Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne
Gabo Kiado, Budapest
Rights acquired by
ART Editorial, Bucharest
The four protagonists of the novel have been friends since grade school. They live deep in the Russian outback. One of them, the nameless first-person narrator, is a sharpshooter in the guard-force of the local nuclear power plant. His friends Hotdog and Pepsi are attendants at a parking lot. Natasha, the fourth member of the gang, runs an international mail-order-bride agency called "Amour Transit." They are all together, watching the finals of the soccer World Cup, to which the Russian team has miraculously made it. Russia has a chance to tie, but then the referee scandalously denies Russia a penalty shot they deserved. What's the sense of living in a country that can't even make it in soccer? The friends decide to take revenge on the referee. Natasha searches the Internet and finds out that he is planning to take the waters at a Turkish spa in Antalya, and the four set off without delay.
The turbulent adventures that these four friends pack into just three days would be enough for a veritable action thriller, if it were not for the fact that the story is populated with these heroes. Pepsi and Hotdog are snorting coke all the time, and taking joints in between, which they pay for by selling gasoline that they siphon out of the cars at the parking lot that they are actually supposed to be guarding. Natasha—who has already slept with all three of the guys (the town is really too small)—is in cahoots with the intelligence services, which makes her marriage agency a profitable triangle. The potential grooms are often more interested in visiting the city which is closed to foreigners for military reasons, and everybody gets what they want: foreign husbands for one side of the triangle, secret information for another, and information about the collection of secret information for the third. The narrator sits in his watchtower day in and day out with his rifle in hand, dreaming of killing his boss, whom he can see through the telescopic sight, who has the disgusting habit of scratching his armpits and then smelling his hand in enjoyment.
These are strange heroes for a novel. They seem more like characters from a B-movie. They are corrupt, poorly brought up, uncivilized, believe in the family tree that they bough from some con artist who faked it, that shows them to be of noble birth, they believe in the color of their aura, and, most of all, they believe in TV. The trashed parking lot behind the gas station and the "All-inclusive" hotel in Antalya are perfectly suitable stage decorations for the show.
But then, something strange happens. The reader begins to develop a sympathy for these consumers of artificially produced edible, cultural and ideological goods, for these zombies who have lost their ability to enjoy life. "I channel surf to catch the commercials on TV. No movies, no cartoons—well, maybe 'Pinkie and the Brain'—nothing except commercials. They say that commercials turn people into zombies, so that they can sell all this shit. I can't eat. I don't like the stuff that they sell in the supermarket. It's all poison. And those disgusting clothes. I only buy clothes with the greatest of reluctance, and, then, really only to keep from freezing. I'd gladly be turned into a zombie, if that would give me back my ability to enjoy life, and my appetite … if it's all an illusion, then bring it on."
This is the tragedy of the modern consumer society that has to live by unwritten laws. The Presnyakov brothers' heroes find themselves bound by a variety of laws: patriotism, consumerism, communism (from when they were growing up), sexualism, as well as street credibility. And the fact that all these laws often contradict one another turns them into tragic figures caught up in comic complications.
The patriotic codex, for instance, gets in the way of the desire to make a good impression on Ilse, a co-ed from the Baltic, whose summer job to earn money is working as a stripper in Antalya. She asks the boys to fill in for her friends, who apparently drowned in the sea the day before, and take part in her evening show, on-stage at the hotel restaurant. Natasha finds out that the referee has signed up for the sauna and a massage that evening. The striptease show offers an excellent alibi, and at the same time opens up a chance to see Ilse naked, to shock the Turks, to prove to themselves how brave they are, while earning money at the same time. And in the breaks between the solo numbers to put their plan for revenge into action. As if that were not enough, they are going to do it with a bow and arrow that they picked up at a shooting gallery. Getting hold of a lethal arrowhead, however, requires a bit of improvisation. Hotdog has to give up the metal crowns on his teeth, which our heroes pry out of his mouth with a fork in the restaurant to the accompaniment of the amazed stares and groans of the children present. After that, they have his crowns hammered into an arrowhead at one of the craft booths in the hotel.
