Finally, there is some information available on the English translation of Umberto Eco’s new novel. The US edition will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 3, 2015. The UK publisher Harvill Secker will release the book two days later. Judging by the preliminary information, the title of the English translation will remain the same as that of the original: Numero Zero. However, the November of 2015 is still pretty far away, and anything can change by that time. The novel’s translator is Richard Dixon, who has also translated Umberto Eco’s penultimate novel The Prague Cemetery. It will be interesting to see the reception of the novel by the English language reader. The Italian response was a tad lukewarm, which is understandable since the events discussed in the novel are too familiar for most of Italians; as a result, Numero Zero didn’t offer them that thrill of discovery which was definitely present in his other novels. As for myself, I ended up quite liking this small book, which could serve as a perfect introduction to Umberto Eco’s formidable oeuvre as it has all the major themes of the Italian intellectual in homeopathic doses. And you know what, when I come to think of it, I realise that I am rather discombobulated by the zero translation of the title. Is it really impossible to come up with any appropriate equivalent in English? If you think that my variant Zero Issue is lame, you can offer your solutions. The translator of On Literature Englished it as Dummy Run.
Losers, such as autodidacts, always possess knowledge vaster than that of winners. If you want to win, you have to know one single thing and not to waste your time on knowing everything: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers.
This bitter statement by the main character of Umberto Eco’s new novel refers primarily to himself. He is an extremely well-read loser who failed to get a university degree neglecting the lectures to work on translations from German, a very lucrative language at the time. His subsequent jobs included tutoring, writing for newspapers, editing, reading manuscripts, and ghostwriting. It is the experience in the last activity which helps Colonna (we never learn the protagonist’s first name) to land a well-paid but rather strange job which will turn his life upside down.
It is the April of 1992, and the fifty-year old Colonna arrives in Milan to meet a certain Simei who wants him to ghost-write a book titled Tomorrow: Yesterday to be released under Simei’s name. The book in question is supposed to be his memoirs recounting a year of work on a new daily newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow) that will never get published. The sponsor of the doomed project is Vimercate, a rich owner of hotels, nursery homes, TV channels, and tabloids. For the duration of a year, the eccentric tycoon wants to create and maintain a simulacrum of the editorial staff who will produce a dozen of “zero issues” of the newspaper, that is not “real” issues, but just mock-ups not meant for wide circulation. Except for Simei, who has been designated as the editor-in-chief, and Colonna, who will work as his assistant, the newspaper staff are to stay oblivious of the fact that the daily will never be launched. The six editors, five men and one woman, are employed to create sensationalist content that would predict political and social upheavals as well as claim to reveal shocking truths liable to ruin the reputations of the rich and the powerful . According to Simei, Vimercate’s ultimate goal is to snake his way into the so-called salotto buono, a small circle of industrialists, politicians, and bankers controlling the economy of Italy. Vimercate will make sure that the dummy issues purporting to unmask the members of this clique will be seen by some of them, which will lead to his admission into their club in exchange for scrapping the dangerous newspaper. Without much hesitation, Colonna accepts Simei’s proposal and knuckles down to work in the Potemkin village that passes itself off as the editorial office of Domani.
