Buddha's Little Finger, Page 1Victor Pelevin
Praise for Buddha’s Little Finger
“Pelevin’s fine absurdist mind takes on a bit of his country’s dubious history and molds it into a Buddhist retelling, in which the plague of doubt cultivated by Russia’s past plays beautifully. All the while, his story works with notions of personal and national identity, creating a dream world of delightful intensity and literary cunning.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The sharpest, most astute, and darkly witty Russian writer today.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Pelevin has often been compared, quite rightly, to the science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick…he has a gift for making complicated philosophical arguments feel both urgent and humane.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Don’t miss this book…it is driven by the profoundest sense of irony, fueled by Pelevin’s awesome ability to dance with the absurd…through all of it, there are immensely entertaining, more-or-less Socratic explorations of psychiatry, Marxism, cocaine, medical practice, politics, vodka, spirituality, Marist theology, Western and Asian philosophies, the Upanishads, Russian cultural nationalism.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“A riotous eruption of a book…hypnotically interesting and highly amusing…give yourself over to the wild enjoyment of joke after joke, extreme situations, mayhem, murder, violent combat, a crazy blend of Duck Soup and Gone with the Wind.”
—The Seattle Times
“A wild, intellectual, crisp and tightly-woven novel that startles, challenges, and delights…Pelevin doesn’t fit into any category, which is a characteristic of only the greatest writers.”
“Marvelous…provides a spirited exploration of the Buddhist road to enlightenment, of the borderland between history and its telling, and of the nature of reality itself.…Buddha’s Little Finger flies the reader to places never before imagined.”
“In a tale Gogol would be proud of, Pelevin trains his eye on a mythic Russian figure and finds a terrifying nothingness there…by far his strongest work.”
—Time Out New York
BUDDHA’S LITTLE FINGER
Victor Pelevin was born in 1962 in Moscow, where he lives today. His books include the novels Omon Ra and The Life of Insects, the novella The Yellow Arrow, and the story collections A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and The Blue Lantern, which won the Russian “Little Booker” Prize in 1993. Pelevin’s new novel, Homo Zapiens, will be published by Viking in February of 2002.
Buddha’s Little Finger
translated by Andrew Bromfield
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000
Published in Penguin Books 2001
Copyright © Victor Pelevin, 1996
Translation copyright © Andrew Bromfield, 1999
All rights reserved
Originally published in Russia under the title Chapaev I Pustota.
Published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber as The Clay Machine Gun.
An extract from Chapter 6 first appeared in Granta: Russia, The Wild East, 1998.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED
THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
[Chapaev i Pustota. English]
Buddha’s little finger / Victor Pelevin; translated by Andrew Bromfield.
1. Bromfield, Andrew. II. Title
PG3485.E38 C4813 2000
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Gazing at the faces of the horses and the people, at this boundless stream of life raised up by the power of my will and now hurtling into nowhere across the sunset-crimson steppe, I often think: where am I in this flux?
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, and it is published here under the name of the editor who prepared it for publication. This version does not include the descriptions of a number of magical procedures which figured in the original, nor does it retain the narrator’s rather lengthy reminiscences of his life in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg (the so-called Petersburg Period). The author’s definition of the genre of the work as ‘a peculiar flight of free thought’ has also been omitted: it would seem quite clear that it can only be regarded as a joke.
The story narrated by the author is of interest as a psychological journal which, while it undoubtedly possesses a number of artistic virtues, makes absolutely no claim to anything beyond that, although at times the author does undertake to discuss topics which, in our view, are in no need of discussion. The somewhat spasmodic nature of the narrative reflects the fact that the intention underlying the writing of this text was not to create a ‘work of literature’, but to record the mechanical cycles of consciousness in such a way as to achieve a complete and final cure for what is known as ‘the inner life’. Furthermore, in two or three places, the author actually attempts to point directly to the mind of the reader, rather than force him to view yet another phantom constructed out of words; unfortunately this is far too simple a task for his attempts to prove successful. Literary specialists will most likely perceive nothing more in our narrative than yet another product of the critical solipsism which has been so fashionable in recent years, but the true
value of this document lies in the fact that it represents the first attempt in the history of culture to embody in the forms of art the Mongolian Myth of the Eternal Non-Return.
