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Babylon is Kafka, Bulgakov and Philip K Dick rolled into 1
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.