Pelevin’s Werewolves.

Having read Victor Pelevin’s Священная Книга Оборотня (2004), translated by Andrew Bromfield as The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, I’m not sure what to say about it. The narrator and protagonist, A Khuli (狐狸 huli is Chinese for ‘fox,’ and хули khuli is Russian for ‘what/why the fuck?’), was born in China a couple of thousands of years ago and is now working as a prostitute in Moscow; she looks like a girl in her early teens but is actually a werefox who uses her tail to hypnotically convince her clients they are having sex with her. She meets a high KGB (excuse me, FSB) officer named Alexander who turns out to be a werewolf with powers that enable him to find the oil his country needs in the Far North. They fall in love, and she explains to him the nature of reality, which is of course illusion, as in all Pelevin’s novels (the Heart Sutra is referred to more than once). As I wrote Lizok, “it’s standard-issue Pelevin (sex, drugs, computer games, corrupt business/power nexus, fancy brand names, plus a dollop of Eastern mysticism), but hey, I enjoy that mix, and he sure does know how to tell a story.” If you enjoy such things, I can recommend the novel; it’s longer than it needs to be, but it’s fun. Of course, there’s always the academic take on it, as in A History of Russian Literature by Kahn et al. (see this post):

The fox embodies the invigorating and restorative component of postmodernist cynicism descended from the long lineage of Soviet tricksters. The wolf reveals the underlying cynical foundations of post-Soviet negative self-identification and the neo-traditionalist politics of the 2000s and 2010s.

So there’s that too, if you like social significance. But I’m going to discuss some of the details I enjoyed.

For one thing, there’s the word оборотень itself. Unlike English werewolf, the usual translation, the Russian word refers to any werebeast (it’s derived from the verb оборотить ‘to turn’ (hence ‘turn into [something]’). Pelevin has been fascinated by them for a long time — his story «Проблема верволка в средней полосе» (A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, available in this collection) was published in 1991. The descriptions of how the characters change form and how they deal with the human world are convincing, though I find myself less and less interested in such fantasies; the interesting thing is that Pelevin has a hard time creating “human interest” in actual humans, whereas chickens and werebeasts seem to inspire him.

There are, as often in Russian novels, lots of writers mentioned, including Bulgakov, Bunin, Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Nabokov, Severyanin, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and Chekhov; less expected are the appearances of Derrida, Carlos Castaneda, Camille Paglia, Heidegger, Luchino Visconti, and Nat King Cole. There is a dollop of Norse mythology, including a reference to Naglfar. And Hermes Trismegistus also gets a look-in.

And here’s a nice passage about language (my translation):

“But still. Why do people need language, if nothing but trouble comes of it?”
“In the first place, to lie. In the second place, to wound each other with thorns of venomous words. In the third place, to discuss what doesn’t exist.”
“And about what does exist?”
I raised a finger [palets].
“What?” he asked. “Why are you giving me the finger [finger]?”
“This isn’t a finger. It’s a finger.”

— И все-таки. Зачем людям язык, если из-за него одни беды?
— Во-первых, чтобы врать. Во-вторых, чтобы ранить друг друга шипами ядовитых слов. В-третьих, чтобы рассуждать о том, чего нет.
— А о том, что есть?
Я подняла палец.
— Чего? — спросил он. — Чего ты мне фингер делаешь?
— Это не фингер. Это палец.

Unrelated, but I recently discovered that the Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language) has revamped its site. It looks weirdly shiny to me, but I suppose I’ll get used to it. My former links to it don’t seem to have broken, and that’s the main thing.


  1. Because A Huli is coded feminine should we call them wiffox?

  2. What would a Russian reader make of фингер?

  3. Hard to say. Pelevin obviously uses it in a “middle finger” sense, but it seems to be his personal quirk. Neither Russian national corpus nor google search show this usage. Pelevin used it with the same meaning in some other work of his.

  4. January First-of-May says

    Neither Russian national corpus nor google search show this usage.

    My own Google search for фингер жест did give one result that looked relevant, a forum discussion from 2011 (here’s an archive version with the original pics). But nothing else. (The other hits are mostly about people named Finger.)

    [Some further googling provided two more results, both in quotes and with the English term previously spelled out, as well as another instance from Pelevin.]

  5. Interesting; I wondered about that.

  6. “я подняла палец” is usually the index finger (and “О том, что есть, рассуждать не надо. Оно и так перед глазами. На него достаточно просто указать пальцем”)…

    Either Pelevin chose a strange way to hint on the middle finger, or the character chose a strange way to speak about the index finger.

  7. January First-of-May says

    Either Pelevin chose a strange way to hint on the middle finger, or the character chose a strange way to speak about the index finger.

    Indeed; I caught that too, originally, but then assumed that maybe there was something else in the context that hinted on a particular finger, and thus didn’t mention the incongruity.

