Sunday 09 March 1997
Victor Pelevin first captured our attention two years ago with Omon Ra, a stunning space fantasy about Real Soviet Men conquering the psychic void of the Communist future. His second novel inhabits another brilliantly conceived space, a rundown Soviet holiday-camp on the Black Sea where a cast of racketeers, mystics, dope-heads and prostitutes interchange with the most repulsive specimens of insect life.
The holiday atmosphere highlights the darkness of this world, the tiny insect eyes, the powerful jaws dripping blood and ripping off old skin, the capacity to kill or suck dry, to be blown away or crushed.
Their stories are revealed in flashes of light like the strobes on the holiday-camp's dance-floor, which reveal not people but a heap of dead statues from the country's Gorky parks and pioneer camps. A trio of mosquito gangsters preparing for a big scam take "samples" from "clients" and worry about losing touch with the "great Russian mother-skin". Marina, the recently landed ant-girl, dressed identically to all the other recently landed ant-girls, holes in her blouse where the wings were, fights for food and waits for a warrior-ant to come along and impregnate her. A father dung- beetle initiates his son into dung-beetledom by handing him lumps of shit for his own sacred sphere, then dies when the ball becomes big enough for the boy to roll himself.
Pelevin won Russia's 1993 Little Booker Prize with his first collection of stories. Before becoming a writer, he worked as an engineer on a project to protect MiG fighter planes from insect interference in tropical conditions. The Life of Insects marvels at entomology - the peculiar light-effects of the moth world, the mosquito's efficient proboscis and inconveniently arranged mouth organs, the bat's lethally accurate radar.
Frissons of fear alternate with laughter, and any ideas about a reasonless, emotionless insect existence are subverted by scenes of exhausting physical endurance, painful isolation and grotesque humour. Two dope-head hemp- bugs philosophically admire their stash; next moment they are packed into a joint by a mosquito and expire in an explosion of pops. Burrowing through the earth to his new life when he will sing, a cicada discovers American trainers, a huge toilet with a long-distance flush control, and "a girl friend whom he unearths completely for rare conversations on subjects close to his heart". There is an aching eroticism about the account of a fly and a mosquito mating, all swelling probosces, damp membranous abdomens and trembling wings.
Andrew Bromfield's fluent translation captures the spikey imagery of the oppressive grey holiday camp, its back turned to the sea "as though at the behest of some crazed fairy-tale conjuror"; the woman in white nurse's coat sitting beside a set of weighing scales that looked like a small gallows; the moon as "Lenin's light-bulb"; the dance-floor from a height like a large open flower, constantly changing its colour.
Pelevin has rediscovered Karel Capek's classic Insect Play and rewritten it as a delirious cyberpunk fantasy about a nightmare future Russia. Like Capek's marching soldiers, smug burghers and philistines, Pelevin's creatures scurry with effortless ease between the human and insect worlds, showing us the blood-lust that makes human intelligence hideous and hinting at other lives being lived elsewhere.
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