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the complete review - fiction
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
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- Russian title: Священная Книга Оборотня
- Translated by Andrew Bromfield
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B- : messy mix of the fantastical and metaphysical
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, though a lot liked how fanciful he gets
From the Reviews:
- "Werewolves ! Russia ! China ! Murder ! You would be forgiven for imagining, on the basis of the foregoing, that The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is a high-concept fantasy novel, one full of incident, since so much compelling narrative is laid out before us in the bookís early pages -- like a fine antipasto. And indeed, gussied-up SF/fantasy has been a reliable approach in Pelevinís oeuvre. But were you to believe that the novel at hand were going to pursue the death of the Sikh and its moral consequences, or even to investigate the change in Hu-Liís fortunes as a result of the murder, you would be quite mistaken." - Rick Moody, Bookforum
- "Philosophical discourse, epistemology, semantic and lubricious game-playing fuel this supernatural love affair with plenty of intellectual fun" - James Urquhart, Financial Times
- "Nur schade, daŖ Pelewins Assoziationssaltos und Kalauergirlanden, vom Werfuchsnamen A-Chuli, der auf russisch wie ein grober Fluch klingt, bis zum Staatsapparat, in dem eine Oberratte (upper rat) steckt, in der nicht nur zur Hälfte verlorengehen, sondern auch, jenseits des real existierenden Werwolfreichs, sich in Wortklaubereien verwandeln, die keine Bewußtseinssplittertheorie lebendig macht." - Kerstin Holm, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Full of tour-de-force passages such as this, and full of sex, the novel yet succeeds in not being one of those showy, sexy, cold-hearted books. The fantasy is fuelled by passion, the humour by grief." - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian
- "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. (...) 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." - James Urquhart, The Independent
- "Novels in translation are always collaborations among author, translator and editor, so it is difficult to know whose ear was out of tune on this one. But sadly, this one gaffe is symptomatic of a general dissonance. Although at times the novel comes off as a piece of erotica, more often it devolves into kitsch agitprop." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times
- "Inventive and playfully philosophical, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf pulls off a kind of magical realist balancing act. Pelevin's creatures are utterly bizarre, yet vividly so, because he gives them recognisable quirks of personality, as if to mock the reader's assumptions about reality." - Hugh Barnes, New Statesman
- "Itís an encyclopedic catalog of Pelevinís philosophical and political thought wrapped in a fairy tale: imagine Nietzscheís "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" as manga. (...) Racy, playful, thought-provoking and perverse, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf lends itself to both highlighting by the grad studentís yellow marker and under≠scoring by the thrill-seekerís red pen. (...) Itís a joy to read Pelevinís phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pairís longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Bromfieldís English text is fleet and magical." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "Victor Pelevin, one of the most exciting writers to emerge from new Russia, is torn between nostalgia and nihilism as the best way to respond to his nation's corruptions." - Olivia Laing, The Observer
- "Pelevinís dazzling vision and considerable gusto convey rare delight in his sexually charged, fecund world of self-made dreams." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "(E)equal parts biting satire on neo-Russian consumerism, drug-fuelled muckabout, sci-fi adventure, love story, literary in-joke and mystico-shamanic treatise on the nature of enlightenment. Disruptive, transporting and very funny, it's one of his best." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph
- "A sharp portrait of a corrupt and chaotic modern Russia." - Kate Saunders, The Times
- "Perhaps his latest novel, breathless in style, sounds better in the Russian. Certainly it is reliant on a variety of puns that don't translate well, despite the best efforts of Andrew Bromfield. (...) Buried amid all these words are some amusing and thought-provoking riffs on capitalist corruption, perverted Christianity, and human isolation. Zen Buddhism comes out of it well, as does love; modern life does less well, and women do better than men; Crowley remains a mystery; Murakami and Bulgakov are referenced; they come out of it better than Pelevin." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement
- "Pelevin doesn't seem to understand how his borrowing creates "bogus profundities." Or that his philosophical points would be more interesting in essay form. Or that his pacing is too slow to make the humor sparkle. Yet on the rare occasions that Pelevin dispenses with all the clutter, he demonstrates a remarkable talent that makes me want to read more of his fiction. (...) Ultimately The Sacred Book of the Werewolf fails because Pelevin just can't shut up long enough to tell his story." - Jeff VanderMeer, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In The Sacred Book of the Werewolf Victor Pelevin once again offers a bizarre premise.
But even before he gets to that there's a preface of sorts, suggesting that this text is, in fact: "a clumsy literary forgery" and not: "deserving of any serious literary or critical analysis".
Whether he merely wants to lower expectations, or likes the idea of yet another layer of literary confusion, it's almost typical of what follows as throughout the text Pelevin explicitly undermines almost every step he takes.
The manuscript is written by a were-fox named A Hu-Li -- a Chinese name that unfortunately turns out to be a Russian obscenity.
Which is a problem, since A Hu-Li has settled in Russia for the moment.
And, yes, this is the level of humour Pelevin is settling for -- a passable joke he makes far too much of.
