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Russian Cult Novelist Makes Long Awaited Return

Biktor PelevinViktor Pelevin, 41, the idol of Russia's reading youth and a writer who has achieved some fame in the West has published his first book in five years, TPD (nn), or Transition Period Dialectics: Out of Nowhere to Nowhere. It is divided into two parts, Numbers (Chisla) and Life (Zhizn), with the former being the centrepiece.

Numbers has had a bad press. After waiting for such a long time, the critics had anticipated a masterpiece, but the story did not live up to their expectations.

Pelevin became a cult author ten years ago, with the bitter satire, The Life of Insects (translated into English by Andrew Bromfield), in which humans turn into beetles, bugs, mosquitoes and other tiny creatures. Written in young people's slang, the witty and, at times, sarcastic story describes the morals of the eponymous insects as a model of human life. The author did not win fame at once, as his books were merely passed from hand to hand, and he kept an extraordinarily low profile. However, his next two novels, Chapayev and Pustota, and Generation P (released in English as Buddha's Little Finger and Babylon, both translated by Andrew Bromfield), were sensations. As a biting satirist and moralist, Pelevin wrote both books in the language of a computer that has fallen into the hands of a Tibetan monk. The mix of exotic Oriental philosophy and digital thinking with pervasive black humour created the Pelevin phenomenon.

The former Moscow Power Engineering Institute post-graduate's books became manuals for Russia's young people to see the world in a different light. Pelevin's macabre sarcasm reaches its peak in Numbers, which has become a best seller despite its relatively high price of 200 rubles (30 rubles equal roughly one dollar and the average hardback is sold for about 100 rubles). The tone is set by the book's cover, which can now be seen all over the Moscow metro, which features a collage of the two best-known canvases of Russian art nouveau - Vrubel's grey and muscular Demon standing with his arms around Serov's sitting Girl with Peaches. Moreover, the idyllic young lady is holding cut-glass roses instead of peaches, and her eyes are hidden behind dark glasses.

Although it makes good reading, Numbers is a bleak and biting grotesque of today's Russian life. Stepa, the young protagonist and a member of the country's nouveaux riches, owes his luck and business power to the number 34. It determines all his moves and decisions but, the greater hopes he pins on it, the worse he gets entangled in a sinister plot of the number's enemies, the diabolical servants of the number 43.

Binga the clairvoyant - based on the famous Bulgarian prophetess Vanga - tells Stepa he will die at the fatal age of forty-three unless he defeats his mystical lunar twin. It takes the hero half the novel to track him down and, better late than never, identify the Enemy as a certain Skarandayev. A minor banker like himself, the man has an immoral painting in his office depicting a soldier defecating into the open hatch of a legendary Soviet T-34 tank.

In an attempt to kill his twin, Stepa gets hold of a fountain pen pistol and hides it inside a vibrator, before becoming Skandarayev's homosexual lover. However, in one fatal moment, the pen suddenly activates and blows Skandarayev to pieces. Stepa, though, never gets the chance to celebrate his victory, as his heterosexual friend Mius - a reference to Chekhov's heroine Misyus - robs him, and the penniless hero is forced to flee Russia. The novel abruptly finishes at that point, as if the author has already had enough of it.

This embittered caricature of new Russia offers no end of household figures being parodied. Although the front page features Pelevin's ironic warning that all the characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental, readers can recognise the chatterbox Chubaika as the young reformer Anatoly Chubais, and the bombastic Zyuzya as Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. It would not take a genius to figure out that the transvestite pop singer Boris Maroseyev, who wears a purple dress for a brothel concert to match his black eye, is pop star Boris Moiseyev.

Pelevin is a magician of the language, somehow combining slang, expletives and English borrowings. In essence, he ridicules the form, and not the content of our times.

This work is the equivalent of Jermonius Bosch's medieval painting, The Ship of Fools, whose crew and passengers embody avarice, lust and folly. There are storm clouds on the horizon, though, and the rickety vessel is destined to be sent to the depths of the ocean, and hell.

To believe Pelevin, the entire human race deserves damnation, and Russia has the worst punishment coming to it.