What is Russia? Is it a country? Is it a state of mind? Is it a race? At a time when “Russia”, the idea of ‘Russia’ is being bandied about like a tennis ball being chased by a dog on a beach, all we truly discern is the degree of ignorance possessed about the word itself. When you’re swimming in a sea of ignorance, that is when literature can come to your assistance. No work of literature can disclose the truth about the country it emerges from, but it can help to offer some insight, at the very least. Given this, there’s no better time to read Pelevin. In the nineties, a new wave of post-Soviet writers emerged (see also Sorokin and Prilepin) who sought to capture within their writing the course their country was taking. The results are delirious, terrifying, wackily entertaining and frequently appear to be nonsensical. In other words, more than a bit like Trump-world.
There is, of course, a strand of US literature that foreshadows this. The Pynchon-Acker-Burroughs strand (there will be others who escape me). In this sense, the two sprawling superpowers have more, culturally in common, perhaps, than we tend to realise. This is a world of drugs and conspiracies and naked power. Throw in the Babylonians and you start to get a handle on Pelelvin’s early novel. It tells the story of Babe Tatarsky, (a Pynchonian name if ever there was one). Tatarsky is a no-mark who finds himself working as an advertising copywriter during the Yeltsin years, when every two-bit criminal is hoping to become the next oligarch. Boris Berezovsky appears in the novel and there are doubtless dozens of other specific references; this is a book rooted in the Moscow which formed Putin and his clique.
Pelevin follows Tatarsky as he makes his way up the greasy pole. Clients are both dangerous and endangered. All of them have criminal ties, but their life-spans are brief, as one after another is bumped off by the next man down. The copywriter’s adverts are brilliant; the objective is not so much to promote the brand as to explode it into public consciousness. The more depraved the advertising idea, the better. This is anarcho-terrorism-capitalism. (Sound familiar?) In a state of perpetual chaos, the consumer’s attention is all that counts, and nothing but the most outrageous, obscene idea will gain their attention. Truth and falsehood are ideas which are left behind. Survival and power are all that matter.
In the meantime Tatarsky is visited by the ghost of Che Guevara who offers a neo-buddhist propaganda doctrine (As someone points out to Tatarsky, the Spanish word for advertising is ‘propaganda’). He also takes copious amounts of magic mushrooms and hangs out with Chechen terrorists. Gradually, by a process of default, rather than any cunning plan, he finds himself being promoted up a nebulous Masonic chain, until he finally assumes the position of propagandist-in-chief.
At one point, Tatarsky’s role is “senior creative in the kompromat department”. The chaos that it would appear Putin’s mandate has succeeded in unleashing globally was something that was being perfected back in the nineties in Russia. Babylon describes a state which is so unhinged it can only be managed through the intercession of a cult. If Pelevin’s novel is any guide as to how that played itself out, expect more ‘American carnage’ sooner rather than later.