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Bob Halliday reviews books for Mappa.Mundi Magazine. A resident of Bangkok, Thailand and a long-time writer for The Bangkok Post. Bob is best known on the Internet for his site devoted to Thai food, the Aw Taw Kaw Market.

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By Bob Halliday, More Reviews »

The Clay Machine-Gun

The Book

The Clay Machine-Gun is unavailable in the U.S., but with the magic of the Internet, we are pleased to offer this book to you in partnership with The Internet Bookshop.

The Clay Machine-Gun

     Victor Pelevin: The Clay Machine-Gun, translated by Andrew Bromfield. London, Faber and Faber/Harbord Publishing, 335 pp.

     When Russian literature was finally let off its leash a decade ago, it didn’t have to roam far in search of a subject. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of the new freedom of expression, the country’s intellectuals and creative artists were confronted with a crisis of identity different from anything they had experienced since the days immediately following the 1917 Revolution. Who and where were they? What were they supposed to be doing? And how could artistic or any other kind of sense be made of the situation of inhabiting what felt like a void?

     Similar questions had been surfacing in the work of émigré writers like Vassily Aksyonov for some time. But when, suddenly, artists inhabiting a strange, transformed Russia were able to deal with them openly at home, one the results was an outpouring of innovative writing that has galvanized the great Russian fantastic-grotesque tradition of Gogol, Byely, and Bulgakov into new life.

     Bit by bit, this new literature is appearing in English translation, and readers who have been following it have been pushing their discoveries off on friends for some time now. Perhaps most arresting of all have been the novels and stories of 37-year-old Victor Pelevin. These astonishing narratives are filled with fractures in time and place, shifting identities, and unexpected changes of focus that yank readers into the blurry world that Russians have been inhabiting for the past decade. And like Gogol and Bulgakov before him, Pelevin uses crazy, surreal humor to make his nightmarish situations even more unsettling.

     In a typical Pelevin story, neither his characters nor readers know who they are or what is really happening. The story, “Hermit and Six-Toes”, included in the collection, The Blue Lantern, follows the conversation of two philosophically minded characters discussing transcendence and planning to scale the “Wall of the World” to find what lies beyond. They turn out to be a pair of chickens in a poultry combine on their way to the processing machinery. The cosmonaut-hero of the short novel Omon Ra believes he is piloting his suspiciously primitive spacecraft to the moon, when actually he is peddling it through the city’s subway system.

     Pelevin takes his themes and methods much farther in his 1996 novel, Chapaev i pustota, which has just been published in translation as The Clay Machine-Gun. Once again he is dealing with a situation that must seem impossible to communicate—the sudden disintegration of an entire culture and its replacement by a kind of void where none of the old names and values work. As his point of departure he takes one of the most durable of Soviet pop culture staples, the Chapaev joke.

     Vladimir Ilich Chapaev would probably have been just another name in the pantheon of Soviet heroes who defected to the Red side during the 1918–19 civil war if his information officer, Dmitri Furmanov, had not published a novel, Chapaev, in 1923 that presents him as a superman of ideological fervor and bravery. His stock as a communist saint rocketed much higher with the appearance of the Vasiliev brothers’ 1934 film version of the novel, a great favorite with Stalin and required viewing for Soviet citizens for decades.

     In both the novel and the movie, Chapaev, his faithful adjutant Petka, and his female machine-gunner Anna (“Anka”) are simple and ideologically pure, model specimens of The People who live only for The Cause. Sex, not to mention ontological philosophy, never crosses their mind.

     Needless to say, there was an underground reaction against all of this among cynical Russians: the Chapaev joke, which turned this officially-championed hagiography on its head. Even now, there are entire pages of Chapaev jokes on the web, and Pelevin includes some good ones in his novel. Sample: “Chapaev comes to see Anka and she’s sitting there naked. He asks her, ‘Why haven’t you got any clothes on, Anka?” and she says to him: ‘I haven’t got any dresses to wear.” So he opens the wardrobe, looks inside and says: ‘What’s all this then? One dress. Two dresses. Hi there, Petka. Three dresses. Four dresses…’”

Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin

     Pelevin’s The Clay Machine-Gun is the longest and most complex Chapaev joke ever conceived, and probably the funniest. But it is also frightening, and gets more so the more you think about it. Its central character is Chapaev’s faithful Petka, but he is not the simple soldier of the usual Chapaev joke. Instead, he is a poet and intellectual who drifts around a strangely unfocused post-Revolutionary Russia.

