Empire V, Page 1Victor Pelevin
The Prince of Hamlet
Translated by Anthony Phillips
2City of the Sun
7The Filing Cabinet
10The Five Rules of Love
11The Great Fall
16The Tree of Life
17Achilles Strikes Back
18Soldiers of the Empire
19Le Yeltsine Ivre
21The Red Ceremony
22Villa dei Misteri
23The Lord of This World
Also by Victor Pelevin
The locomotive is an ingenious construction, a
quality of which the locomotive is not itself aware.
Would anyone even think of making a locomotive
without an engineer to drive it?
Fr. Mitrofan Srebryansky
When I came to, I found myself in a large room full of old furniture, antiques perhaps. I could see a mirrored sideboard encrusted with fretwork stars, an elaborate escritoire, two nude life-studies and a small picture of Napoleon on horseback in the heat of battle. One wall was taken up by an elegant floor-to-ceiling filing cabinet in Karelian birch, its drawer-fronts embellished with variously coloured labels and insignia. Next to the cabinet stood a stepladder.
I became aware that I was not lying flat, as would be expected of a person recovering consciousness, but was upright. The reason I had not fallen down was that my arms and legs were firmly strapped to Swedish exercise bars attached to the wall. I deduced that the structure was a set of parallel bars – I could feel the outline of a wooden crossbeam through my fingertips. Other bars were pressing into my back.
On a small red divan against the opposite wall sat a man wearing a red dressing-gown and a black mask. The mask was like a top hat coming down over the head as far as the shoulders, or perhaps the cardboard Stahlhelms worn by the Teutonic Knights during the Battle on the Ice in the film Alexander Nevsky. A sharp protuberance marked the area of the nose; the eyes looked out through two oval holes; while a rectangular slit had been cut out round the mouth and covered by a piece of black material. The overall effect was something like mediaeval doctors one sees in engravings of the Black Death in Europe.
This was way over the top. So much so that I wasn’t even scared.
‘Good day to you,’ said the man in the mask.
‘Hello,’ I replied, ungluing my lips with difficulty.
‘What is your name?’
‘Roman,’ I said.
‘How old are you?’
‘Why have you not been called up into the army?’
Assuming he was having me on, I ignored the question.
‘I must ask you to excuse a certain theatricality in the setting,’ continued the man in the mask. ‘If you have a headache, it will soon pass. It comes from my having sprayed you with a special gas.’
‘What sort of gas?’
‘The kind that is used against terrorists. Nothing to worry about – it’s all over now. I advise you not to try calling for help. There is no point and it will do no good. The only outcome will be that I shall develop a migraine, which will spoil our conversation.’
The unknown man had a deep, confident voice. The cloth covering his mouth fluttered when he spoke.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘My name is Brahma.’
‘Why are you wearing a mask?’
‘Several reasons,’ said Brahma. ‘But in any case it is to your advantage. Should our relationship fail to progress to a satisfactory outcome, I shall be able to release you without any difficulty since you will not know what I look like.’
The prospect of eventually being allowed to go free was a relief, certainly. But the words might contain a trap.
‘What is it you want from me?’ I asked.
‘My desire is that a vital interest within a very important part of my body, and simultaneously of my spirit, should be stimulated in your direction. But this, you see, can only come about if you are a person of noble and aristocratic lineage …’
Man’s a maniac, I thought. Main thing is not to upset him. Better distract him by talking …
‘Why must I be of noble and aristocratic lineage?’ I asked.
‘The quality of the red liquid in your veins plays an important role. There is little chance of it, however.’
‘And what do you mean by a vital interest?’ I enquired. ‘Is the idea that I should be alive when this takes place?’
‘I can see I shall get nowhere with you by trying to explain it in words,’ said Brahma. ‘You need a demonstration.’
Rising from the sofa, he came towards me, folded back the black cloth covering his mouth, and leaned towards my right ear. Sensing a stranger’s breath on my face I shrank back, anticipating something loathsome.
What a fool I’ve been, I thought. Whatever possessed me to come here?
But nothing happened. Having breathed into my ear, Brahma turned away and went back to the sofa.
‘I could have bitten you on your arm,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, however, your arms are numb as a result of having been bound. The effect would not be the same.’
‘I suppose it was you who bound them?’
‘Yes,’ sighed Brahma. ‘No doubt I should apologise for my actions. I see that they must appear strange and reprehensible. Nevertheless, all will soon become clear.’
Settling himself on the divan and staring at me as though I were an image on a television screen, he studied me for several seconds, now and then clicking his tongue. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘I am not a sex maniac. You may rest easy on that score.’
‘Well, what are you?’