From this point, we follow three major narrative threads: the daily work of the editorial staff (which allows Eco to lampoon the vices of contemporary journalism), the love story between Colonna and the only female editor of the newspaper called Maia, and the conspiracy theory developed by Bragadoccio, Colonna’s other colleague. The descriptions of heated discussions during editorial meetings sparkle with Swiftian satire, ridiculing the way newspapers and magazines distort facts and create sensations out of nothing. When briefing his subordinates on the modus operandi for breaking news, Simei explains the basic principles of manipulating the available information to achieve the desired effect on the reading public. A classical example is putting four disparate pieces of news with a common “theme” on the same page to create a fifth news item. At Simei’s request, Colonna lectures his colleagues on the techniques of writing a retraction as a response to an accusatory letter from a disgruntled reader condemning one of the newspaper’s articles as mendacious. Using the assassination of Julius Caesar as the subject matter of this imaginary correspondence, Colonna composes a retraction which instead of refuting the rogue article contrives to reaffirm its allegations. Once the general policy of the daily has been established, each staff member comes up with various topics for articles, most of which get discarded in the course of editorial meetings. Some of the rejected material includes: the negative influence of the environmental pollution on the size of the penis, the strange longevity of an unpopular pizzeria which might be used by mafia for money-laundering, the scams practised by numerous fake Maltese orders offering knighthood for a considerable remuneration. Maia who is tasked with preparing horoscopes, becomes increasingly upset with the policy of the editor-in-chief, as all her creative ideas are summarily dismissed without much consideration. She finds consolation in the affair with Colonna who persuades her to stay in the team despite Simei’s slights and the unscrupulous ambiance in the office of the newspaper. The love between Colonna and Maia, while being important for propelling the plot, is not the most successful element of the novel. Not that in his previous novels Eco has been especially good at describing romance. The Italian writer’s true might is manifested when it comes to re-visiting seminal historical events, drawing unexpected connections and exposing hidden conspiracies. That is why the most fascinating episodes of the novel are meetings between Colonna and Braggadocio in which the latter gradually entrusts his colleague with a complicated plot he has recently disclosed.
Braggadocio is a tragicomic figure whose name, despite sounding Italian, comes from an English word derived from the Italian-sounding name Bragadocchio coined by Edmund Spencer for a conceited character in Faerie Queene. Driven by compulsive mythomania and probably paranoia, Braggadocio comes up with an outlandish theory regarding the fate of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The journalist is convinced that in 1945 it was Mussolini’s double who was executed, whereas the real dictator managed to escape unscathed to Argentina, a popular destination for many WWII criminals. He shares this discovery with Colonna, supporting his claim by presenting a number of well-known facts glazed with conspiracy-based interpretations. The most macabre evidence of Braggadocio’s theory is Mussolini’s autopsy report, which he extensively quotes and comments upon. As a matter of fact, this symbolic disinterment of Mussolini’s corpse marks a watershed in the novel, as the narrative becomes more morbid and grotesque, as if the violent and tragic past of Italy began to invade the present and infect it with its horrible diseases. Colonna lends a sympathetic ear to the delirious myth-making of Braggadocio, perfectly realising that the man must be bonkers.
Braggadocio’s paranoid vision acquires maximum complexity when the notorious operation Gladio enters the equation. To tell the truth, I had not known anything about Gladio before reading Umberto Eco’s new novel. There is a two-and-a-half hour BBC documentary about it, but I didn’t have the serendipity of stumbling upon it prior to the publication of Numero Zero. Gladio used to be a network of stay-behind paramilitary groups secretly formed in the territories of all Western countries after WWII. The primary function of these troops was to offer armed resistance behind the enemy lines if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. These shadow operatives recruited mostly from right-wing organisations were supervised by the American and British secret services. When the existence of Gladio was revealed after the Cold War, a series of investigations shocked the public by connecting the stay-behinds with terrorist acts against civilian population and functionaries within state institutions who allegedly had used the secret army to effect the so-called strategy of tension. The main goal of this strategy was to demonstrate to people the danger of the rising left and to induce them to ask the government for additional security.
One of the key scenes in the novel is Colonna’s and Braggadocio’s visit to the church San Bernardino alle Ossa. The conspiracy-seeking journalist has chosen its famous ossuary as the most appropriate place to tell Colonna about Gladio and its role in a number of violent and mysterious events. The bone-encrusted chapel of San Bernardino becomes a powerful symbol of Italian history. Not just a cupboard with a skeleton or two, but a vast chamber packed with bones and skulls: it will take more than one generation to sort out the multitude of shameful secrets hidden from the public by the powers that be.