You might think A Hu-Li is getting on in years -- "For the sake of convenience I define my age as two thousand years", though she's not really sure (she doesn't have much of a long-term memory) -- but:
Every fifty years or thereabouts, we select a new simulacrum of the soul to match our unchanging features, and that is what we present to people.
Living in post-Soviet Russia, A Hu-Li's appearance puts her at somewhere between fourteen and seventeen -- "closer to fourteen".
Which works out well since she is active in the sex trade, and can sell herself as a little Lolita .....
Not that A Hu-Li has sex with her customers.
No, that would be far too easy.
Pelevin designs her to give a different sort of tail -- you see, it seems she has one, and by following an elaborate sort of procedure (well, flashing someone with it, taking them by surprise) she can make them believe they're doing whatever they want.
Including indulging in any sort of sex-play.
It's ridiculously over-complicated, but, hey, if an author wants to play with such alternative creatures and powers, we're game and willing to go along with it.
As long as it all serves some purpose -- even just of entertainment.
But Pelevin makes a mess of his conception.
A Hu-Li is an agreeable enough narrator as she lets readers in on her past and present.
The first encounters with clients she describes are ... at least curious.
She has relatives with whom she stays in contact per e-mail and who are more or less in the same business, and each seems to want to be somewhere else.
This is a critique of post-Soviet Russia, and so A Hu-Li warns them away from her current haunting grounds.
The satire here is decent but limited; Pelevin's punning word-play presents obvious difficulties with full appreciation in translation of what he's trying to do, as evident from passages such as:
The elite here is divided into two branches, which are called 'the oligarchy' (derived from the words 'oil' and gargle') and 'the apparat' (from the phrase 'upper rat').
'The oligarchy' is the business community, which grovels to the authorities, who can close down any business at any moment, since business here is inseparable from theft.
And 'the upper rat' consists of the authorities, who feed on the kickbacks from business.
The way it works is that the former allow the latter to steal because the latter allow the former to thieve.
Meanwhile, there's also that question of the 'super-werewolf' -- though as A Hu-Li tries to explain, she's convinced:
The super-werewolf is a metaphor.
To call some individual creature the super-werewolf means to descend to a very primitive level.
Most readers likely would have preferred a flesh-and-blood super-werewolf, too, but, alas, Pelevin is enamored of the metaphorical (and even more alas: he feels obligated to spell it out, which makes the whole game rather ineffective).
Indeed, Pelevin is trying to play a literary game here, with many bookish references throughout (admittedly an interesting variety, all the way to Martin Wolf's Why Globalization Works).
There's also that Lolita-connexion, and later A Hu-Li's beau decides to call her Ada, in another Nabokovian echo.
All well and good, but unfortunately Pelevin doesn't give his audience much credit, as the literary repartee amounts to stuff like:
Nobody reads it, that Ulysses.
Three people have read it, and then they live off of it for the rest of their lives, writing articles and going to conferences.
But no one else has ever got through it.
Worst yet is that Pelevin is obsessed with the metaphysical, and A Hu-Li is constantly put in situations where the big metaphysical issues come to the fore.
Foxes have a fundamental answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, which is to forget this fundamental question.
There are no philosophical problems, there is only a suite of interconnected cul de sacs created by language's inability to reflect truth.
Which brings us back to Pelevin's language-games ... but too often the best he can do there is exchanges such as this one between A Hu-Li and her sister:
'Of course not !
The English expend all their spiritual energy on hypocrisy.
There's none left over for intolerance.'
This is terribly lazy writing, and the supposedly language-concerned A Hu-Li certainly appears to be doing her best to prove its inadequacy.
Silly terms like 'loser', overbroad (and arbitrary) generalisations, 'Hippopocrisy' (and why can't E have her way ? what's stopping her from introducing the term or using it at every turn ?) ... all, at best, just to remind readers again that E's conscience isn't quite as pure as A's.
'Is everything really as dismal as that ?'
She waved her hand dismissively.
'If I had my way, I'd introduce a new term to emphasize the scale of the problem: "Hippopocrisy".'
I can't stand it when someone speaks badly about entire nations.
In my opinion, such a person is either a loser or has a guilty conscience.
There was no way sister E was any kind of loser.
But as for her conscience ...
Pelevin has a vivid imagination, but rather than direct it to any purpose he just seems to ... spout it.
Yes, there's a sort of love-story in here, as A Hu-Li gets involved with an FSB (i.e. KGB) man -- who also turns out to be not quite the ... creature she expected.
A fair bit of the action is quite fun and there are some well-described scenes and a few good surprises, but it all seems to be done to far too little purpose.
The novel is a critique of contemporary Russia but with its odd spiritual riffs and uncertain direction -- Pelevin unsure how much he wants to make out of that sacred book of the werewolf, among many other things -- it isn't all that effective.
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf has some appeal, but overall is disappointing, Pelevin falling just short (well, pretty far short, in some cases) of each of his (too many) aims and ambitions.
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The Sacred Book of the Werewolf:
Other books by Victor Pelevin under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Russian author Victor Pelevin (Виктор Пелевин) was born in 1962.
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© 2008-2011 the complete review
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