Let us briefly introduce the main hero of the book. The editor of this text once read me a tanka written by the poet Pushkin:
And yet this year of gloom, which carried off
So many victims brave and good and beautiful,
Is scarce remembered even
In some simple shepherd’s song
Of sweet and soft lament.
In translation into Mongolian the phrase ‘brave victim’ has a strange ring to it; however, this is not the proper place to explore that theme, and we merely wished to point out that the final three lines of this verse could well be a reference to the story of Vasily Chapaev.
What is now known about this man? As far as we are able to judge, in the memory of the common people his image has assumed the features of pure myth, and Chapaev is now Russian folklore’s closest equivalent of the famous Khadji Nasruddin: he is the hero of an infinite number of jokes derived from a famous film of the 1930s, in which Chapaev is represented as a Red cavalry commander fighting against the White army, who engages in long, heart-to-heart conversations with his adjutant Petka and his machine-gunner Anka and finally drowns while attempting to swim across the Ural river during a White attack. All this, however, bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the life of the real Chapaev – or if there is some relation, then the true facts have been distorted beyond all recognition by conjecture and innuendo.
This tangled web of confusion originated with the book Chapaev, which was first printed in French by a Paris publishing house in 1923 and then reprinted with unaccountable haste in Russia: we shall not waste any time on demonstrating the book’s lack of authenticity. Anyone who wishes to make the effort will discover in it a mass of discrepancies and contradictions, while the very spirit of the book is the best possible proof that the author (or authors) had absolutely no involvement with the events which they endeavour in vain to describe. In addition, it should be noted that although Mr Furmanov did meet the historical Chapaev on at least two occasions, he could not possibly have been the author of this book, for reasons which will emerge in the course of our narrative. It is therefore hard to credit that even now many people regard the text ascribed to him as virtually a documentary account.
In fact, it is not difficult to detect behind this forgery, now more than seventy years old, the activity of well-financed and highly active forces which were interested in concealing the truth about Chapaev from the peoples of Eurasia for as long as possible. However, the very discovery of the present manuscript seems to us a clear indication that the balance of power on the continent has shifted.
To conclude, we have altered the title of the original text (which was ‘Vasily Chapaev’) precisely in order to avoid any confusion with the aforementioned fake. The title ‘Buddha’s Little Finger’ has been chosen as being adequately indicative of the major theme, while not overly suggestive, although the editor did suggest another alternative, ‘The Garden of the Divergent Petkas’.
We dedicate the merit created by this text to the good of all living creatures.
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha
—Urgan Jambon Tulku VII
Chairman of the Buddhist Front
for Full and Final Liberation (FFL (b))
Buddha’s Little Finger
Table of Contents
Tverskoi Boulevard was exactly as it had been when I last saw it, two years before. Once again it was February, with snowdrifts everywhere and that peculiar gloom which somehow manages to infiltrate the very daylight. The same old women were perched motionless on the benches; above them, beyond the black latticework of the branches, there was the same grey sky, like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God.
Some things, however, were different. This winter the avenues were scoured by a blizzard straight off the steppes, and I should not have been in the least surprised to have come face to face with a pair of wolves during the course of my walk. The bronze Pushkin seemed a little sadder than usual – no doubt because his breast was covered with a red apron bearing the inscription: ‘Long Live the First Anniversary of the Revolution’. I felt not the slightest inclination for ironical comment on the fact that the cheers were intended for an event which could not by definition last longer than a single day – just recently I had been afforded more than ample opportunity to glimpse the demonic face concealed behind such lapidary absurdities inscribed on red.
