Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Doors of Deception: Pelevin’s Burning Bush

In a recent email conversation, a colleague and I talked about Viktor Pelevin not being my cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa… that was before I read Операция «Burning Bush» (Operation “Burning Bush”), the first piece in Pelevin’s Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (Pineapple Water for the Fair Lady). Burning Bush, like Omon Ra before it (previous post), didn’t turn me into a Pelevin fanatic, but the novella does—continuing with the drink theme—serve up some interesting glasses of kvass.

Kvass tank, 1997.
I don’t like kvass in real life, but I can’t help but appreciate the literary kvass served up in Burning Bush because Pelevin slips in an acid mickey: our first-person narrator, Semyon Levitan, is recruited for a special FSB project that requires training time—lots of training time—spent in a sensory deprivation chamber. While tripping on acid his FSB master puts in his kvass. Part of what makes this novella fun is that it involves none other than George W. Bush: Levitan’s initial mission is to speak, as God, with Bush through an implant in Bush’s tooth. Don’t worry, Levitan is an English teacher who’s more than capable of chatting with Bush.

I haven’t read a lot of Pelevin but I certainly recognized elements that felt like spillovers from Omon Ra: strange secret government programs that require strange secret training and result in strange secret deceptions. There’s also a spiritual element that plays off Daniil Andreyev’s Роза мира (The Rose of the World), a book I’ve never read. Someone once gave it to me as a gift but it got lost in transit somewhere between Moscow and Maine, in an ill-fated box that also contained Lolita, The Brothers Karamazov, and materials about evaluating NGO projects. I hope everyone’s coexisting somewhere in peace. The important thing here is that the references to Andreyev involve Stalin and Satan.

Pelevin generally tends to lose me somewhere, to some degree, and Burning Bush is no exception: I thought the novella worked best before Pelevin began referencing The Rose of the World. The problem isn’t so much that I hadn’t read Andreyev—there’s a chunk of text in Burning Bush, I’d already heard about The Rose of the World, and it’s easy to find background online—but that Pelevin’s use of Andreyev felt a little too heavy-handed to me as a part of the story, even though the Satan element itself fits just fine. I generally seem to think Pelevin’s satire and descriptions of twisted but almost realistic contemporary situations and characters are the best aspects of his books, so I was pleased Burning Bush is a more restrained piece than some others I’ve read—Numbers comes to mind—and doesn’t implode by getting too outlandish too fast.

Which is to say it was the light, fun stuff that made Burning Bush good evening reading material after some long work days. There was plenty to enjoy: Levitan’s ability to imitate voices, the very thought of someone chatting with Bush through Bush’s tooth, fun references to Russian poetry, Tony Blair, and American political and pop culture, including Pulp Fiction, which is wildly popular in Russia. Speaking of “light,” I’ve purposely gone light on some of the details in Burning Bush in case the novella is ever translated into English.

A Note on the NatsBest: The National Bestseller award is back, with new sponsorship from film company United Partnership and the television channel 2x2. The seven-member jury that will choose the winner includes two representatives from the new sponsors and two writers: Sergei Zhadan, whose Voroshilovgrad (previous post) I read in Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation, and Aleksandr Terekhov, who won last year’s NatsBest for Germans. This year’s winner will be announced on June 2.

Level for Nonnative Readers of Russian: 2.0 out of 5.0, though the book may have felt easier than it is because of the humor.

Russian Name: Виктор Пелевин

Up Next: I’m not sure! NatsBest, perhaps a mishmash of short stories or Leonid Iuzefovich’s Prince of the Wind… or letter S favorite writers…

Image Credit: Kvas vendor, 1997, in Kaliningrad/Königsberg/Koenigsberg, from MicHael Galkovsky, via Wikipedia. I remember seeing these kvass tanks on the street!


  1. You don't like kvass? What a shame... I don't know about other corners of Russia, but the streets of Petrozavodsk are graced by kvass carts all summer, and I find a cool glass of the stuff to be just the thing to refresh me on a hot afternoon.

    As for Pelevin, I've never been much of a fan of him either, but your post has got me thinking that I should give him another try. For better or worse, my judgment of his work is mainly based on "Generation П." Perhaps "Operation Burning Bush" would be a good place to start again, especially since a novella is not too big a commitment. Or can you think of another text I might dip into first?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jamie! There have been times when I've wished I liked kvass but no, I don't particularly like it, though I can eat a bowl of okroshka if it's served to me. Then I can focus on the vegetables!

      I, too, began reading Pelevin with Generation П and had very mixed feelings. I haven't read enough Pelevin to feel that I can make informed recommendations but I can say that Operation Burning Bush was recommended to me after I told a Russian colleague I often like how Pelevin starts his books but then think he gets too wild, causing the books to implode. Many people have recommended Чапаев и пустота to me and others have suggested trying earlier stories. Good luck!

    2. Jamie, I think you might like Operation Burning Bush, it is fairly light reading compared to other Pelevin's oeuvres.

  2. Lisa, I am actually a big fan of Pelevin but I can totally see how he can be too much. I really liked "Operation Burning Bush" and I think you might like "Чапаев и пустота" as well. I was in my mid-twenties when I read it and it blew my mind at the time :).

  3. Thanks for your comments on Pelevin, Steven! You're right that Burning Bush is lighter... I think that's why I liked it better than some of the other Pelevin I've read: Pelevin can do light very well, in a way that's light and funny but also dark and, I don't know, interesting.

    I'm glad for your recommendation of Чапаев, too... I have it on the shelf and am a little scared to read it because so many people have recommended it to me so highly!

  4. Lisa, just wanted to bring this author to your attention - Роман Шмараков, I downloaded his books and am going to read them when I get some free time.

    1. Thank you for the tip, Steven -- I'll be waiting for your book report! ))) He sounds like he could be very interesting... just the start of this ЖЖ, saying Shmarakov is easy to read but difficult to write about, is a good start for me since I seem to gravitate to writers of that ilk. Thanks!

  5. Hi Lisa! Forgot to comment on this one when I read it... I, too, struggle with Pelevin. Every book looks right up my alley, but then once I try it my eyes glaze over. I currently have The Sacred Book of the Werewolf on the pile of books I've stalled out on, and I also stalled out on Omon Ra years back (though I was reading it in Russian, which stalls me out quicker than in translation).

    I'll have to try Burning Bush. I have liked some of his stories, several in Werewolf Problem in Central Russia.

    1. Greetings, Andrea G.! Thanks for checking in on Pelevin... yes, that's the thing: it looks perfect (or even starts off beautifully) then it glazes me over, too. Burning Bush generally worked pretty well for me, though I may also be feeling more comfortable in Pelevin's world after trying more and more of his books.

      Anyway, good luck!