Among contemporary Russian authors, it is the satirists who have made the most headway in English translation. That's not surprising, as authors like Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin pick targets that translate well: corruption from out-of-touch legislators, the super-rich pursuing personal gain over social good, and a mindless celebrity culture. What distinguishes these authors from their western counterparts - other than their sheer viciousness - is their eagerness to blend surreal, sci-fi stylings into stories meant to reflect the world as it is.
A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin's recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions' Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with "semiotic signs", a skewing of a country where rhetoric - and not actual substance - is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia's affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.
The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they're injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as "Crypto-Speak" - powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as "everyday speech".
Even in this bare outline it's already possible to see the skill with which Pelevin goes beyond simple satire or allegory. As a woman made to prostitute herself for crumbs from the wealthy, Lena is the very image of a disempowered, impoverished Russian. Yet the requirement that she become mantis-like to do her job suggests that everything is not as straightforward as it seems - mantises are predators, after all, that adopt a submissive posture to fool their victims. And the business with "Crypto-Speak" is a part of Pelevin's ongoing ridicule of the doublethink purveyed by the media, Lena's bosses, politicians and the wealthy, as they try to convince Lena and her ilk of the merits of their point of view. As the story proceeds, Pelevin continues to elaborate these relationships, festooning his schematic with oddball details that ultimately make his story satisfyingly ambiguous.
Part of what lets Pelevin go beyond mere satire is his ability to say just enough. Remarking on Lena's caryatid posture, he writes that at first she feels that "almost from the beginning of time itself, she had been holding her hands folded in front of her chest [in prayer]". Yet with time she develops "the illusion that they were raised above her head", and eventually the mantis makes her "realise that the illusion she had had was her real situation". Do we take the mantis, then, as the force that teaches people like Lena to be good workers, indoctrinating them into the belief that they hold up society? Or is it perhaps a liberator, revealing to her the bitter truth that the saintliness of prayer is itself the illusion, and that when you think you abstain from the economic order you are in fact still participating? It is Pelevin's ability to mix in seductive images like this that defy simple interpretation that makes his book so interesting to read.