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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 28 May 2001
Russian writer Victor Pelevin is the wunderkind of young Russian literature; when everybody despairs about the condition of modern literature in the country of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the only new Russian novels available are exploitative trash in the tradition of Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins, Pelevin is the one that brings hope back to weary and cynical literary critics. 39-year-old Pelevin has been writing his own peculiar kind of science fiction absurdism for the better part of a decade now, and he is widely popular among critics, young readers, and Internet users. Babylon is the fourth of his novels to be translated into English so far; The Clay Machine-Gun, Omon Ra, and The Life of Insects have all previously been released to critical acclaim in the West.
Babylon follows the strange adventures of Tatarsky, a disillusioned young man in the drab days of post-Communist Moscow. As Tatarsky unexpectedly falls into the world of advertising, he finds himself enjoying the process of transforming Western ad campaigns into Russian formats. Slowly but surely, reality as he knows it begins to disintegrate in front of his eyes, and he is not certain whether this is a result of the powerful hallucinogenic drugs he consumes on occasion, or whether Russia has simply become a world with no apparent logic or sanity. Meanwhile, he is getting some helpful hints from the ghost of Che Guevara, who is now a Buddhist ghost (albeit with Freudian ideas about historical materialism), communicating via ouija boards.
It is rather easy to spot the influences in Pelevin's novels: Kafka, Bulgakov, and Philip K Dick just to name the most obvious predecessors. The absurdity of the situations that Tatarsky finds himself involved in are indeed reminiscent of Bulgakov's comic masterpiece The Master and Margarita. Furthermore, the black humour and seemingly endless series of trivial yet frightening obstacles on the path toward completion of a process bring back notions of Kafkaesque comedy (particulary The Castle). Philip K Dick is frequently evoked in the anti-capitalist satire and in the literary approach to sci-fi existentialism.
However, Pelevin's style is his own, and Babylon oscillates wildly between satiric depiction of the shallow world of advertising (often the strongest parts of the novel), and theoretical expositions on the nature of greed and human stupidity in a capitalist society. Not that Pelevin should be seen as a nostalgic socialist: he ridicules the rigidity and lack of free thought under party rule as viciously as he lashes out against the current regime. The conclusion of the novel features an idea as brilliant as it is absurd; for fear of ruining the pleasure of reading Pelevin, it shall not be revealed here. Suffice to say, you will look very carefully at the next photo you see of Boris Yeltsin.
Reviewed by Lars Andersson.
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on 13 June 2001
Babylon contains within it one the funniest and perceptive critiques of our media-advertising age that I have ever read. Tatarasky somehow contacts Che Guevara via ouija board, and accesses a report on a growing organism called ORANUS which has developed a primative nervous system called the media, this in turn transmits 3 types of impulse, oral, anal and displacing wow-impulses. The oral wow-impulse causes cells (humans transformed to homozapiens through television)to ingest money in order to relieve self suffering brought about by the conflict of the self image and the ideal super self generated by advertising. The anal impulse induces elimination of money. I'll leave you to discover the rest for yourself, but Pelevin develops this premise in this short section and somehow manages to satirise EVERYTHING in only ten pages. This is only one aspect of this very well written and inventive novel. It stands alongside 'money', 'crash', 'fight club', 'dice man', 'atomised' and 'american psycho' as a modern classic.
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on 10 January 2011
Unfortunately, this marvelous book by Pelevin has been censored and presented in a misleading way! I give it one star because of this, otherwise it deserves 5.

Already in the first chapter there is a whole page missing. It talks a bit further about Pepsi and Coca cola, apes, evolution, advertisement, the American religious right and so on. There are a few jokes about all those entities, so what? Goodness me, are we living in times when corporations and politicians have power over everything and everyone and even jokes are not allowed? I wonder how much more has been cut out?

Why none of the western critics, writing reviews does not mention that the majority of themes in the book are above certain nationality and are closely related to all humanity, especially the West?
Homo Zapiens is a concept that arose in the western style of living (check out the excellent documentary by the BBC "The century of self" if you wonder what I am talking about).
True, the plot device Pelevin uses - to present all this via the "eyes" of the changing political and economical landscape of post-soviet Russia - adds tons of fun and hilarity. But that's it. It is just a device, not the mean theme of the book.

If I look at the back cover, the praise for the book again misses the point by a mile and emphasizes on the plot device rather than the ideas. The message is clear - what you are going to read has nothing to do with you or your society; it is all about this crazy place, Russia. Nothing to worry about! All is well on the western front!

I purchased this book to evaluate the translation, because some of my friends in the west would like to read modern Russian literature. I never imagined that I'd encounter censorship! Coming from a former communist country I was misled to believe that such things do not happen in the "free world". I never imagined that the self-appointed advocates of freedom are so keen on hushing the voices of the artists.

