In last week’s book, The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna, the protagonist ends up crossing the border from Finland to Russia. That somehow proves that the next move in my literary journey is legit. It seems natural to move from Finland to Russia, at least geographically.
Keeping to the geographical argument, many people are still debating on whether Russia is in Europe or not (just Google the question to see the discussions). According to me, there isn’t much to question. A part of this huge country is in Europe and I think that culturally it is closer to Europe (although possibly its position between two continents makes for a special culture). So here it is, the seventh destination of my summer reading challenge, Around Europe in 14 Books.
My choice fell on Victor Pelevin’s Homo Zapiens because from the blurb it seemed to be a pungent satire. It actually is, but it’s also a fantastical story, a narrative full of symbolism which is quite hard to grasp. It was a difficult read, that is why I am publishing this review much later than usual (but at least I’ve kept it within the weekly deadline).
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #7: Russia
Homo Zapiens by Victor Pelevin
Original name: Generation “П”
Author: Victor Pelevin
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: literary fiction, magic realism, satire
Location: Moscow, Russia
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened up a vast market ripe for capitalist exploitation. Everybody wants in on the action, but how do you sell things to a generation that grew up with just one brand of cola? Enter Tatarsky, the hero of HOMO ZAPIENS, a lowly shop assistant who is hired as an advertising copywriter and discovers a hidden talent for devising homegrown alternatives to Western ads. Tatarsky – fueled by cocaine and hallucinogens – is propelled into a world of gangsters, spin doctors, and drug dealers, but as his fortunes soar, reality soon loosens its grip. Who is the boss – man or television? When advertisers talk about “twisting reality,” do they mean it quite literary? And what exactly goes on at the Institute of Apiculture?
As the blurb says, Tatarsky is the hero of Homo Zapiens. His first name is Babylen, which reminds of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon and the Tower of Babel. In reality, it comes from other different sources – partially from Lenin – and since Tatarsky is ashamed of it, he often goes by the name of Vladimir (Vova in short).
As he graduates from the Literary Institute, the Soviet Union collapses and under the new President Boris Yeltsin, Russia undergoes a drastic change. In the meantime, the wannabe-poet Tatarsky ends up working at a kiosk managed by the Chechen Hussein. Until one day he meets with his ex-classmate Morkovin, who inducts him to the world of advertising copywriting. His job is to write TV commercials’ scripts to promote Western products adjusted to the “Russian mentality”. That is a normal procedure when it comes to advertising foreign merchandise within a specific diverse culture; only that Tatarsky is not yet sure what the “Russian mentality” is all about.
After an initial hesitancy, Tatarsky gets the hang of it and as he goes up the career ladder, his intake of drugs and alcohol increases. Reality thus becomes blurred, but even when he’s sober, it’s not all that clear either. As he delves deeper into the business, questions increase. What is the relationship between people and television? Who rules who? What is exactly being consumed, the product or the consumer? Is the media really that powerful, beyond its aim of divulging the message to the audience?
Answers are nowhere to be seen. Or maybe yes, some answers can be found in the myriad of images and symbols that Tatarsky seems to encounter at random, without knowing what they mean. These images and symbols derive mainly from Mesopotamian mythology. To complete the absurd framework, throw in drug-induced trips, a ouija-summoned Che Guevara rambling on identity and consumerism from a Buddhist point of view, and a massive digital orchestration behind the country’s entire governing system.
Tatarsky is further sucked in. He is so deep in it that he is bound to depart from reality, just like everything else did. However, the answer to the ultimate question remains elusive: who is behind all of this? Tatarsky is not allowed to think about it and the readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
Pelevin’s work can be considered postmodernist. Therefore, it is out of the ordinary. Homo Zapiens is laden with absurdity and symbolism which can be quite hard to understand when reading for the first time. In many ways, it reminds me Haruki Murakami’s magic realism but Pelevin is perhaps less lyrical and sharper. Like Murakami, it can be tricky to understand, especially for someone who is not used to such a genre.
I, for one, rarely read such books and so I found this novel hard to read and understand. It’s not that I understood nothing, otherwise, I would have stopped reading it. I could comprehend the general idea, that is the critique of modern society, media and consumerism, and I found it amusing and poignant. What I particularly liked about it is that it’s so pop: I am interested in media and marketing and their effect on people. Yet all the details, all the symbolism, made the reading tougher. Thankfully, the Wikipedia page is exhaustive and by reading more about the meaning behind the symbolism, I can better appreciate the book. Apart from that, it was hard to read also because the details were excessive in some parts and the adverts’ parts are tough on the eyes as they are printed in a different, italicised font.
A book which is difficult to comprehend in full, such as this one, is not essentially bad. It is intentionally complex and open to interpretation and I think that’s a positive aspect for the reader. I also think that such books deserve more than one reading, to be fully understood and appreciated. My regret, in fact, is that I chose to read this novel at the wrong time, when I was after a lighter book.
Will I reread Homo Zapiens? Maybe, but definitely not in the coming months. It left me with some powerful passages that I will remember but all in all, I prefer something else. Russian books can be challenging, so I need to choose carefully when to pick one to read. I suggest other readers ponder as well before choosing this novel because, unless you are familiar with such a genre, you risk disliking it.