     He first appears in Moscow, where he is part of a literary circle who seem just as dispossessed of their cultural identities as Pelevin and his fellow artists are now. Some have attempted to adapt to the new Soviet reality, but haven’t been too successful at it. “Many decadents, such as Mayakovsky, sensing the clearly infernal character of the new authority, had hastened to offer their services to it,” Petka comments. “As a matter of fact, it is my belief that they were not motivated by conscious Satanism—they were too infantile for that—but by aesthetic instinct: after all, a red pentagram does complement a yellow blouse so marvelously well.” But we know that Mayakovsky subsequently committed suicide. Later Petka runs into another pre-Revolutionary decadent writer fascinated by Satanism, Valery Bryusov, at a literary nightclub, and finds him to be a decrepit old man. Like so many other intellectuals, Petka is struggling to fit into the new age. He makes a grand gesture by taking the stage and shouting out a revolutionary poem, which he punctuates by firing his gun at the chandelier.

     But here the Civil War period story collapses and the narrator suddenly becomes Pyotr Voyd, a patient at a 1990s Moscow psychiatric hospital. His case history refers to his “Estonian” surname, but in the original Russian it’s “Pustota”, which means “void”, and the Russian title of the novel, Chapaev and Pustota, puns on it.

     Voyd is being treated for his psychotic conviction that he is Chapaev’s Petka. In the hospital he shares his room with three other patients whose delusions, which hijack the novel at various points, are wild satires of problems in contemporary Russian society. A young man who calls himself Maria, after the Mexican soap opera that was a huge hit in Russia some years back, for example, dreams of “Alchemical Wedlock” with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his mechanical, Terminator form. When he elopes with Schwarzenegger and the steel superhero removes his dark glasses, “His left eye was half-closed in a way that expressed an absolutely clear and at the same time immeasurably complex range of feelings, including a strictly proportioned mixture of passion for life, strength, a healthy love for children, moral support for the American automobile industry in its difficult struggle with the Japanese, acknowledgement of the rights of sexual minorities, a slightly ironical attitude toward feminism and the calm assurance that democracy and the Judeo-Christian values would eventually conquer all the evil in this world.”

     Other patients’ fantasies center around the mystical dimension of Japanese business methods and the Russian mafia (who sit around chewing hallucinogenic mushrooms). But one thing that all of them have in common is an obsession with the nature of reality.

     When Voyd awakens to find himself back once again in the Civil War days, and already teamed up with Chapaev and Anka, the situation is very different from what we read in Furmanov. Chapaev is a teacher, just as he is in the novel and the movie.His subject, however, is not dialectical materialism but the illusory nature of reality taught by Buddhism. It’s all in your head, he keeps telling Petka, and the increasingly chaotic changes of time, place, and character in the novel defy any attempt by the reader to determine whose head is cooking all this up.

     Other historical figures like Baron von Jungern and the Civil War hero Kotovsky turn up in strange contexts, sometimes taking central roles in incidents that belong to the fantasies of Voyd’s fellow patients in the Moscow hospital. At one point it is hinted that the world of the novel is now being generated in the mind of Kotovsky, who has emigrated to Paris. Even Furmanov appears, complete with his company of weavers, and he is a faintly sinister presence.

     The Buddhist teachings assigned to Chapaev take greater control of the narrative as it progresses, and culminate in the event, involving the machine-gun of the English title, which provides the climax to the novel’s constant references to dissolution and nothingness. Pelevin makes a joke of it all later, but try to laugh away the poetry of his description of the Undefinable River of Absolute Love (Ural, for short), or of the result of Anka’s barrage with her special machine-gun.

     Pelevin litters The Clay Machine-Gun with enough red herrings to defy any attempt to determine what is actually happening. After an ending with a contemporary Moscow setting where there are details that seem to explain some details of the Chapaev fantasy, there is a postscript announcing that the book was written in “Kafka–Yurt, 1923–1925.” There is also a Swiftian preface that starts off by stating, “For numerous reasons the name of the true author of this manuscript, written during the early 1920s in one of the monasteries of Inner Mongolia, cannot be mentioned…” This seems to confirm an assertion by Chapaev that the Civil War story is real and it is the psychiatric hospital stratum of the novel that is the delusion. And so on.

     The Clay Machine-Gun became a center of controversy when it was denied the 1997 Russian “Little Booker”Prize.The jury president denounced it as (according to the book’s jacket copy) “a kind of computer virus designed to ‘destroy the cultural memory.’” This is an ironic criticism, considering that loss of cultural memory is the very theme that Pelevin explores with such genius.

     The author himself has described the book as “the first novel in world literature to take place in an absolute void.” This may well be, but its complicated method of collapsing time down into a single plane, and allowing characters and settings to interpenetrate each other, will be familiar to readers of books like Filipe Alfau’s Locos and Paul Ableman’s I Hear Voices, not to mention the towering example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

     But Pelevin makes use of these techniques in a way that is his own, and the result is the most affecting and tantalizing new Russian novel to have been published here in years.

     An authorized download of the entire Russian text of the novel is at

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