In this surreal story by Victor Pelevin, young Lena is employed to stand naked for hours at a time and sing.
She and her fellow caryatids are green-painted ornaments in the malachite hall of an elite underground nightclub. To enable them to keep sufficiently still for up to two days, they are given doses of a classified serum, Mantis-B, whose unusual side-effects form the thrust of the narrative.
In true postmodern style, these drug-induced episodes are interspersed with other voices: pseudo-pretentious extracts from the magazine Counterculture; a lecture from an ideologist; and encounters with other bizarre denizens of this subterranean world, such as concept artists, girls dressed as mermaids, important clients in bathrobes and the sinister, ironic, slogan-toting Uncle Pete.
The caryatids come to life if a client wishes them to and no fantasy is too excessive. The hired ideologist tells the sex workers that enemies are trying to brainwash them with a sense of economic injustice by printing photos of oligarchs in the media and describing their freakish whims and revels.
Pelevin has perplexed and delighted readers with his polyphonic sci-fi comedy for two decades. In his first novel, Omon Ra (1992), the hero attempts to escape the Soviet nightmare by becoming a cosmonaut, only to find himself part of a farcical mock-heroic moon landing.
The Russian Film Festival in London opened in November with the UK premiere of Generation P, a film adaptation of Pelevin’s book set in the chaotic Nineties as seen through the eyes of a poet turned copywriter.
Pelevin’s most recent selection of stories, Pineapple Water for a Beautiful Lady (published last year), has been shortlisted for the Nose award for new literature.
Pelevin’s novels draw interesting parallels: Lena and Omon are victims of the systems they live under, duped by the authorities and kept literally and metaphorically in the dark. In the novel, the building of a secret entertainment complex for politicians and businessmen echoes the construction of Stalin's wartime bunker beneath Izmailovo, where a sports stadium was built above ground to conceal it.
Pelevin’s nightclub is built 1,000ft underground to double as “a bomb shelter for the national elite in case of war or terrorist
The Hall of the Singing Caryatids was published last month in Andrew Bromfield’s English translation. It forms part of New Directions’ series of literary pearls described as “miniature masterpieces”. The story first appeared in a 2008 collection of Pelevin’s short stories, with the surreal title: P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan.
Recreating this dream-like fable as a stand-alone novella possibly throws too much symbolic weight on to the story’s delicate frame. Butthis comic gem makes a perfect introduction for English-speakers to Pelevin’s multi-faceted work, as well as a welcome addition to his oeuvre for existing fans. ...