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Arts: Prophet of the absurd

A pig who goes to the moon. A soldier who tells the future through his buttocks. Victor Pelevin's satirical novels of post-Soviet Russia are bestsellers - and have made him the reluctant heir apparent to Gogol.
Victor Pelevin is the future of the Russian novel. His satires take the temperature of post-Soviet Russia, in all its amoral, dystopian chaos. The Clay Machine-Gun, just translated into English, has sold more than 200,000 copies on its native territory. Generation P, recently published, has shifted 70,000 in less than a month, and sits proudly at the top of the bestseller list. In a reading culture where the stock-market rating of literary fiction has never been lower, he is a phenomenal blip.

In Russia, this sort of pre-eminence brings with it a practically official position, like the patriarch of the orthodox church. Pelevin ought to be apprenticed to the prophet Solzhenitsyn, making ready to take over as the conscience of the motherland, in the footsteps of Yevtuschenko, Gorky and Tolstoy. He should also be a household face. But here he is, freshly landed in London, doing what he never does on home turf. He's giving an interview, and having his picture taken.

In The Clay Machine-Gun, Pelevin takes a hilarious swipe at the cult of literary celebrity. We're in the middle of nowhere in the civil war of 1919. One night, a ramshackle branch of communist irregulars are entertained by a soldier who can tell the future by talking through the cheeks of his posterior. Pyotr, Pelevin's narrator, sees in his gift a grim prophecy for the future of the arts. "Poems will only be considered interesting if it is known on the basis of sound documentary evidence that their author has two pricks, or at the very least, that he is capable of reciting them through his arse."

The novel commutes between 1919, with Russia in revolutionary turmoil, and 1991, with Russia in counter-revolutionary turmoil. Its cautionary structure invites the reader to be aware that "a culture constantly reproduces the same forms". Thus Pyotr's fears for literature at the birth of Communism remain just as current after the death of Communism. "Poetry ceased to exist," says Pelevin of the coming of the free market. "Then only pulp started to sell. First it was Western pulp, and then Russians started to produce their own pulp, which is much worse, actually." With writers now having to flog themselves in bookshops and on television, Pelevin's choice has been to withdraw entirely from domestic promotional chores and abstain from the babel of public discourse.

"For me it's just more convenient. For some reason it's believed that writers are interesting as persons. I don't think that I'm an interesting person. When you are asked what you think about this and that, in 90 per cent of cases you don't think anything about it at all." He has even fallen into the habit of visiting a monastery in Korea for weeks at a time to empty his mind of that final 10 per cent. I ask him when, with his atheist upbringing, he discovered Buddhism. "Oh. I think a couple of lives ago."

Hence the sunglasses. "I am naturally shy. I hate physical attention. It's torture. I am wearing these sunglasses because it's the only way to be photographed without being photographed." It makes him look like a character from A Life of Insects, his novel set in a Black Sea holiday camp in which a ragbag of low-lifers - tarts, tramps, pushers - mutate back and forth into varieties of insect.

Pelevin is at a loss to explain his popularity. "I just write books that I would like to read myself. Reading and writing is actually the same process. When you write you are just the first reader. Perhaps my taste just coincided with the taste of the majority." But it's clear that his finger-on-the-pulse iconoclasm appeals to the perestroika generation, who have only ever known freedom of speech (Pelevin has an unfashionable admiration for Gorbachev). In Generation P, all politicians are computer- generated images, "like Max Headroom, but on very sophisticated machines".

Pelevin's engagement with the apparatus and imagery of low-brow culture has infuriated the critical pharisees who zealously protect the Russian literary tradition. "This is bullshit about the great Russian tradition, because if there is any Russian literary tradition it is a constant denial of everything that was done before, and that's how it develops." Having said that, with his surreal fusion of oriental and sci-fi, there's no mistaking Pelevin's place in the absurdist pantheon alongside Gogol and Bulgakov ("a genius").

In Omon Ra, his first novel to gain international attention, Pelevin dissected the Party's lunatic fringe in a story about a hog whose ambition is to travel to outer space. "I realised once and for ever that only weightlessness could give man genuine freedom," says the hog, and pretty soon he's drafted by the Soviet space programme to man an "unmanned" one-way mission to the dark side of the moon. It's a marvellous fable about the lies disseminated in the name of ideology, and the involuntary heroes that ideologues thrust upon innocents.

As the son of a military officer, Pelevin grew up among defenders of the faith, although he says "no one believed in the ideology". His father, who died this February, was a colonel in air defence, and Pelevin spent the summers of his childhood on a Moscow army base. "I really loved the place actually. It was like a big playground full of soldiers." Though you could mistake him for a squaddie, with his cropped hair and combat trousers, he didn't love army life so much that he wanted to join up himself. To avoid military service, he enlisted at the age of 15 at the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering, and with the resultant qualifications found himself working on a project to protect Mig fighters from tropical insects. "We spent two or three months in so-called military camps playing cards and smoking dope. Sometimes they took you to an airfield where you would relax by lying on the wing of some fighter. I guess I killed a couple of insects one summer lying on the wing."

He took up writing in his mid- twenties - he is now 36 - because "I didn't want to go to work every morning. Literature is the kind of art where you're left absolutely on your own. If you grew up in a communist society it's normal that you get so many psychic traumas that it makes it hard for you to communicate with other people. You have a lot of complexes. You are crippled by the time you are grown up. Writing helps you to cure yourself. It's like those long-distance runners who can't stop running because their bodies start to produce a drug. At first it's an effort and then it provides you with the shortest access to endorphins. You get high, start to laugh, and become very friendly to other people."

The Clay Machine-Gun was published three years ago, and yet there's no overlooking its relevance to the latest imbroglio in Yugoslavia, although Pelevin wouldn't dream of saying this back home. "The Serbs talk about this great Slavic brotherhood every time they are in trouble. In 1914 Russia got involved in war because of some killing in Sarajevo. After that Russia had a revolution and 70 years of communism. It was the direct result. I hope that the people in Russia are not total idiots. I hope that they remember some lessons. There's something really terrible about war in Europe - it sounds strange. But war has its own engine. You never know what will happen next." Spoken like a true Russian prophet.

`The Clay Machine-Gun', Faber and Faber and Harbord, pounds 9.99.

Victor Pelevin is appearing at the Brighton Festival on Saturday at 8pm in Pavilion Theatre, New Road

The opening chapter of `The Clay Machine-Gun'

TVERSKOI BOULEVARD was exactly as it had been when I last saw it, two years before. Once again it was February, with snowdrifts everywhere and that peculiar gloom which somehow manages to infiltrate the very daylight. The same old women were perched motionless on the benches; above them, beyond the black latticework of the branches, there was the same grey sky, like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping god.

Some things, however, were different. This winter, the avenues were scoured by a blizzard straight off the steppes, and I should not have been in the least surprised to have come face to face with a pair of wolves during the course of my walk. The bronze Pushkin seemed a little sadder than usual - no doubt because his breast was covered with a red apron bearing the inscription "Long Live The First Anniversary Of The Revolution". I felt not the slightest inclination for ironical comment on the fact that the tears were intended for an event which could not by definition last longer than a single day...