What a loss for all of you, who cannot read Russian! And by the way, the book was NOT censored in my post-communist East-European country, a country that is defined in the west as "backwater, third rate democracy". Really!! I wonder how long this opinion of mine will stay posted. How long before the lawyers of Pepsi and Coca-cola or other authorities start calling Amazon?

In Russia, the book became cult, but naturally the powers to be did not like it at all. And how would they, since Tarkovski states very clear that the only way he sees for Russia is a strong authoritarian hand that will re-vitalize the pan-Slavic dream and will put heavy emphasis on patriotism. Hmm, does it remind you of something/someone in the recent years?

So, the billion-dollar question - what is the difference between east and west has its answer. When it comes to abuse of power, propaganda and manipulation there is no difference. None at all. We are all Homo Zapiens.

For shame, people!!
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on 15 May 2000
A western European visiting Moscow for the first time can find themselves both beguiled and bedazzled by the heady mix of post Soviet hangover - revolutionary murals in the metro, futurist statues of Uri Gagarin etc - and the exploding consumer culture. It is this Moscow that the western reader finds in a Victor Pelevin novel and perhaps explains why he has increasingly beguiled and bedazzled them. You don't find this in the guide books!
In Babylon, Pelevin explores the world of the Russian advertiser, the world of the exploiter and the exploited. Babylen Tatarsky, an ex-academic and budding mystic, who stopped writing poetry at the collapse of communism, has instead turned his flair for words to the creation of advertising slogans for the corrupt New Russian businessmen eager to fleece the young generation-p (Pepsi).
The familiar brands are given a makeover, made deeply Russian for the unsuspecting masses. Reading this devastating and allegorical satire it is easy to understand why Pelevin is sometimes considered the Bulgakov of his generation. The journey to advertising copy-writing nirvana takes in magic mushroom trips, an encounter with Rasputin as a dealer in mind-expanding drugs, Chechen gangsters, and 'comparative positioning'. Drugs, communism, and advertising; Pelevin makes it clear these are all agents that wash the brain and distort reality. Pelevin revisits the themes he seems obsessed with - eastern mysticism, societal alienation, the ghost of the soviet - whilst crafting a novel that is more accessible than previous efforts such as The Clay Machine Gun and The Life of Insects, but not at the expense of his black humour and surrealist twist on the everyday.
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on 16 March 2003
Victor Pelevin has done a masterful job of explaining what goes on in the minds of people we view as intelligent, or eccentric, and then exploring the potential ramifications that entail from those deep thoughts. He holds no punchs, exploring metaphysics through the life, thougths and actions of Tatarsky. Tatarsky rides a carousel of drugs, advertising, vodka and buddhism, all the while he is enlightened by Che Guevara. If you love to be entertained by intelligent people whose ideas scare you, read this book and enjoy!
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on 8 June 2000
This man has inherited the Crown of the Grotesque from Bulgakov, married it to Gogol's absurdist might and coagulated a literary legacy which spans Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Kafka's 'Castle', Kundera and Calvino.
He combines considerable humour and interpretative nous to expose the significant shortcomings and explore the ultimate direction of post-Soviet capitalism and, by extension, the modern world, soaked in materialism and oblivious to the philosophical-spiritual sphere which underlies Pelevin's fiction. (The corruption engendered by Yeltsin's rule and depicted in 'Babylon' may prove far more damaging than the halving of GNP which he presided over...)
Lamentable only is the exaggerrated use of such time-worn tricks as ouija boards and narcotics abuse, to which Pelevin is forced to resort to achieve the necessary inspiration and motivation in his characters, thereby displaying, in comparison to Dostoevsky (to whom he makes duly reverent reference) a distinct psychological ineptitude.
Throughout this novel and the suspension of disbelief it induces, the insistent thought recurs, as with Franceschini's 'La donna della Piazza Rossa': could it really be true? Did Pelevin really know about the Nike suicide ad - subsequently barred? (Answers via a subconscious brand-positioning broadcast, please.)
Despite overt references to and rich imagery borrowed from it, this work pales into insignificance, however, when placed alongside the source of all Truth, the Bible itself.
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on 20 April 2000
This book is a must for anyone involved in, or interested in the industry. Not the easiest read in the world, but an intelligent, witty depiction of Mass Media and Post-Communist Russia.
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on 17 June 1999
This is a brilliant book, full of peculiar humour. The Author gives a wonderful inside picture of Russian mass-media. Pelevin is a master of mind-tricks, after finishing this book, you start having doubts, which world is more real - the one you live in or the world behind TV screen. Those who worked in advertising will adore it.
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on 9 February 2017
Atmospheric. Not always easy to follow. Puts me inside a way of thinking that is very foreign to me and that's what I like most about it.
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on 19 April 2000
I enjoyed reading the both versions of Pelevin's book -- in Russian and in English. The novel gives an unusual view on what is going in Russia today. Though sometimes the author uses too much of mysticism to explain the reality, his excellent sense of humour makes the novel an exciting reading.
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