Monday, September 17, 2012
100 Books #87 - Victor Pelevin's THE YELLOW ARROW
Everybody knows by now that I'm a big fan of Victor Pelevin, but I've never read the novella via which he first came to international attention. Until now, when I came across a sweet little used hardcover edition at the Powell's mothership on vacation in Portland last week. Which I then, while waiting for my sister and hostess to get off work, proceeded to take to the nearest pub and devour over a few pints of Guiness, not only because it is Pelevin, but because it is also another entry in that weird trope of fictions concerning perpetual railroads about which I have written here before.
The Yellow Arrow is the name of this train, crossing the wilds of the post-Soviet frontier but never actually reaching its possibly no-longer-existent destination. The train has been travelling for so long that most of its passengers no longer remember their lives before boarding it; indeed, many seem no longer to believe that they had lives before becoming passengers. A whole slightly Kafkaesque culture has developed on board, complete with histories, competing mythologies, secret societies and yes, black market economic cartels based around the strip mining of the train itself for raw materials. There is a news media, a secret governing cabal, even a set of peculiar funeral customs that, bizarrely, do not involve treating the bodies of the dead as more raw material for recycling and reuse; though the train never stops to take on supplies, some kind of basic carbon/nitrogen/water inputs are coming in from somewhere, even though we are assured there is no inhabited world outside the train anymore.
Pelevin is still kind of finding his voice here (this work was originally published in 1993), but already playing well with his themes of absurdity and willful ignorance and misplaced faith and trust and the way in which mass media manipulates reality. Its protagonist, Andrei, feels very much like an early sketch of his later hero, Babylen of Homo Zapiens fame, somewhere between a naif and a sophisticate in the ways of his world, not sure he should trust his friends, not sure if they are his friends, but willing to do what he has to in order to make it all work for him somehow. If it's not quite as wickedly funny as Pelevin's later works, it's plenty philosophical, impossible not to read as a parable of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia (masterfully and weirdly, it manages to be both at once), and enjoyable. I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Pelevin -- I still think that should be Omon Ra -- but if you've found you've liked his other works and curious to have a peek at his beginnings, this is a must-see.