The place was deserted save for a little old woman who was praying in a pew in the first row with her head between hands. Death’s heads squeezed into high recesses between pilasters, boxes of bones, skulls arranged in the shape of the cross set into a mosaic of whitish stones which also were bones, perhaps fragments of vertebral columns, articular joints, clavicles, sterna, scapulae, coccyges, carpi and metacarpi, patellae, tarsi, tali, who knows? Bone edifices rose everywhere leading the eye vertically to a Tiepolesque vault; luminous and cheerful, it was enveloped by pink and creamy clouds with angels and triumphant souls hovering in between. On the horizontal shelf above the old barred door skulls with gaping eye-sockets were aligned like porcelain jars in apothecary cabinets. In the recesses level with visitors, protected by a wide-mesh grille through which it was possible to slip fingers, the bones and skulls were polished and shiny like the feet of St. Peter’s statue in Rome through the centuries-old touch of either devout or necrophiliac hands. There were approximately a thousand skulls, at least, and as for smaller bones, it was impossible to count them; on the pilasters stood out monograms of Christ composed of tibia which seemed to have been removed from the Jolly Rogers of the Tortuga pirates.
“These are not only the bones of lepers”, Braggadocio told me as if there was nothing more beautiful in the world. “They are skeletons coming from other burials in the vicinity, especially the corpses of convicts, patients who died in the Brolo hospital, the beheaded, prisoners who died in jails, probably also thieves or brigands who came to die in the church because they didn’t have another place where they could bite the dust in peace — The Verziere was a quarter with awful reputation. This old woman makes me laugh: she is here to pray as though it was the sepulchre of a saint with holy relics, whereas these are remains of rogues, bandits, damned souls. And yet the old monks were more compassionate than the buriers and exhumers of Mussolini, just look at the care, at the love for art (and also the cynicism, who would deny it?) with which they arranged these skeletal remains as if they were Byzantine mosaics. The little old woman is seduced by these images of death, mistaking them for images of holiness; I won’t be able to show anymore where exactly, but beneath this altar it should be possible to see the half-mummified body of a girl who during the night of the dead, they say, comes out with other skeletons to perform her danse macabre.
Not unlike the monks of San Bernardino, Braggadocio creates a mosaic of great conspiracy, arranging facts, half-truths, speculations, and downright fantasies into an intricate pattern. I am not going to examine in detail this complex edifice populated by politicians, ecclesiastics, war criminals, terrorists, law-enforcement officers, mafiosi, Freemasons, and other noteworthy representatives of Italian society. Braggadocio thinks he has now enough material to publish it in twelve installments in all the twelve zero issues of Domani. We may find it rather amusing: a make-believe conspiracy to be revealed in a make-believe newspaper. However, a seasoned reader of Eco’s writing by now should have realised that a pandora’s box of real consequences is about to be opened, for quite often reality is far more unbelievable than any penny dreadful.
Zero Issue was supposed to be Eco’s fourth novel. He started writing it after The Island of the Day Before was published, but at some point he abandoned it and wrote Baudolino instead. In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco reveals to us that one of the reasons he shelved Zero Issue was that its characters were too similar to the ones featured in Foucault’s Pendulum. No doubt about that. This slim novel could easily become one of the subplots of the Italian writer’s sprawling second book. Colonna cannot help but remind us of Casaubon, and the editorial staff working on the sensationalist newspaper immediately brings to mind the employees of the publishing houses Garamond and Manuzio, who, for their own amusement, concoct a plan of world domination. Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between the two novels. The main message of Foucault’s Pendulum is an admonition against looking for connections where there are none. In case of Zero Issue, I would argue, this idea is less prominent, although it is obviously there; suffice it to look at the epigraph by E. M. Forster: “Only connect!” In his last novel, Eco wants to alert us to the fact how inured we have become to truly outrageous events through our overexposure to the media. The blasé consumer of news regards a disclosure which in another time and place would lead to mass riots and perhaps a revolution as just another sensation and forgets it the next day because there are always more to come.
Finally, if anyone would like to read up on the events mentioned in the novel while waiting for the English translation, here is a list of recommended literature:
Daniele, Ganser. NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe .
Dickie, John. Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’s Three Mafias.
Foot, John. Milan since the Miracle.
Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988.
Hibberd, Matthew. The Media in Italy.
Hibbert, Christopher. Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce.
Luzzato, Sergio. The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy.
Willan, Philip. Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy.
