Review

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

by Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin discards the basic novelists’ creed --- to
tell truth through lies --- as insufficiently complex for his aims.
Instead, he tells lies through other lies, and those lies utter
parables, and hidden in those parables lie bare and brunt truths,
but only if you’re willing to dig. Like his Russian comic
predecessors (such as Gogol and Bulgakov), he is often impossible
to pin down, but Pelevin takes this ambiguity to a new level in THE
SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF, a baffling cultural collage in the
service of a literary drug trip where philosophy meets erotica and
everything in between.

This multi-layered book demands to be discussed after reading to
settle the stomach. Perhaps its best achievement is its
multiple-voiced, near-contradictory koan-like structure, for much
like more traditional Zen Buddhist exercises (and yes, this is one
too), it requires some amount of dialogue and contradictory
thinking to be understood. That being said, Pelevin may have jumped
the shark with this book, as the different facets of the
novel’s warped prism never fully come together. It’s up
to the reader to decide whether this is a postmodern masterpiece or
a mess.

The plot (or what there is of one) centers on the millennia-old
werefox A. Huli, who looks like a 15-year-old prostitute but
possesses a fox tail that creates full-body hallucinations for her
clients, allowing them to achieve erotic nirvana while she sucks
their life force to sustain her immortality. She loves to allude to
Nabokov (consider her Lolita-esque charade) and reads Stephen
Hawking, who she confuses for/compares to Stephen King, when
she’s bored during clients’ fantasy sessions. One of
her clients, Alexander Sery, is immune to the powers of her tail, a
mystery solved by his immediate transformation into a werewolf,
after which he proceeds to rape her --- her first real sexual
experience, which affects her as much as it does us “tailless
monkeys.” So begins a love affair that dabbles in
philosophical meandering, a conspiracy involving Russia’s oil
industry, and sexual adventures that delve into the mysteries of
our perception of the universe. Sounds heady and unmanageable?
You’d be right.

Unlike some of Pelevin’s previous work, THE SACRED BOOK OF
THE WEREWOLF fails to blend its disparate topics, allusions and
ideas into a cohesive whole. This may be a sign of increasing
ambition; HOMO ZAPIENS (his most successful import in America,
which also involves conspiracy theories and Eastern metaphysics)
feels like a complete novel, though its critiques and ideas are
smaller in scope. Also, unlike HOMO ZAPIENS, we are rarely rewarded
for our diligent patience with Pelevin’s tangents,
speculation and flights of fancy --- he teases but fails to
deliver. A. Huli’s intellectual meditations only sometimes
bear relation to each other; her metaphysical discoveries are
stand-alone statements for the most part, which may leave the
reader asking “so what?”

Her romance with Alexander is uninspiring in large part due to a
general lack of character development. We learn a lot about A.
Huli, but it’s hard to say we know her by the end of the
novel. She retains the cautious distance of a confessing sex
worker, not to mention that of a fox. She admits that werefoxes
have no personalities of their own (instead, they simply repeat all
ideas they hear and develop new selves every generation or so), but
as a foil for our times fails to be convincing. This supernatural
Lolita that traipses through the centuries is neither sufficiently
developed nor meaningful to make a lasting impact compared to
Pelevin’s better metaphors. Alexander is a clear archetype of
the values and personality of old Russia (and what’s
happening to them), graspable in all the ways she is not. But his
concrete solidity becomes almost too simplistic. Such is
also the main problem deflating most of the humor in this text: it
is usually impenetrably heady or blatantly obvious.

These flaws aside, Pelevin has clearly achieved something
special in this work. His critiques of Russia’s current way
of life --- as always --- are spot-on. The werewolves mournfully
supplicate to the bowels of Russian soil so she may bleed oil to be
mined for petrodollars. A. Huli’s discussion of
cast-illusions and self-delusions do well to capture the crisis
facing a Russia bumbling with capitalism and re-embracing
totalitarianism, and it speaks of both the wool over
Russians’ eyes and their power to transcend it. And as the
last few pages reveal, the entire novel may be a lesson to prepare
us for transcendence, so we may understand the meaning of true
love. At its best, THE SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF is a series of
stomach-churning revelations, with Pelevin cackling all the way. Or
we may all be getting hoodwinked. As deep as one reads, there are
messages to be found, but the reader may just as easily find these
messages to be nonsense, reinforced by A. Huli’s almost bored
tone and the lack of any actual narrative.

Whether THE SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF is a masterpiece or
disaster of post-modern fiction (not to mention witty satire or
dead jokes) can only be decided by the reader. It can be
appreciated without being enjoyed and can be enjoyed without being
appreciated. But if readers are willing to surrender completely to
Pelevin’s own web of illusion, they’re in for a heck of
a ride and are bound to come out of the trip a little changed
forever. And perhaps more importantly for American readers: Pelevin
reveals as much about our bewildering society as his own in a voice
both alien yet oddly familiar --- his lampoons and more serious
barbs may even be read as indictments of a West that has altered
Russia forever. After all, there are werewolves everywhere.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 23, 2011

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
by Victor Pelevin

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670019887
  • ISBN-13: 9780670019885