A shot of new Russian spirit

Victor Pelevin is the post-Soviet superstar satirist - and a devoted Zen Buddhist. Paradoxical, or what?
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The Independent Culture

Victor Pelevin chews the end off a fat Cohiba Cigar. He spits it out, inspecting the ragged, expensive stump before lighting up in contented, milky puffs. He's wearing rectangular shades - which, in the context of this execrable Stalinist hotel building off Russell Square, makes me feel as if I'm spending time with a KGB agent about to slip me a microfiche.

But Pelevin is no sinister apparatchik with a neat line in police eyewear and Castro smokes; he's the latest writer to find a comedic beat in the diurnal "tragedy of Russia". Once fêted by the New Yorker as one of "the best European novelists under 35", a Zen Buddhist Will Self of the former Evil Empire, he is more likely to write about Benzedrine than Brezhnev and Prada wearers than Pravda readers.

Though he dislikes the satirist tag, Pelevin is certainly the most significant Russian satirist since Bulgakov. As a writer, he has revitalised a moribund but magnificent Slavic novel-writing tradition, annoyed the local literary politburo with his delicious indifference, and sold one million copies of his sensationally good The Clay Machine Gun in his homeland alone.

Pelevin is briefly in London to promote Babylon (translated by Andrew Bromfield; Faber & Faber, £9.99), the story of a young man not unlike the author who gets involved in an advertising industry neck-deep in the post-Soviet morass of get-rich-quick schemes. With his customarily bizarre flair for unlikely plots, this soon devolves into a conspiracy to produce digital versions of Russian leaders for the TV-hooked public and a strange, occult secret society devoted to finding "husbands" for a Babylonian goddess.

Pelevin never gives interviews in Russia and rarely allows himself to be photographed - which, for his largely youthful fan-base, merely fans the flames of his mystique. He's like a pop star in his own country, pursued and read with a frenzy that would make Martin Amis grind those immaculate teeth with jealousy.

His books follow similar lines: long, clever riffs on post-Soviet drug-culture, consumer-culture, crime-culture. Then there's that question familiar to readers of Turgenev and Dostoevsky: is the soul of Russia Asian-Mongolian, or European-Baltic? But Victor Pelevin is different to his forbears. He's not much concerned with the faux-orientalism of Orthodox Christianity. Instead, his four novels and book of short stories are littered with ideas and practices gained from his serious study of Zen Buddhism, made in the scrapyard of a discredited politics.

After reading his work, I was vaguely expecting an anti-materialist cyberpunk. What I got was that most purely Russian of things - a paradox that defies every expectation, yet still carries on functioning. This is a serious-minded, slightly conservative man who wants to "entertain" above all, who goes on monastic retreats and yet loves little luxuries like cigars and mobile phones (his Nokia rings to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries"). This a man who is a 24-seven Zen disciple, yet whose favourite pastime is an interactive internet game "where I get to kill lots of American teenagers".

Corn-fed Kansas youths being "virtually" mown down by the son of a former lieutenant-colonel in the Red Army? Pelevin laughs. "I do it when I need some human warmth," he suggests with what may have been a wink if I could see his eyes.

His immaculately dry sense of humour proved to be very effective in our conversation - for example, when we were talking about Zen. He pointed to the flower arrangement round a central fountain in the room. "Intellectual ideas are like a bunch of flowers - you have a red idea, a blue idea." Did it make a difference if the flowers were plastic? "Now you're talking theology," he barked, rounding on me in mock disgust.

Those creepy spy sunglasses and big Mafia cigar is a bit of an act. I soon realised that Pelevin was, in fact, sweetly nervous about being interviewed. Whereas he huffily clammed up when I asked him about a conscription-avoiding job devising ways of making MIG fighters immune from insect damage ("I can't talk about it, it's classified"), he was quite revealing about his former drug experiences and his tough Buddhist disciplines.

"I found drugs quite useless in the end," he tells me as the cigar carries on it slow burn and he swills the fumes round his mouth. "I took so many because I was young, and the Fly Agaric incident in Babylon is based on my own experiences in a wood outside Moscow."

The recollection seems to pain him, but he disguises it well. "It was the most horrifying thing, I nearly went nuts on it - it takes you so far beyond the point you would normally dare to reach, and I thought I was going to die, that it was death. I took far too many, it was extremely dangerous."

These days he's drug free, swims a kilometre every day, and doesn't even drink alcohol. I mentioned I was surprised by the wealth of drug experiences he had managed in the past: surely such Class A stimulants were hard to come by during the Soviet era? "After the collapse of the Soviet Union all there was around was cannabis from the Soviet republics, but soon we had LSD and hash mixed with opium from Afghanistan and liberty caps from around St Petersburg. Then there were all the capitalist drugs like Ecstasy and cocaine."

Ecstasy a capitalist drug? "Definitely a capitalist drug, for bank clerks to have sex on," he replies. And what about cocaine? I mention that arch-libertarians Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs thought cocaine was the only drug that should be banned. "That's because they couldn't afford it," he shrugs.

I ask him if success has made him well-off. "In Russia books only sell for £1 - so a million sales in Russia is like 100,000 here. In fact, it's pretty humiliating to have become really famous without having become really rich."

The only time I really felt Pelevin relaxed was when we were on the subject of the Korean monasteries he visits every year, and has done for a decade. He recently managed a three-month retreat at one 1600-year-old site, which included nine hours of continuous meditation daily and rising from his bed at 3:15 am.

"I feel a little stupid talking about Buddhism," he opines. "I'm only a student. I'm interested in what I am, rather than in Zen Buddhism - that is the source of awareness. If you don't know that, then you don't know anything. "Zen Buddhism gives a very good answer. Stalin said if there is a man, there is a problem; if there is no man, there is no problem. I say, if there is a thought there is a problem, if there is no thought there is not a problem."

Only Pelevin could conflate the glassy-eyed butcher from Georgia with the tenets of a minimalist religion, and get away with it in some style. I tease him by saying that to his young Russian fans, he's an enigma inside a mystery.

"Yeah," he agrees, taking off his sunglasses, the inscrutable spy suddenly vanishing in a cloud of Mephistopholean smoke. "An enigma inside a mystery wrapped in a $100 bill."