‘I am a vampire. Vampires are not perverts. They may sometimes pretend to be. But their interests and goals are entirely other.’
No, this is no common or garden pervert I’m dealing with here, I thought. This one’s insane as well. I must keep him talking to distract his attention.
‘A vampire? Do you drink blood?’
‘Not by the glassful,’ replied Brahma, ‘and it is not the basis of my self-identification … Although in a sense you are correct.’
‘So why do you drink it?’
‘It is the best method of getting to know another person.’
The eyes visible through the oval holes blinked several times. Then the mouth behind the black cloth said: ‘There was a time when the two trees growing on the wall, a lemon tree and an orange tree, were more than trees – they were gates to a secret, magic world. And then something happened. The gates vanished, to be replaced by nothing but two oblong pieces of canvas hanging on the wall. Not only did the gates disappear, so did the world to which they led. Even the dreaded flying dog that stood guard over the entrance to the world reverted to being a wicker fan bought in some tropical resort or other …’
To say I was impressed by this account woul
d fail utterly to describe its effect on me. I was stunned. What to any ordinary person would have been complete gibberish, to me was the secret code unlocking my childhood. Even more astounding, the only person in the world capable of formulating it was myself. Even though I was lost for words, after a while I could restrain myself no longer.
‘I don’t understand. I suppose I might have said something about the pictures while I was unconscious. But I could not possibly have said anything about the magic world on the other side of the gates, because that was not how I thought of it. Nevertheless, now you put it like that, I can see that, yes, that is exactly what it was …’
‘But perhaps you don’t know why it happened as it did?’
‘No, why did it?’
‘The enchanted world in which you formerly lived was the invention of a grasshopper hidden in the grass. Then along came a frog, and the frog ate the grasshopper. From that moment on, even though nothing changed in your room, you no longer had anywhere to live.’
‘Yes!’ I cried, taken aback. ‘That’s true as well. You have told it exactly as it happened.’
‘Please think of something,’ said Brahma, ‘anything that comes into your head, as long as it is something only you know about. Then ask me a question about it, the answer to which only you would know.’
‘All right, I will,’ I said, and plunged into thought. ‘Well, for instance … there was a fan hanging on the wall at home – you’ve already mentioned it. How was it attached to the wall?’
Behind the holes in the mask, Brahma closed his eyes.
‘It was glued. And the glue had been applied in the shape of the letter X. Not a conventional cross, but specifically an X.’
Brahma raised his hand. ‘Just a moment. You glued the fan to the wall because you had come to believe it was really a vampire dog which would come down at night and bite you. Such an idea is, needless to say, not only arrant nonsense but an insult to true vampires.’
‘How do you know all this?’
Brahma rose from the sofa and came over towards me. Lifting the black cloth with one finger, he opened his mouth, revealing large, strong, nicotine-stained teeth. So far as I could see there was nothing unusual about the teeth, except perhaps that the canines were a little whiter than the others. Brahma raised his head to give me a view of his palate. In the middle was a peculiar, corrugated, orange-coloured membrane, as if a fragment of dental bridgework was adhering to it.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘That is the Tongue,’ said Brahma, carefully enunciating the word, making two syllables of it and freighting them with emphatic deliberation.
‘Tongue?’ I echoed.
‘Not a human tongue. It is the soul and essence of a vampire.’
‘Is it the Tongue that allows you to know things?’
‘But how does it do that?’
‘There is no point in trying to explain. If you want to understand, you will have to become a vampire yourself.’
‘I’m not sure I want to do that.’
Brahma returned to his seat on the sofa.
‘You see, Roma,’ he said, ‘for all of us, what is to be is decided by fate. You came here yourself. And I have very little time.’
‘Are you going to be my teacher?’
‘No. Teaching is manifest not in the person of a vampire, but in his nature. Initiation consists in the vampire biting his student. However, it does not follow that a person has merely to be bitten by a vampire to become one. As they say in bad films, ha ha, that only happens in bad films …’
He chuckled at his own little joke. I too essayed a smile, but it was not a success.
‘There is one particular bite,’ he went on, ‘of which a vampire is capable only once in his life. And then only if the Tongue wills it. By tradition, this can take place on the day of the summer solstice. And here you are. My Tongue is about to transfer to you.’
‘How do you mean – transfer?’
‘In the literal sense. Physically. But I must warn you, the experience will be painful, both at first and later on. You will feel unwell, as though you had been bitten by a poisonous snake. You should not worry – it will pass.’
‘Could you not have found someone else to instruct?’
Brahma paid no attention to the question.
‘You may lose consciousness for a while. Your body will become numb. Possibly you will be visited by hallucinations. Possibly not. But whatever happens there is one effect you are certain to experience.’