The European civilisation subjugated and humiliated by the onslaught of Islamist hordes, the forced conversions, the public executions in the squares, the burning of “profane” books, all this to the accompaniment of a plangent summons of a muezzin up in the minaret of a gigantic mosque erected on the site of the torn-down Notre Dame de Paris… If this is how you imagine the new novel by Michel Houellebecq, my advice is: spare the money and buy some science fiction dystopia dealing with the subject instead. I guess there should be something on the market these days. At the end of the day, Submission is not so much about the dreaded islamisation of Europe, as it is about the problem of getting laid for the man on the wrong side of forty. Just like the rest of Houellebecq’s works, n’est-ce pas?
Submission is a breezy read and ideal fodder for the hungover reviewer recuperating from a spell of overindulgency during the Christmas and New Year holidays. What I like about Houellebecq is that his books don’t send me to the dictionary too often, a fancy phrase or an abstruse word is not the hallmark of his rather pedestrian writing style. It’s opinions, observations, and once again opinions, which matter the most when one opens any of his books.
To get it out of my system from the very outset, I will allow myself the luxury of alluding to Karl Marx’s oft-quoted statement about historical facts occurring the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce. In case of Houellebecq, there is a farce at the beginning, and genuine ennui the second time. Yes, he does it again. In his new novel he rips off whole sentences (sometimes with minor alterations) from French Wikipedia, just the way he did in his Prix Goncourt winning The Map and the Territory . You surely must remember the debate about his borrowings from the free encyclopedia in the previous novel. This time he steals from the article about the Greek mythological prophet Casandra. Maybe there is more, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t bother to check further. With his Submission, Houellebecq seems to have fully (excuse the awful pun) submitted to the cliché-ridden concept of what a typical Houellebecq novel should be like. He ticks all the boxes, knowing quite well, that it is exactly what his numerous readers crave for.
The novel is set in 2022. The protagonist of Submission is a 44-year old professor of literature at Sorbonne called François. He is a specialist in K. J. Huysmans, giving lectures on 19th century French literature and occasionally publishing articles in the scholarly magazine Journal des dix-neuviémistes. After a succession of various affairs with the female students at the university (first as a fellow-student, then as an instructor) he finds his ability to experience sexual pleasure on the wane and starts spending more time masturbating to online pornography. He is bitter, callous, cynical, frustrated, a bit of a racist, quite a lot of a misogynist, … you name it.
François’s life radically changes after the Muslim candidate Mohammed Ben Abbes is elected president of France. This becomes possible because the Socialist Party, The Union for a Popular Movement and The Union of Democrats and Independents enter into a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood (an imaginary party of French Muslims) to prevent the National Front from winning the elections. As a result of the agreement between the members of the coalition, François Bayrout (the current leader of the Democratic Movement in France) is appointed prime minister. From the very beginning it becomes apparent that he has no political weight of his own, his main role being to unconditionally support the new policy of the Muslim president. What is noteworthy, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not so much interested in the economy of the country as in the demographics and education. The new government carries out major reforms in public schools and state universities. As a result, the main university in France gets renamed as the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne and is lavishly funded by the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia. Women lecturers are summarily dismissed, and all the female students have to wear the veil. As you can imagine, such a turn of events is unlikely to rejoice the middle-aged womanising academic. Of course, these changes are just part of the major political and cultural overhaul initiated by the new authorities. Being moderate Muslims, the Brotherhood do not do anything rash, at least not yet. The changes in the society are gradual, even subtle, but still quite considerable already in the first month of Mohammed Ben Abbes’ tenure.
François spends the turbulent change of the regime away from the rioting Paris in the town of Martel (ironically enough, near the site of the historic Battle of Tour in which the Muslim invasion of Europe was checked in 732) most of the time cut off from any information about what is going on in the capital. When he finally returns to Paris, it is the noticeable alterations in the female fashion which alert him to the fact that France is becoming a different country:
And the female clothes had changed; I felt it immediately, although failing to analyse this transformation. The number of Islamic veils had hardly increased; it wasn’t that, and it took me almost an hour of wandering to grasp all at once what had changed: all the women were wearing trousers. The detection of women’s thighs, the mental projection reconstructing the pussy at their crossing, the process whose power of excitement is directly proportional to the length of the naked legs: all this was in me so much involuntarily, automatic, genetic as it were, that I had not become aware of the fact immediately, but the evidence was there, dresses and skirts had disappeared. A new garment had also become widespread: a kind of long cotton blouse reaching the mid-thigh, which killed all the objective interest in skintight trousers certain women could have eventually worn. As for shorts, they were obviously out of the question. The contemplation of the female ass, a small dreamy consolation, had also become impossible.
