Russian author Victor Pelevin's 1996 (1999 US publication) novel, Buddha's Little Finger, may very well qualify as being one of the most difficult to classify novels that I have read this year. It is a very multi-layered text, full of inside jokes, plays on language, references to Arnold Schwarzenegger, samurai, Russia's turbulent historical past, Russian literature, insane asylums, craziness, craziness involving women, and a Zen-like emptiness contained within a world that views itself as being full of energy. It certainly is not a novel that lends itself to easy, pat descriptions, nor will a single read yield all (or perhaps even half) of the book's treasures, as I discovered recently when I sat down to read this book.
Although the two books have different styles and motifs, in many ways I was reminded of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as I read this novel. Pelevin slyly mixes in a plethora of references to the 20th century's fucked-up cultural baggage as he sets up a tale of Identity and Identity's foibles revolving around a patient at a Russian insane asylum named Pyotr Voyd. This surname is no accident, as Pelevin in the original Russian edition gave a similar surname referencing "void", with translator Andrew Bromfield changing it to Voyd to keep with the wordplay patterns Pelevin employs throughout this novel. Voyd imagines himself as being a commissar to the legendary Bolshevik commander Vasily Chapaev. But Chapaev, as presented in this novel, seems to be more interested in matters of the Void than he does in furthering the Bolshevik Revolution. What is occurring here?
There seems to be multiple branches, one into the Bolshevik past, and other into a more contemporary time. As befitting Voyd's unbalanced state, the boundaries between the Real and Irreal are blurred, with such subtle shifts between each as to create a sense of manic flow to the narrative (narratives?) unfolding. Often there are some wacky discourses included that display a truly wicked sense of humor. Here's is one such example from the English translation. According to someone who read it in the Czech translation, this passage differs in the wordplay. There (and likely in the Russian original), the wordplay is on woman, whore, and bitch. In English, Bromfield found another way of conveying this wordplay:
"The Russian people realized very long ago that life is no more than a dream. You know what a succubus is?"The novel is full of such references, several of them to incidents of Russian history and Russian literature. In a weird, distorted way, Pelevin, through Voyd's character, seems to be having a discourse with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky about matters of the "Russian soul," or how history has shaped matters inside Russia. Then there are the oblique references to the Void, as I've already noted above. These seem to be set as counterpoints to the events that are occurring around these strange monologues and discourses. And of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger serves as a very important avatar-like figure in all of this.
"Yes," said Anna, with a smile. "A demon that takes female form to seduce a sleeping man. But what's the connection?"
I counted to ten again. My feelings had not changed.
"The most direct one possible. When they say in Russian vernacular that all women suck, the word "suck" as used in the phrase is actually derived from the word "succubus." An association which came to Russia via Catholicism. No doubt you remember - the seventeenth century, the Polish invasion, in other words, the Time of Troubles. That's what it goes back to. But I am wondering. All I wished to say was that the very phrase "all women suck,"" - I reiterated the words with genuine relish - "means in essence that life is no more than a dream. And so are all the bitches. That is, I meant to say, the women."
Confused yet? You're not alone, as this is not as much a review but rather the writing down of my thoughts on what might be happening here, in hopes that more sense will come of this. What I understood, I enjoyed. What I didn't quite grasp, I almost rejoiced over, in that there is a wealth of symbols embedded in this text that I think will yield some interesting results once I re-read this novel at a more leisurely pace in the near future. And that I think is why I was reminded of Pynchon's novel, as I recall that it took me a third re-reading before more of its "secrets" were unveiled for me. While I am uncertain if Pelevin's novel will reveal as much, this certainly was a complex, sometimes frustrating, but always engaging read that felt to be in equal parts a discourse on Russia's past and a metaphysical exploration of the boundaries of insanity. Buddha's Little Finger might not be for everyone, but it certainly was a good change-of-pace novel for me to read, especially between all these massive 500+ page novels I've been reading lately.