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The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev, translated by Carol Apollonio - book review: 'Potent post-Soviet satire with a dose of dark humour'


German Sadulaev's sprawling, unruly novel, set mainly in St Petersburg, is a blistering satire on Russia's political corruption, economic instability and moral bankruptcy. Maximus, a mid-level manager at Cold Plus, a frozen food import company, is just one cog in the giant wheel of post-Soviet capitalism. When a mysterious box of pink pills turns up in a Dutch shipment of frozen French fries, Maximus decides to sample them and so begins a hallucinogenic journey that propels him into an uncertain future.

Maximus dreams of a distant past where his ancestor, Saat, a horse-herder, becomes the Great Khagan of ancient Khazaria. This is a land where people sleepwalk miles across the steppe to vote in the elections. Their minds are "divided into different chambers, each swarming with its own political party" wittily referred to as "peehives". Later, Maximus learns that the Khazaris developed a toxic fish paste which was imported to central Europe and became a forerunner to the pink pills.

Satan opens and closes the book. The plot, such as it is, focuses on Maximus's attempts to break free from the constraints of "being an ordinary office drudge" and resist the Devil's temptations. His job title is "Leading Specialist" but as he remarks: "That's a great jumping off place for a career if you're twenty-five. For a man of thirty-five it's the kiss of death, a complete dead end." Maximus is also an aspiring writer and, in a bid to understand "what makes him tick", transports himself into the mind of his counterpart in Qingdao, Ni Guan, who is being wooed with classical Chinese poetry by a young office worker.

Sadulaev, a Russian-Chechen now living in St Petersburg, has an extraordinary imagination. His postmodern tale is a challenging, sometimes frustrating, read, but there are patterns in the chaos and at various times the reader's perseverance is richly rewarded. Sadulaev is slyly critical of Putin's authoritarian regime, describing the effects of the pink pills as "suppression of the will… and the inducement of a hallucinatory state." The passages involving Maximus's Dutch colleague, Peter, who assumes that because he is in Russia he can "purchase" a woman for half the price he'd pay in the rest of Europe, Maximus's obsession with Britney Spears and his rant about an unnamed middle-aged female pop star (Cher) are less appealing.

The Maya Pill is a potent mix of political satire and meditations on Russia's past, interspersed with vignettes about office and pop culture, mock treatises on Russian history, and meta-fictional asides. As Maximus remarks: "Books are also pills!" This one is not for the faint-hearted.