(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an atmosphere of turbulent change, where the ruins of a structured, authoritarian regime have given way to a new and unfamiliar freedom, Victor Pelevin has emerged in post-Soviet Russia as the voice of a new generation of readers and writers. This new generation is in many ways rootless, having been divorced from its past by communism’s failure to fulfill its many promises, and distracted from choosing its future course by outside influences from the West and elsewhere. It is within such a context that Pelevin sets his latest novel, Buddha’s Little Finger, which was published in Russia under the title Chapaev i pustota (Chapaev and nothingness) and in Great Britain as The Clay Machine-Gun (1999).

Pelevin, who graduated from the Moscow Institute of Power and Engineering, won Russia’s Little Booker Prize in 1993 for his first collection of short stories, Sinii fonar (1991; The Blue Lantern and Other Stories, 1997). Since then, Pelevin’s novels and short stories have continued to capture the imagination of Russian readers, and English translations have garnered international critical acclaim. Pelevin’s irreverence and humor, and his sensitivity to the feelings of alienation and despair among Russia’s young people, have made his works relevant and accessible. The theme of disillusionment, and the presence of characters that have lost direction and meaning in their lives, dominate Pelevin’s early works. In his first novel, Omon Ra (1992; English translation, 1994), a young idealist yearns to be a cosmonaut, only to find that Russia’s “space race” is a sham, a carefully choreographed facade designed to hide the essential bankruptcy of Soviet technology and the emptiness of Soviet Russia’s rhetoric of world domination. In later works such as the novel Zhizn nasekomykh (1994;The Life of Insects, 1996) and the short-story collection Problema vervolka v sredney polose (1994; A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories, 1998), Pelevin envisions a society that no longer recognizes itself, where human characters are transformed into animals and insects, never understanding the true nature of what they were or what they have become.

In Buddha’s Little Finger, Pelevin uses a familiar communist folk hero to characterize modern Russia’s lost identity in the wake of communism’s collapse. Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev was a peasant who became a general in the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918-1919. Chapaev’s transformation from a general to a national icon began in 1923 with the publication of Dmitri Furmanov’s novel Chapaev. In 1934, Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev dramatized the events of Furmanov’s novel in a film that became a classic of Soviet propaganda. Chapaev came to embody the idealized Soviet patriot, and the film became required viewing under the Stalinist regime. However, Chapaev also became an object of ridicule among intellectuals and dissidents, who created a tradition of satire that attacked the simplicity and naïveté of Russia’s revolutionary icon. Chapaev jokes remain popular today, with numerous Internet sites posting many of the most familiar of them. Pelevin’s portrayal of Chapaev in the novel borrows heavily from and transcends this tradition and has been called the funniest and most elaborate of all Chapaev jokes.

Though Chapaev might be called the hero of Buddha’s Little Finger, he is introduced to the reader through the agency of Pyotr Voyd, a poet of modest repute who is undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital. As the novel opens, however, Pyotr is traveling to Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution to escape arrest for the publication of an antirevolutionary poem. Not until he has killed a man, assumed the dead man’s identity, joined forces with two revolutionaries, and shot up a café after delivering a poem praising the revolution does Pyotr wake up to discover that he is a mental patient in a twentieth century psychiatric hospital, with no memory of how or why he arrived there. His doctor, Timur Timurovich, tries to reorient him to his surroundings by explaining that he suffers from a split-personality disorder. “You belong to the very generation that was programmed for life in one socioeconomic paradigm, but has found itself living in quite a different one,” Dr. Timurovich explains. “When established connections in the real world collapse, the same thing happens in the human psyche. And this is accompanied by the release of a colossal amount of psychic energy within the enclosed space of your ego.” This shift in paradigms and the resulting disorientation provides a context for Pelevin’s use of alternating time sequences. Timurovich’s characterization of modern Russia’s sociocultural disorientation applies equally to Russia during and after the revolution.

As Pyotr moves back and forth between the present and the past, he is able to piece together bits of his life in both places. In the past, he is Petka, an adjutant under Chapaev’s command. In the present, he is a mental patient undergoing drug therapy and a new form of group therapy whereby each patient participates in the delusions of the others....

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