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Foxy prostitute delves into nature of humanity in werewolf book

By Chauncey Mabe

South Florida Sun-Sentinel ``The Sacred Book of the Werewolf'' by Victor Pelevin; Viking ($25.95)

The disparate ingredients Victor Pelevin throws into his latest postmodernist stew _ erotic sci-fi, the meaning of life, bitter social satire _ never quite blend into a palatable dish.

And yet, ``The Sacred Book of the Werewolf,'' set in present-day Moscow and featuring an ancient werefox working as an underage prostitute, has its moments, some of which are unforgettable.

Pelevin's heroine, the 2,000-year-old A Hu-Li, has lived in Moscow so long she considers herself Russian. Her Chinese name means ``the fox named A,'' although, she is embarrassed to explain, it translates into Russian as a vulgarity.

Like all of her supernatural race, she subsists off the sexual energy of humans, but unlike some, she never goes all the way, which would kill her victims.

She also doesn't actually have sex, possessing instead, by virtue of her magical tail, the ability to control the minds of her clients.

That she poses as a Lolita is no coincidence. A Hu-Li slowly reveals herself as one well-read and thoughtful prostitute, devoted to, among others, Vladimir Nabokov. When a sado-masochistic intellectual client insults the great Russian-American author, she almost beats him to death _ without raising a finger.

When he complains to the authorities, A Hu-Li is hauled in by the FSB, the security agency formally known as the KGB. Instead of being punished, however, she is seduced by a handsome high-ranking officer, Alexander, who, it turns out, is a werewolf in charge of oil production.

A Hu-Li learns exactly how the modern Russia works as it reverts to its authoritarian ways. In the process, Alexander undergoes a diminishment of his power, both supernatural and political, and the two go into hiding.

All this amounts to both too much plot, and too little. With the kind of detailed supernatural mythology used to better effect by ``The X-Files'' or ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' it's much more than what's needed for a literary novel.

Yet, the absurdist plot points _ Alexander gets oil out of dry wells by howling supplications to the skull of a cow _ undermine the narrative's genre effectiveness.

Perhaps all this excess plays better in Russian, in-group parody that doesn't translate. In English, it simply takes too long to get what the story finally reveals itself to be _ a meditation on the nature of reality.

Individual scenes possess undeniable power: A Pakistani john getting a glimpse of A Hu-Li's true nature and leaping out a hotel window to his death; the tender domesticity of Alexander and A Hu-Li living literally underground, in an abandoned bomb shelter; her encounter, a thousand years earlier, with a human Taoist master.

And for those inclined to such things, the philosophical dialogue between A Hu-Li and Alexander that makes up the bulk of the novel's last quarter will linger persistently in the mind.

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