The heroine of this book is called A Hu-Li, a Chinese name for a Russian teenage prostitute who left China for Moscow at some point in the last thousand years. Translated into Russian, her name means, 'What the fuck'. A Hu-Li tells her this herself, as she is the book's narrator, and the text charts her journey, via a love affair with a werewolf, towards enlightenment, when she uses a BMX bike in a remote Moscow park to help propel her into the Nirvanic Rainbow Stream.
Pelevin's text is esoteric. Apart from being a treatise on the attainment of post-material enlightenment, (in the Zen Buddhist sense of that phrase), it also references, among other nodes in the contemporary zeitgeist, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, The Matrix, and Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. The narrator claims to have slept with Dostoyevsky and been an associate of Tolstoy. Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Kant and Bishop Berkeley are all name-checked, and the book also offers a comprehensive interpretation of recent Russian history.
All of which might make The Sacred Book of the Werewolf sound like a worthy, academic read, which couldn’t be further from the truth. (Although the Zen Buddhism gets intense at certain points.) A Hu-Li, clearly some kind of a cover for the book’s maverick author, is witty, irreverent and ultimately kind-hearted. She kept me great company as I travelled through old Russia, never afraid of putting the world in front of my eyes into a context that made sense to someone who’d never been there before.
Pelevin’s agendas range all over the place. He critiques the evolution of the new Russian oligarchy, with its thirst for oil, whilst offering his readers simple readings of Buddhist aphorisms (eg What’s the difference between a dog and a lion watching a stick being thrown – the dog looks at the stick, the lion at the stick’s thrower.) It’s a blend that shouldn’t really work, yet its very unlikeliness allows Pelevin to pull it off, in much the same way that his narrator conjures men into believing they have enacted their wildest fantasies with her, when she’s actually been reading Hawking the whole time. Reading Pelevin is an, at times, dazzling experience. In the face of his and his narrator’s sardonic wit and eclectic intelligence, it might be expected that the book had traded in emotional power for intellectual mind-games. However, there’s a strong (ahuman) emotional narrative at work in A Hu-Li’s story. Attaining Buddhist enlightenment might not sound like a moving endgame for a novel, but by instituting this as the finale of A Hu-Li’s narrative, Pelevin manages to make it so. When you reach the end of the book and see how it connects with the beginning, something almost magical occurs. As if all this wasn’t enough, it also offers the most intriguing account of werewolf sex you’re ever likely to find.