The plan seems to come off, even though the steam in the sauna is so thick that you can hardly see anything. They could leave, except for the fact that everything that the four of them shamelessly drank—champagne, brandy, the entire contents of the mini-bar—in this supposedly "All-inclusive" hotel is listed on the bill at check-out time. Ilse has disappeared with the fee for the evening's performance that was supposed to be split between them, and Natasha only has enough money to cover the hotel bill, which leaves them with nothing for the flight back. A hotel employee who comes from Baku comes to their rescue. He wants them to smuggle caviar for him. This means that on their way to the airport, they will just have to spend a couple of hours in caviar-filled plastic vests in the back of a refrigerated truck.
In the Epilog, the reader learns that our heroes have already made a number of "caviar" trips, and have installed a TV in their walk-in freezer, on which they suddenly see the referee from the World Cup running around alive and well.
The almost comic-book storytelling style of the book cannot gloss over the fact that the novel contains a number of deeply philosophical truths. Are our heroes perpetrators or victims? This question has to remain open. The authors of the play "Terrorism" know only too well what kinds of problems come up when you try to make a distinction here.
Each of the four heroes has his or her own story. Natasha's father decided one day to become a part of the world economy. He baked cakes that he swapped for the mass-produced products that were available in the supermarket. He was always happy when his bakery products were preferred to those of the big companies. He got caught one day, stupidly enough, shortly after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, when he was smuggling his home-made ice cream into a Nestlé freezer. He was given the choice of being sentenced to jail as a terrorist, or going to a psychiatric clinic as a nut case. He chose the latter.
The other heroes of the novel have problems of their own. For example, Pepsi has the strange habit of calling all animals "spider." The narrator understands him. "We are all spiders … We know, that when someone has spun a web, they have to do something else, but every pause is deadly, therefore, nobody can pause, and the less comprehensible your activity, the better."
Pepsi and Hotdog once conducted an experiment. They bought a banana and laced it with coke and gave it to a monkey in the zoo. The monkey ate the banana, climbed to the top of its artificial tree, and threw itself down from the height without trying to grab hold of a branch with its tail. The monkey had not only taken its own life, but had also robbed Hotdog of any sense of peace. "I tried to explain to him that he shouldn't get so wound up about it. It was only a monkey. But Hotdog replied that it seemed to him that we are all monkeys just like that one."
The first-person narrator is troubled by recurring memories of his military service, and only has one wish: to be able to forget that time in his life. He served in Chechnya, in the war that has turned so many people into shadows. When he got back home after the army, he dreamed of beginning a new life, but on the basis of his military training, the only job offered to him was the job as sharpshooter. One day, he locks himself in his apartment, opens the gas valve on the stove, and lies down on the couch. That evening, he is woken up by his mother, who tells him that she can only serve him sandwiches this evening, because the gas has been turned off all over the city. Now he knows that he is not living life, he is only existing.
Another time the narrator catches Natasha doing something strange at the computer: She is pasting the image of a bouquet of flowers into a picture of one of her agency's clients so that it looks like the client is holding the flowers. When she is finished, she eMails the doctored photo to the man in the West, who is interested in this woman. The men often send her money to buy flowers for their "beloved," but Natasha just thinks that this is another corner to cut. If she was proficient in all the computer programs of the world, wherever possible, she would "run the world right into the ground, or create a virtual new world, and we would believe her."
The Presnyakov brothers have been called "the ambassadors of international absurdity," but they could equally well be characterized as new realists, describing a new reality. Viktor Pelevin's heroes have always visited a different, parallel reality. The heroes of the Presnyakov brothers' have been damned to a reality stamped out of TV, advertising and wretchedness. "We are different, but we are also typical, and the society that people used to write books about and make movies about doesn't exist anymore. Nowadays, people are shaped by the products of culture. Doing business is the only thing that is important, not reflective thinking. If we've somehow landed in a comic book, then we have to keep up the action, otherwise we'll go out of production. … When I was a kid, I couldn't understand comic books: it was a revolting world, mutants, an environment laid waste, corrupt policemen and politicians, explosions, terrorists, disasters. People are afraid to take the subway, to fly in planes. It's only now that I understand them: the creators of the dumbest of the comic books predicted our future, or rather, they created our present. We are living in a comic-book world. Who can you have faith in? In a mutant in a latex costume?"
This modern rogue's novel—written for a new reading public, one that reads in a different way, one that needs a fast change of pace and tension—consciously permits itself unliterary situations and endings that would be forbidden in a "good" novel. Most of all, the novel's dialogue-rich style and refined changes of pace—like the plays by the Presnyakov brothers—make it terribly entertaining.