The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: Sweet, profound, bitter and funny

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf Paperback – June 4, 2009 by Victor Pelevin (Author)The Sacred Book of the WerewolfThe Sacred Book of the Werewolf  by Victor Pelevin

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

I think I can safely say that I have never read a book quite like The Sacred Book of the Werewolf before. I found the book in the fantasy section, but it had literary novel packaging with a slightly risqué cover (the back and buttocks of a naked woman sporting a plumy fox’s tail). A medallion in the corner announced that this had been a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. I thought I knew what to expect and that this would be some modern fable about consumerism or humanity’s isolation or blah-blah-blah.

That’s what I thought, but I had it wrong. This is the kind of book you bring out when you are having the debate with your literary friends about whether fantasy serves any purpose except escapism. Can fantasy provide a compelling critique of modern society? Can fantasy make us question how we think? Victor Pelevin is a Russian writer who answers “Yes” to those questions. He seems like China Miéville, except that he has a spiritual foundation instead of a political one. He also seems like William Gibson, and a little like Jonathan Lethem. And he is uniquely himself.

My edition was ably translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield but I was aware at all times that I was reading a translated work.

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf introduces us to A Hu-Li, who is a fox. She is not a canine quadruped but an ancient mystical creature like the Japanese fox maidens of the folktales. In her human form, A Hu-Li looks like a ginger-haired teenager, a gamine, and she survives as a prostitute. This choice is dictated by the needs of the foxes; they survive by drawing energy from humans, and the best way to get this energy is during sex, or rather, what the humans think is sex.

In fact, A Hu-Li hypnotizes her human clients and leads them to believe they’ve experienced an amazing sexual encounter. Foxes look human but they have tails. In its dormant state, the tail can be hidden in trousers or under a skirt or even tucked between the buttocks, but when it is active, it is a vivid, bushy antenna of illusion. Throughout history, foxes have used illusion to survive. A Hu-Li tells us that if foxes worked together, they could create illusions that would change the world. Perhaps they have changed the world in the past, or are changing it right now, and we are all caught up in the illusion.

The book is about many kinds of illusions. It is about the power of names and words. It is about post-Soviet Russia and the madness and hypocrisy of that country, and any country. It is about the magic of novelists and poets. It is dark. It is luminous. It is hilarious. As I read it, I was often laughing uproariously and feeling slightly offended at the same time, a personal sign for me that my belief system is being challenged in some way.

Early in the book, A Hu-Li gets distracted (she’s reading a Stephen Hawking book while hypnotizing her client) and the client emerges from the illusion, with some bad results. This brings A Hu-Li to the attention of the FSB, which is the name of an organization previously known as the KGB. As A Hu-Li puts it, “What a crazy idea that was – to change the name of the KGB. One of the greatest brand names ever was simply destroyed.” She is interviewed by a strange man named Mikhalich, but it is Mikhalich’s superior, Alexander Sery, who captures her attention. Alexander Sery – Sasha the Gray – is a werewolf.

If Alexander were only a werewolf and A Hu-Li only a fox, this might be a paranormal romance, but Sasha also has a vital responsibility to the state. He and his group must keep Russia’s precious oil flowing out of the Siberian oil wells. They do this not through science or technology but by setting an animal skull on a post on the night of the full moon and howling plaintively for the wells to continue. If a wolf is eloquent enough, the failing wells will replenish themselves. Insane? Surreal? Yes, and a hauntingly beautiful scene.

There is an element of danger to A Hu-Li if she is discovered by humans, and there is an element of danger to Sasha, especially when A Hu-Li’s love works a surprising transformation on him, but The Sacred Text of the Werewolf is not action-adventure. Much of the book is spent following A Hu-Li’s meditations on the nature of reality and illusion, especially the concept of the super-werewolf. Many foxes, including A Hu-Li’s sister E Hu-Li, believe that the super-werewolf is a physical being, a messianic figure who will bring enlightenment to the foxes and other supernatural entities. A Hu-Li, in contrast, sees the super-werewolf as a metaphor for a point in the development of consciousness. This is not the only thing the two fox-sisters disagree on, though. E Hu-li is a sports-fox, dedicated to the sport of hunting, (wait for it now), English aristocrats.

The book could be a quest for the super-werewolf, but it isn’t that either.

A Hu-Li takes a moment to explain the nature of the philosophy of foxes: “Foxes have a fundamental answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, which is to forget the fundamental question. There are no philosophical problems, there is only the suite of interconnected cul de sacs created by language’s inability to reflect the truth.”

Foxes, she explains, do not have a central guiding philosophy. They just have very good memories for everything they’ve read. A Hu-Li believes in “returning the serve,” keeping a conversation alive by volleying a verbal response back across the net. These apparently random conversations, however, lead to the most startling and complete (and magical) transformations in the book.

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is sweet, profound, bitter and funny. Pelevin has an eye for the absurd, and uses it brilliantly to skewer current events in Russia. His love for his country and his anger at it come through strongly but never overpower the voice of A Hu-Li or the story he is telling. He deplores what has happened after the collapse of Soviet Russia but he is not nostalgic about those “good old days,” as we see when A Hu-Li reminisces about a piece of jewelry a grocery store director gave her.

The poor fellow was executed by a firing squad, and I felt sorry for him, although I still couldn’t force myself to wear the brooch. It was a unique example of Soviet kitsch: diamond ears of wheat surrounding emerald cucumbers and a ruby beetroot. An eternal reminder of the only battle that Soviet Russia ever lost – the battle for the harvest…

 

If you like your books linear, falling neatly into a recognizable category, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is not for you. I assumed the book had been mis-shelved, and should have been in the literary section, and I was wrong. This book is a quirky example of what literary fantasy can be. It can tell a heart-touching story and ask important questions about the world, and it can be funny at the same time. It is an annoying, fascinating, entertaining and thought-provoking read that will demand your patience, and reward you for it.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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