  8. This non-Russian speaker (just one Russian class back as an undergraduate -back in the days when the earth’s crust was warm and computers a novelty- which I quickly dropped as half my fellow students were from the former Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact countries and were taking the class for some easy University credits, making the rest of us feel very stupid), who does remember what little Russian he acquired, is puzzled by the form Во-первых: I thought /vo/ was only used before certain consonant clusters: why isn’t it *В-первых?

    (Just guessing here): Is it the influence of Во-вторых, where the /vo/ instead of /v/ is expected?

  9. I guess it was a demonstration that language exists to “discuss what doesn’t exist”. In this interpretation палец exists and can be shown, but фингер doesn’t exist and requires language. Maybe I am overthinking it as usual.

  10. David Marjanović says

    хули khuli is Russian for ‘what/why the fuck?’

    I guess it’s best translated as dafuq

  11. I think the finger joke is Pelevin’s version of a Zen koan.

  12. I thought /vo/ was only used before certain consonant clusters: why isn’t it *В-первых?

    (Just guessing here): Is it the influence of Во-вторых, where the /vo/ instead of /v/ is expected?
    As far as I can see, the variation between v / vo (and for other prepositions) is not triggered by phonological features anymore (historically, the variants with /o/ came before clusters that were due to dropped yers), but has become lexicalised, leading both to analogical extension of the variant with /o/ that you mention, and to cases of the o-less variant before clusters (e. g. в Ктесифоне).

  13. Yes, I think Hans is right. I still find it confusing.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    re vo-pervykh, earlier texts also have v pervikh…potom or just v pervikh:
    Слушаем, Спасителю мой, твоего повеления: но что в той жене Лотовой особеннаго паче иных женщин; Буде тое, что столпом сланым, что солью стала: многия суть и ныне жены такия, которыя в первых сахаром мужу своему бывают, а потом солью.
    митрополит Стефан (Яворский). Проповеди (1700-1722) 
    ― в первых убо каменя Христа, на нем же верою православною утверждаешися; потом же каменя именем и истиною Петра, нынешняго всеавгустейшаго Монарха и всероссийскаго Повелителя…
     митрополит Стефан (Яворский). Торжественной колесницы путь сугубый… (1706)
    Да познаем, в первых, лютость и силу супостатскую.

    А тут в первых и есть пред очи скверное лице, мерзкая машкора, струп и студ твой, Малая Россие, измена Мазепина.
    архиепископ Феофан (Прокопович). Слово похвалное о баталии Полтавской (1717)

    While vo-pervikh or vo pervikh/vopervikh seem to be more common also in these earlier texts, is it possible that all of these were spoken the same way, e.g. v + schwa + pervikh?

  15. PlasticPaddy, I am sure there should be a carefully researched explanation, but in modern language ‘во-первых’ exists with ‘во’ only in the counting progression, even if counting ends at #1. In other settings like “в первых числах января” (= in the first days of January), “он зашел в первую дверь” (= he entered through the first door) it’s always bare ‘в’. Whatever are other reasons for continuing existence of ‘во’, in this case it is just a single fossilized expression. Your examples do seem like counting, but maybe they were not or maybe the clear distinction emerged only later.

  16. Or maybe it is because Yavorsky and Prokopovich were Ukrainians.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Just a few hours ago I listened to Solovyov’s latest meltdown, the one where he shouts on national TV that his underlings should have banned Elena33 from the show’s social-media presence long ago. The show’s title is written in the background and contains “с Владимиром”. The announcing voice at the beginning loudly and clearly says “со Владимиром”.

    Anyway, what’s up with “обо мне”? Why isn’t that just “о мне”?

  18. So Soloviev is now famous abroad:/

  19. DM, it’s “обо мне”, “обо что” and “обо все” no idea why.

    Obviously, Russian speakers do not like to say /svl/ and insert schwa (or drop /v/), which occasionaly turns into /o/ especially if you are speaking an o-friendly accent.

  20. David Marjanović says

    So Soloviev is now famous abroad:/

    As he said: “The whole West is laughing about us.”

    (…The very online part of the West anyway.)

  21. @DM, I dislike him much more than your generic propagandist. I found him rather disgusting when he first appeared (I still watched TV).
    When in 2014 I discovered that now he seriously influences Russian public, I was not glad.

  22. @David Marjanović: “Very online” sounds subtly wrong to me. I am more used to “extremely online,” although I’m sure both versions are out there.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen both. In terms of English As She Is Normally Spoke, I certainly agree that “very online” is a bit off.

  24. Alexander Herbert’s Lycanthropy in Russia: Victor Pelevin’s “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia” as Metaphor of Transformation has interesting things to say about werewolves in Russian tradition and literature.

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