It was beginning to get dark, but I could still make out Strastnoi Monastery through the snowy haze. On the square in front of it were two open trucks, their tall side walls tightly strung with bright scarlet material; there was a crowd jostling around them and the orator’s voice carried to where I stood. I could scarcely make out anything of what he said, but the general meaning was clear enough from his intonation and the machine-gun rattle of the ‘r’ in the words ‘proletariat’ and ‘terror’. Two drunken soldiers walked past me, the bayonets on their rifles swaying behind their shoulders. They were hurrying towards the square, but one of them fixed his brazen gaze on me, slowed his pace and opened his mouth as though about to say something; fortunately – for him and for me – his companion tugged him by the sleeve and they walked on.
I turned and set off down the incline of the boulevard, guessing at what it was in my appearance that constantly aroused the suspicions of all these scum. Of course, I was dressed in outrageously bad taste; I was wearing a dirty coat cut in the English style with a broad half-belt, a military cap (naturally, without the cockade) like the one that Alexander II used to wear, and officer’s boots. But it did not seem to be just a matter of my clothes. There were, after all, plenty of other people around who looked far more absurd. On Tverskaya Street, for instance, I had seen a completely insane gentleman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles holding an icon ahead of him as he walked towards the black, deserted Kremlin, but no one had paid him the slightest attention. Meanwhile, I was all the time aware of people casting sidelong glances at me, and on each occasion I was reminded that I had neither money nor documents about my person. The previous day, in the water-closet at the railway station, I had tried sticking a red bow on my chest, but I removed it as soon as I caught sight of my reflection in the cracked mirror; with the ribbon I looked not merely stupid, I looked doubly suspicious.
It is possible, of course, that no one was actually directing their gaze at me any more than at anyone else, and that my tight-strung nerves and the anticipation of arrest were to blame for everything. I did not feel any fear of death. Perhaps, I thought, it had already happened, and this icy boulevard along which I was walking was merely the threshold of the world of shadows. I had realized long before that Russian souls must be fated to cross the Styx when it is frozen, with their fare collected not by a ferryman, but by a figure garbed in grey who hires out a pair of skates – the same spiritual essence, naturally.
Suddenly I could picture the scene in the finest of detail: Count Tolstoy in black tights, waving his arms about, skates over the ice towards the distant horizon – his movements are slow and solemn, but he makes rapid progress, and the three-headed dog barking soundlessly in pursuit has no chance of overtaking him. I laughed quietly, and at that very moment a hand slapped me on the shoulder.
I stepped to one side and swung round sharply, feeling for the handle of the revolver in my pocket, when to my amazement I saw before me the face of Grigory Vorblei, an aquaintance from childhood. But, my God, his appearance! He was dressed from head to toe in black leather, a holster with a Mauser dangled at his hip, and in his hand he was clutching a ridiculous kind of obstetrician’s travelling bag.
‘I’m glad you’re still capable of laughter,’ he said.
‘Hello, Grisha,’ I said, ‘how strange to see you.’
‘It just is strange.’
‘Where have you come from?’ he asked in a cheerful voice. ‘And where are you going?’
‘From Petersburg,’ I replied. ‘As for where I’m going, I’d be glad if I knew that myself.’
‘Then come to my place,’ said Vorblei, ‘I’m living just near by, with an entire flat all to myself.’
As we walked on down the boulevard we exchanged glances, smiles and meaningless snatches of conversation. Since the time of our last meeting, Vorblei had grown a beard which made his face look like a sprouting onion, and his cheeks had grown weathered and ruddy, as though his health had benefited greatly from several consecutive winters of ice-skating.
We had studied in the same grammar school, but since then we had seen each other only rarely. I had encountered him a couple of times in the literary salons of St Petersburg – he had taken to writing verse in a contrary style which was only heightened by its obvious self-satisfaction. I was rather irritated by his manner of sniffing cocaine in public and his constant hints at his connections in social-democratic circles; however, to judge from his present appearance, the hints must have been true. It was instructive to see someone who at one time was quite adept at expounding the mystical significance of the Holy Trinity now sporting the unmistakable signs of belonging to the hosts of evil. But then, of course, there was really nothing surprising in this transformation: many decadents, such as Mayakovsky, sensing the clearly infernal character of the new authority, had hastened to offer their services to it. 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 marvellously well.