‘What is that?’
‘You will recall everything that has happened in your life. The Tongue finds out and familiarises itself with your entire past life – it must know everything about you. Something similar is said to happen when a person drowns. But you are a young man and your drowning will not take long.’
‘And what will you do while this is going on?’
Brahma made a peculiar, strangled noise in his throat.
‘Don’t, er, worry about me. I have a meticulously worked out plan of action.’
With these words, he took a step towards me, grabbed hold of my hair with his hand and bent my head down to my shoulder. I thought he was going to bite me, but instead he bit his own finger. Blood immediately flowed over his wrist.
‘Keep still,’ he said. ‘It will be better for you.’
The sight of blood unnerved me, and I obeyed. He brought his bloodied finger up to my forehead and wrote there something with it. Then without warning he sank his teeth into my neck.
I tried to cry out but could manage no more than a half-choked moan: the angle at which he was holding my head made it impossible for me to open my mouth. The pain in my neck was unbearable, as though a crazed dentist were jabbing his electric drill into my jaw. For one second I was sure that the hour of my death had arrived, and I was reconciled to it. Then, suddenly, all was over. Brahma let go of me and leapt backwards. I felt blood on my cheek and on my neck, and saw that his mask and the cloth over his mouth were smeared with it.
I realised the blood was not mine but his own. It flowed out of his mouth down his neck, across his chest, down the red dressing-gown and splashed to the floor in viscous drops. Something appeared to have happened to Brahma; it was as though he, not myself, was the one to have been bitten. Swaying on his feet he returned to his red sofa, sat on it, and began to shuffle his feet agitatedly to and fro on the parquet.
There flashed into my mind Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublyov, the scene where a time-hallowed punishment is being inflicted on a monk, the pouring of molten metal into his mouth. The whole time leading up to his execution the monk lets fly at his torturers with a continuous stream of the most hideous curses, but from the moment when they begin pouring the metal down his gullet he utters not another word, while his whole body continues to jerk and twitch mercilessly. This silence was the most dreadful thing of all, and in the same way it was the silence of my interlocutor that now caused me the greatest terror.
Still shuffling his feet, he reached into the pocket of the dressing-gown, produced a small nickel-plated pistol, and shot himself in the head through the side of the cylindrical mask that covered his face. His head rocked from side to side, the hand holding the pistol slumped to the sofa, and he lay still.
At that moment I felt a kind of faint movement in my neck, just beneath the jaw. It was not exactly painful, more as though I was feeling it through an anaesthetic injection, but it was deeply unpleasant. Not long after I began to lose consciousness, so that my memory of what then took place is confused. I was being drawn inexorably towards sleep.
Brahma had spoken the truth. My past life began to appear in a series of trance visions, as though someone was screening in a small, intimate cinema inside my head a documentary film of my childhood. How strange, I thought, my greatest fear was
always vampires …
CITY OF THE SUN
From the time of my birth, I lived with my mother in Moscow. Our flat was in a building belonging to the Professional Dramatists Union, not far from the Sokol Metro station. It was a multi-storey beige brick structure, built in a vaguely Western style and enjoying Soviet Category A status – the sort of building usually inhabited by Central Committee nomenklatura and select echelons of the Soviet intellectual elite. Black Volga cars with flashing beacons were always to be seen around the building, and one could not fail to notice that the cigarette ends that littered the staircase and elevator landings were those from the most coveted American brands. My mother and I occupied a small two-room flat of the kind known in occidental lands as a ‘one-bedroom’.
My formative years were spent in this one bedroom, which had clearly been envisaged as such by the architect. It was small and elongated, with a tiny window overlooking a car park. I was not permitted to arrange it according to my tastes: my mother chose the colour of the wallpaper, decreed the location of the bed and the table, and even the pictures on the walls. This last was the subject of many disagreements: after I once called her a ‘little Soviet tyrant’ we were not on speaking terms for a week.
For my mother, no more offensive accusation could have been imagined. A ‘tall, thin woman with a faded face’, as a playwright neighbour once described her to a policeman, she had in her youth been associated with various dissident circles. In memory of this affiliation she often used to play to visitors a tape recording of a baritone with a reputation for defying the establishment. This man was reading some heretical verses, to which my mother’s voice could be heard contributing a sarcastic commentary from somewhere in the background. The baritone declaimed:
Your nickel’s in the Metro slot
And two plain-clothes cops are on your tail …
While queuing for another vodka shot
You know they’ll haul you off to jail.
At this point my mother’s youthful voice intruded itself: ‘Why don’t you read the one about Solzhenitsyn and that cunt with the bushy eyebrows?’