Russian literary culture is in disarray but it can still have a good row about its most fashionable writerby Jason Cowley / March 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Returning to Moscow from a stay in a Buddhist monastery in South Korea, the Russian novelist Victor Pelevin received an unexpected telephone call from a priest. Why, the patriarch wanted to know, had Pelevin-unlike the great Solzhenitsyn and the even greater Tolstoy-neglected his Christianity? “I told him I hadn’t neglected my Christianity,” Pelevin says. “I grew up in an atheist country-I never had any belief in the first place. He was unconvinced. He told me that because I was a writer and popular with the young, I had a responsibility to set an 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.”
Almost 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 occupy an emblematic position in a society rendered radically unstable by the bandit capitalism of the post-Soviet period. Like Russian history, the country’s literary legacy is always being tugged in different directions. No writer, at present, is being tugged in more directions than Victor Pelevin, 38, a laconic, shaven-headed semi-recluse with a fashionable interest in Zen meditation and an attachment to dark glasses.
Even in a society where pulp fiction has never been more popular and where literary fiction is now seldom read by more than a tiny elite, Pelevin has emerged as that unusual thing: a genuinely popular serious writer. His most committed readers-who post his novels on the internet, and swap his books at nightclubs as if they were samizdat-are the disaffected young, who must see something of the surrealism of their own post-Soviet lives reflected in the mirror of his cool, glazed, ironic prose. “Pelevin has become a kind of spokesman for our generation,” says Katya Loktova, a 19-year-old student at Moscow State University. “He’s the only writer who seems to be writing about the way we live today, with all its problems, absurdities and heartaches.” 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 Nato’s intervention in Yugoslavia-but I’m asked about sex and Ecstasy.”