In August 2019, the prolific Russian writer Viktor Pelevin published his most recent novel “The art of the touch of light” (Искусство легких касаний). Pelevin, who has published a new book every year since 2011, is hailed by literary critics and their fans as an “undeniable genius” for his stark analysis of Russia's contemporary political and social climate. But Pelevin is also a mystery: the author has not granted an interview or made a literary tour in more than a decade. Moreover, many followers suspect that Pelevin is less a person and more a conglomerate of many different authors. Some even think it is a computer.
For his part, Pelevin has done nothing to dispel these rumors and conspiracies. Whoever it is, Pelevin's talent is undeniable. Merge esoteric philosophy with keen observations on current events. In 2009, Pelevin was elected as the most influential intellectual in Russia; his work has reached the postmodernist literary canon and is taught in all philology departments of Russia and in universities abroad.
That reputation made mixed reviews of the expected novel of 2019 more surprising.
Unlike Pelevin's recent works, “The art of the touch of light” is not a novel, but a collection of tangentially related short stories. It is also less an explicit reflection on Russian politics and provides a broader and more philosophical reflection on the country's problems. Perhaps, writes the critic Galina Yuzefuvich, Pelevin is simply “tired of his role as a professional interpreter of the political reality of Russia.” But if that is true, it does not mean that these fantasies are less interesting for those who seek to understand contemporary Russia.
Iakinf, the first of the trio, is the most readable. It is the story of four friends (a banker, a night television presenter, a sociologist and a glassmaker) on an excursion trip in Kabardino-Balkaria, in the North Caucasus in Russia. They are directed by Iakinf, a mysterious guide who gradually reveals his past as a psychic during the tumultuous 1990s and his relationship with a gangster who used him to summon the ancient spirit-god Baal. Iakinf captivates his audience and his readers with stories of ancient spirits and children's sacrifices. We wonder what the latter means: do young people of Russia and their future ritually sacrifice themselves to maintain power structures? Is progress and the potential to feed the power-hungry Russian authorities being sacrificed?
At the end of each night, the four friends question the story of their narrator. Is Iakinf really a powerful wizard, or just a talented fabulist? They discover it very soon. While they choose their paths, the friends meet before the mountain where Iakinf once summoned the ancient Baal spirit. They follow in the footsteps of the spiritual sons of Iakinf who were ritually sacrificed, and the four friends disappear without a trace. Following the narration of the framework, a literary device much loved by Russian authors Pushkin, Gogol and Nabokov, this story ends as it began. Iakinf lowers the mountain on his bicycle, whistling his dull French ballads, hoping to attract more unsuspecting travelers.
The threat of myth and unreality is also a strong theme in the third story, entitled Stolypin: The fight after victory. It is a continuation of Pelevin's recent book Secret Views from Mount Fuji (2018), and has the same protagonists. It is set in a dream landscape, at first a train, which turns out to be a ship, and is a linguistic exploration of prison jargon, as well as a psychological investigation of the prison mentality. Pelevin presents a twisted Russian post-Soviet version of Plato's cave: a distorted view of reality from behind prison bars.
But it is the second story, by far the most substantial, that has most attracted the attention of critics.
Also titled “The art of the touch of light”, is a detective narrative that tries to link the old Masonic conspiracies with contemporary politics. The protagonist of the story is Konstantin Parakletovich Golgofskii, a leading Russian philosopher and historian specializing in Freemasonry. After witnessing the attempted murder of a neighbor (General Izyumin of the Foreign Military Intelligence Services of Russia) while at his summer home, Golgofskii delves into a mystery that redefines his life. While the general drinks a poisoned tea and falls into Golgofskii's arms, he shakes the roof of his house. Golgofskii immediately assumes that the last gesture of the wounded general is something of great importance, so he begins his investigation that finally leads him to the truth behind the information war between Russia and the United States.
His search takes Golgofskii through Russia and Europe, always one step ahead of Russian secret services that are determined to prevent him from discovering a dangerous secret. The search takes Golgofskii to the home of a prominent Egyptologist in Kaliningrad, to a dreary brothel in Paris, to the living room of a renowned scholar of the Marquis de Sade and to the home of a former SS officer on the bank of a majestic Norwegian fjord (where he goes undercover as an investigator of East German television ballet).) Finally he returns to Moscow to meet his last source: a subordinate of General Izyumin who was working on a top secret project titled conspicuously “Art of the highlight ”.
