meant to reflect the world as it is.
A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin's recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions' Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with "semiotic signs", a skewing of a country where rhetoric - and not actual substance - is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia's affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.
The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they're injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as "Crypto-Speak" - powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as "everyday speech".
Even in this bare outline it's already possible to see the skill with which Pelevin goes beyond simple satire or allegory. As a woman made to prostitute herself for crumbs from the wealthy, Lena is the very image of a disempowered, impoverished Russian. Yet the requirement that she become mantis-like to do her job suggests that everything is not as straightforward as it seems - mantises are predators, after all, that adopt a submissive posture to fool their victims. And the business with "Crypto-Speak" is a part of Pelevin's ongoing ridicule of the doublethink purveyed by the media, Lena's bosses, politicians and the wealthy, as they try to convince Lena and her ilk of the merits of their point of view. As the story proceeds, Pelevin continues to elaborate these relationships, festooning his schematic with oddball details that ultimately make his story satisfyingly ambiguous.
Part of what lets Pelevin go beyond mere satire is his ability to say just enough. Remarking on Lena's caryatid posture, he writes that at first she feels that "almost from the beginning of time itself, she had been holding her hands folded in front of her chest [in prayer]". Yet with time she develops "the illusion that they were raised above her head", and eventually the mantis makes her "realise that the illusion she had had was her real situation". Do we take the mantis, then, as the force that teaches people like Lena to be good workers, indoctrinating them into the belief that they hold up society? Or is it perhaps a liberator, revealing to her the bitter truth that the saintliness of prayer is itself the illusion, and that when you think you abstain from the economic order you are in fact still participating? It is Pelevin's ability to mix in seductive images like this that defy simple interpretation that makes his book so interesting to read.
Another pleasure is the ambiguous gaze to which Pelevin subjects Russia, which he imagines as a surreal place that is comically confident in its ability to out-West the West. At one point Lena reads a newspaper's triumphant declaration that a "fundamental modernisation" programme is at work in Russia. This, it transpires, involves an idea to manufacture a version of Elton John, to outdo and outperform the English singer-songwriter and his elaborate lifestyle, and perfectly captures Russia's unique place between East and West. Indeed, Pelevin's sharp eye for the small-but-crucial things that his Russians fail to understand is what makes his satirical flourishes both biting and interesting.
In addition to dealing with Russia's fragile self-image, The Hall of Singing Caryatids ventures into the darker side of its nationalism. At one point one of the girls is implicated in an Islamic plot to bomb the palace, and an "ideologist" is brought in to set the others to rights. After a quasi-economic lecture meant to prove how well off they are scraping crumbs from the rich, the ideologist suddenly digresses into a critique of the mass media:
"This tragedy shows just how much impact the media bombardment from London and New York actually has. Don't think that you are too smart or above this. Don't think that this brainwashing doesn't work on you, that it's as unnatural as plastic. The brainwashing even works on me ... There is an undeclared war going on, and every time we feel a pang of resentment toward the excesses of wealthy idiots rise in our breasts, the oligarchs of the West rub their sweaty hands together and laugh."
Beautifully airtight, but ultimately nonsensical, this logic is of the same kind that the powerful always use to trick the powerless. The twist here is that it seems the ideologist himself is convinced of the western media's ironclad invincibility. In Pelevin's do-what-you-must world, survival is always paramount, even if you have to serve the State by both lecturing the dispossessed on their ungratefulness and impersonating a prophylactic. One of the caryatids - a no-nonsense bunch if ever there was one - sums up this grim reality well: "We learn to dream about s***, because we want things to spend our money on."
In contrast to gritty Russia, Lena finds the world of the mantis "a good place to be", a place where she feels like "her true self". Unlike the world of "thoughts, whispers, outcries, and other voices", the mantis's world is a peacefully static realm of infinite information but no knowledge. "What makes it beautiful," the mantis explains at one point, "is that it will always be like that no matter what happens." In her meditative states Lena becomes more and more convinced that she's becoming a mantis, and yet, Pelevin leaves it unclear just what that means: has her scummy capitalist realism taught her to prey on the rich, or has the mantis shown her a path that goes beyond the workaday struggle?
Without spoiling this tale's fine ending, it should be said that Lena ends up being more dangerous to the powerful than anyone might have expected. Yet the book's concluding pages are delightfully enigmatic, fogged over just enough with metaphor that it's impossible to say quite what happens. Likewise, we never really know if the mantis has empowered Lena or seduced her into shameful political violence. That's all toward the beauty of Pelevin's project: a satire sharp enough to score points against the malign, yet retentive of a fine negative capability that takes these very same targets and makes of them a document that shimmers with the evasiveness of art.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation.