Victor Pelevin's new work gives a novel twist (if not a good hard yank) to the genre of the sex- worker's memoir. A Hu-Li is rather more than a foxy call-girl working the business community of contemporary Moscow's exorbitant hotels. She is, in fact, a fox (although let's use words such as "fact" guardedly around Pelevin), and "a virtuous fox must support herself only by prostitution".
This can be hazardous. A Hu-Li's last client, a Sikh investor, went berserk at the unexpected sight of her resplendent brush, and jumped from a fifth-floor window. Her tail operates like an antenna. When unfurled, it creates "a kind of sympathetic resonance with somebody else's consciousness", which allows her to direct the client's experiences by hypnotic suggestion. The bewitched client acts out his fantasy of sex, stimulated by A Hu-Li. He recalls nothing of her tail unless she falls asleep mid-coitus, and reality (another slippery term) floods back.
A Hu-Li places a saucy internet advert that brings her to senior FSB cadre Comrade Lieutenant General Alexander Sery – who, on arousal, transmogrifies into a wolf. A Hu-Li has enjoyed several millennia of preying on human lusts, but Alexander is her first lupine ravishment. In keeping with her masquerade as a cultured teenage whore, she dresses as Little Red Riding Hood underpinned by sexy lingerie, as "an ironic postmodern comment on what was happening".
Pelevin aficionados will glide joyously into the postmodernity of this supernatural love affair, which fuses philosophical discourse with lascivious and semantic game-playing. There's plenty of intellectual fun here, from the sport of hunting English aristocrats to the idea of howling a demonic plea into the night to summon oil from a near-spent field.
Much of Pelevin's work (energetically translated by Andrew Bromfield) has used surreal landscapes in a playful exploration of epistemology. In an early story, Alexander-as-werewolf offered a loose allegory for the Russian soul. Here, the brisk chaos of Pelevin's narrative crashes the voracious vitality of the werewolf into the carapace of a spiritually beleaguered Russia. As the were-lovers' affair intensifies, Pelevin's tone of mischievous entertainment gives way to a sparring that weighs down the perky satire of his plotting. The recurrent metaphor of a society consuming itself snipes at Putin's tattered social fabric, but the core strength of Pelevin's writing is its unruly, suggestive energy.
Trans Andrew Bromfield, Faber, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897Reuse content