A few self-complaining abstractions later, in relation to the history of the ancient Egyptian sects, the French revolutionary cult of reason and Nazi occult movements, Golgofskii discovers the shocking truth. The Russian Government has taken advantage of the old Masonic secrets to disseminate information. The world, in Pelevin's narrative, is not governed by a world government or by the ruling classes of the rich and powerful, but by chimeras. These “mind tattoos” play an important role in Izyumin's obsession with hidden history, given its historical role as an artificial semantics designed to manipulate public opinion.
Its sounds confusing is because it is.
Pelevin's Russia is determined to avenge the fall of the Soviet Union, for which it is partly responsible for the United States. General Izyumin's goal was to turn the situation around the United States and facilitate its rot from the inside. For that, he believed it was necessary to impose on the United States what killed the Soviet Union: an atmosphere of deception, hypocrisy and fear. “What would happen if the conservative senators of the United States were told, in a secret audience, that the entire politically correct agenda was created in an installation of the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) on the outskirts of Moscow?” Asks the informant of Golgofskii in the secret services. This is a revenge promulgated by “weapons grade memes” or “chimemes.”
But the project dies along with General Izyumin. Once it becomes clear that the “stupid Americans” have realized, the high commanders dissolve, close and demobilize the project. While the US media are going crazy over Russian interference in their presidential elections and while the existence of Russian trolley factories and Twitter bots comes to light, Americans are enraged and willing to retaliate. As Pelevin emphasizes, the Russians are now intimidated: they talk a lot, but they easily back down. Izyumin poisoning is also a form of poetic justice; His organization is responsible for the completely non-fictional poisoning of former double agent Sergey Skipal and his daughter, whose death was news earlier this year while Pelevin worked on the same story.
The “Art of the highlight” has received mixed reviews from the Russian public. Some love him, others hate him, but most agree that the work is not Pelevin's best.
Yuzefovich strongly criticizes Pelevin for the second story, argues that many intellectual deviations of Golgofskii are nothing more than the author's excuse to immerse himself in an impenetrable metaphysics that is unnecessary for the main idea. She blames him for his “pseudodetectivesca plot (which) is so weakly constructed that it actually sinks into a gurgle of words.” Similarly, Igor Kirienkov in his review for the Russian news website RBK also blames Pelevin for what he calls complacency, describes the book as “neither big nor terrible.” Kirienkov is bored with the choice of Pelevin characters, his world of oligarchs, stockbrokers and secret agents, which he ridicules as “socially myopic prose.” However, literary columnist Natalya Lomykina, in her review for Gorky Media, finds Pelevin's novel refreshing, worthy of engendering a “new army of Pelvin fans,” and enriched by a “well-made covering of human beliefs.”
The RuNet and the Russian blogosphere are more lenient with Pelevin's writings. Marks Gurjevs, from the Polaris website, based in Latvia, argues that Pelevin “masterfully finds the painful points of our multimedia (Russian) society, with the detached reflection of a mediator.” Anya Sklyar, a Ukrainian blogger from LiveJournal with a doctorate in psychology, delights in Pelevin's novel. “I am delighted!” He writes. “Here is a writer I would like to talk to … here is a (story) that can be analyzed for a long time and find many nuances and philosophical and psychological issues.”
However, others feel that Pelevin has simply run out of energy. Pavel Tretiakov, of HydraJournal, discards Pelevin's most recent novel and states that his prolific production does not hide that the author has run out of new ideas. Readers would do better to return to Pelevin's previous classics, he says, such as “Chapaev and the Void,” “Yellow Arrow” and “Generation P.” On the Livejournal platform “chto chetat '?” (What should we read?), The user majstavitskaja laments that “he does not want to become someone who, when asked about Russian literature in five years, replies:' I don't read Pelevin anymore. ' But that's where I'm going. ”
Ultimately, Pelevin's book seems to have been written and edited too quickly. The depth and rich allusions of his writing are difficult to draw from under multiple layers of irony in an already chaotic narrative. Although critics and readers alike agree that Iakinf is the most pleasant of the three stories, it reminds them of Pelevin's previous works. Some, like the critic Anna Narynskaya, call the third story a “dessert,” as a welcome continuation of Pelevin's latest novel.
But the second and most substantial story is also the most distressing. Although it has the richest symbolism of all for international readers, given the current tense relations between Russia and the United States, it is also the most ambitious, which is perhaps harmful.
Perhaps it is difficult for Pelevin's followers to get used to a light touch from someone who hits hard.