Viktor Pelevin is one of the most popular young writers of the ‘post-Soviet’ era. His first collection of stories, The Blue Lantern (1991), sold 100,000 copies, and in 1993 was awarded the ‘small’ Russian Booker Prize for the best collection of the early 1990s. His subsequent novels and novellas have been published in the prestigious monthlies Znamya and Novy mir, and his work has been translated into Japanese and several European languages.
Born and brought up in Moscow, Pelevin was first educated as an engineer and subsequently graduated from the Moscow Literary Institute. He now earns his living free lance, supplementing his literary earnings with journalistic and interpreting assignments. In this respect, as in others, he is one of a new breed, arriving too late on the scene to partake either of the privileges conferred on official writers under the old regime, or the ironic camaraderie of the erstwhile ‘underground’. In his tastes, too, he belongs to a generation that has sought philosophical and cultural alternatives outside the traditional Russian canon—in Chinese philosophy, in Buddhism, in the strange perspectives of computer science, the experience of hallucinogenic drugs, or the ‘mystic’ or esoteric works of Castaneda, Hesse, and Borges.
These influences are evident from Pelevin’s first collection of stories, many of which have a fantastic premiss, taking some ostensibly other world as their setting, or describing the inner lives and adventures of Soviet-style werewolves, talking chickens, or a farmyard barn possessed of soul and feelings. All in some way question conventional boundaries: the separation of life from death, the animate from the inanimate, the real from the imaginary, the ‘I’ that perceives from the universe perceived. At their core is a puzzle about the meaning of that ‘I’ and the extent of its freedom. We are both much less free, Pelevin suggests, than we imagine ourselves to be—and yet less free than we might be, could we but understand ourselves and our situation properly.