The announcement of a new novel by the Russian author Victor Pelevin has become an ever more depressing event in recent years. Over the past decade or so, the once-brilliant wit and creator of an idiosyncratic brand of postmodern political satire has churned out a book a year with a kind of mechanical regularity, rehashing his old novels with scarcely concealed boredom. Of the numerous novels he has penned in the 2000s and 2010s, only The Sacred Book of the Werewolf and possibly Empire V bear comparison with The Clay Machine-Gun, the pseudo-Buddhist philosophical tragi-farce which captured the atmosphere of the Russian Nineties better than any other work and Generation P, a biting political phantasmagoria which foresaw the Putin era.
Pelevin’s latest offering, The Warden, comprises two volumes and is simultaneously like and unlike his previous books. In all his novels, the plot reaches its conclusion when the protagonist departs into the reality of the void — into “Inner Mongolia”, the “Rainbow Stream” or other suchlike nirvanas brought into being by the power of his or her mind. In The Warden, however, the protagonist, Alex, inhabits such a construct from the very outset. This is the Idyllium, conjured up in the late 18th century by the imagination of three mystical geniuses: Emperor Paul I of Russia, Franz Anton Mesmer, the Austrian physician and originator of the theory of animal magnetism, and America’s Benjamin Franklin.
In many of Pelevin’s novels, an unremarkable protagonist becomes master of the world by force of circumstances. Much the same thing happens here. Alex gains control over the energies of the Fluid, from which everything in the world, or at least in the Idyllium, is composed; he converses with angels, creates a Siberia by the sheer power of his imagination and vanquishes the ancient, sworn enemy of the Idyllium. Finally, at the novel’s climax, he conjures a new heaven and makes a Faustian choice between the instantaneous and the eternal.
But there’s one oddity. This is the first novel by Pelevin to be devoid of any political context. His Idyllium isn’t mapped onto contemporary Russia in any way. Perhaps only the gadgets that merely imitate “Old Earth” technology but are actually powered by angelic grace can be interpreted as a none-too-funny parody of the current Russian ideology of import substitution. Needless to say, the writer is doing as he sees fit, and it would be absurd to reproach him for the fact that his novel fails to conform to popular expectation. In Pelevin’s particular case, however, the lack of any political context must have required a monumental effort on the part of the author given that political satire has always been his greatest forte. And yet it seems unlikely that the Pelevin of today has written a two-volume novel only to stifle the political writer within. The reason might stem from more than the author’s desire to prove to himself and to others that, far from being straitjacketed by current affairs, he is capable of writing “for the ages”.
The Warden, oddly enough, constitutes a rare case of a modern utopia. Pelevin’s protagonist has managed to create a parallel reality which, though woven from cultural and religious quotations, is nonetheless possessed of an undoubted vitality and, most importantly, enjoys autonomy from the flow of earthly history. Alex successfully negotiates each of his trials and asserts his power over the Idyllium. Despite coming into an awareness of the illusory nature not only of the latter, but also of his own personality, Alex never develops the desire to return to the reality of “Old Earth”.
A postmodern collage of different cultural traditions and contexts, the Idyllium is reminiscent, more than anything else, of the esoteric and occult literature section of any large Russian bookshop. And yet, the titanic dimensions of these esoterica sections would seem to suggest that an escape from politics into the occult is itself not devoid of political significance. (The same goes for the political role played in today’s Russia by Orthodox and imperial esoterica, à la the Night Wolves biker gang).
In point of fact, Pelevin himself has long been writing about the links between politics and occult “spiritual practices”, starting from Generation P, in which it turns out that the figures who control Russia’s media space — and, through it, the country’s politics and economy — belong to the secret society of the Chaldeans, whose roots go back to ancient Mesopotamia. Esoteric and political discourses in contemporary Russia, as evidenced by these novels, have a common thrust: tending toward the illusion of total power, they are founded on a conspiratorial conception of reality — on the firm conviction that there are hidden forces behind all things, and that we must either vanquish these forces or else join their ranks.
Curiously enough, it’s precisely this kind of involved utopian fantasy that — perhaps contrary to Pelevin’s own wishes — takes on the dimension of a political metaphor in the current social context. Replace “Old Earth” with the no less nebulously frightening “West”, and the panorama of the Idyllium depicted by Pelevin metamorphoses into a portrait of the collective imaginary offered up by contemporary Russian politics. From the regime’s cynical practices to the figure of the Other — that which is socially, nationally and culturally divergent from that of “our own” — this imaginary excludes almost everything that comprises Russian sociality.
Insulated from reality, the Idyllium becomes an ersatz for the universe, an abstraction of all its requisite features. Oriental mysticism is intermingled with European occultism of the 18th and early 19th centuries, monastic rituals with their masonic counterparts, and Pelevin’s brand of Buddhism with mystical interpretations of modern virtual reality.
The combination of the beliefs that the “other” is only a reflection (distorted or imperfect) of what is “mine”, and, simultaneously, that “my world” encompasses all the diversity of existence — this is, in fact, the formula of imperial consciousness. Pelevin’s Idyllium, therefore, represents an imperial imaginary raised to the level of philosophical utopia. Escape from politics leads only to its “cleansing” of cynicism, villainy and blood. A better filter than metaphysics for such an undertaking would be difficult to find.
In other words, Pelevin remains a political writer even as he strives to get away from politics. This time round, however, satire is displaced by utopia. Pelevin has, without realising it himself, metamorphosed from the most mordant critic of the contemporary cultural-political regime into its promoter.
Pelevin’s transformation is emblematic of the current situation. The underground’s detachment from politics in the 1970s and 80s represented an important political gesture — a rejection of the rigidity of consciousness characteristic both of officialdom and the dissident movement. The writer Vladimir Sorokin has said: “I was influenced by the Moscow underground, where it was common to be apolitical. This was one of our favorite anecdotes: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat there and drew an apple. That was our attitude — you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you.” It would appear that The Warden is reviving this cultural position, and that, to a certain extent, it even represents a manifesto of sorts.
Ultimately, however, the novel showcases a major difference between today’s political climate and Soviet-era politics. In Soviet times, politics and culture (and unofficial culture in particular) really did exist in different coordinate systems. Today, conversely, the regime is translating what has long been firmly rooted in Russian — and especially post-Soviet — cultural identity, into aggressive policy including, above all, the imperial imaginary. It’s no accident that today’s political change of course crystallised around the time of the Pussy Riot trial: imperialist aggression and anti-Western isolationism in contemporary Russia represents a battle for “our” cultural values. But one waged “by other means”. Which is why it’s impossible to escape from this politics into the Idyllium of culture. For it is precisely there that this politics begins.