Upon his return to Paris, François also learns that as a non-Muslim he has lost his position at the university. This might have been a cause for serious financial concern if the Saudi funding had not provided him with a pension of 3,472 Euros a month. For his colleagues who have chosen to convert so that they can teach at the new university, the situation has turned into something straight from One Thousand and One Nights: they start receiving a whopping 10,000-Euro monthly salary as well obtaining beautiful young wives. As for François, his chances of finding a female companion are rather low at this point. The only mistress pool available to him, i. e. the female university students, has become inaccessible after his retirement. He has to resort to an Internet escort service after his Jewish girlfriend has left France for Israel — understandably enough, the prospect of living in a country ruled by Muslims has triggered a wave of Jewish emigration.
When François comes into rich inheritance left by his father, he realises that he does not have to work for a living any more. But the financial comfort and the opportunity to use prostitutes cannot completely satisfy the retired professor, as there is still smouldering need for scholarly accomplishment and genuine female interest. The former suddenly becomes possible thanks to the commission by the renowned Bibliothèque de la Pléiade to supervise the publication of the annotated collected works of Huysmans within the series. François jumps on the opportunity and starts preparing notes and the preface to this edition. While he is pursuing the task, we learn quite a lot about this writer and his life. One of the most significant moments in Huysmans’ biography is his sudden conversion to Catholicism which he later fictionalised in the second volume of the Durtal tetralogy. We cannot help but start realising that by revisiting Huysmans’ life and work in his editorial endeavour, François might be also on his way to conversion, although in his case it will not be Catholicism, that’s for sure.
When François pays a visit to the president of the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne, a Belgian convert called Robert Rediger, he accidentally runs into his teenage wife Aisha domestically dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She is his second wife. Later he meets the first one, the forty-year old Malika who cooks exceptionally delicious puffed pastry. The physical merits of one wife and the culinary skills of the other make a lasting impression on the guest. During their conversation, Redeger provides a host of arguments in favour of Islam, even falling back on the major discoveries in astronomy and physics that, in his opinion, support the fact of the existence of the unique God. When the meeting is over, the president gives François his Ten Questions about Islam, a brief overview of the major principles of the religion. It is not surprising that, when later reading the little book, the main character finds the chapter discussing polygamy particularly interesting . The sight of the fifteen-year old Aisha with a shock of black hair, wearing jeans and a T-shirt is a strong argument that cannot be brushed aside easily. When the preface and the explanatory notes to the new edition of Huysmans’ works are finished, François receives a proposal to return to the university. He realises that at this point he will have to make one of the most important choices in his life.
The personal drama of François develops on the background of important political transformations as the European Union slowly but surely starts accepting Muslim states into its fold. The first acceding countries are Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Tunisia. Egypt and Lebanon are to join them in the near future. There have also been some initial contacts with Libya and Syria. One doesn’t need to have an exceptional geopolitical acumen to predict that at this rate in one generation Europe as we know it will cease to exist and will be transformed into a new Caliphate. In order to read what this political formation might be like, you will have to wait for Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria to be translated. Submission does not look that far into the development of our civilisation. Which is just as well, because, when it comes to vivid descriptions of a dystopian future, Houellebecq is not the best author to turn to. In this novel the French writer manages to sum up some of the topical problems facing the European Union and to give scathing commentary on contemporary French politics. Whether one has to read a whole novel for that, is up for you to decide. Politics aside, Submission provides a convenient excursus into the life and works of K. J. Huysmans, convincingly making case for reading more of this writer. There are also interesting references to the poet Charles Pierre Péguy and his long Christian poem Eve which bemoans the decline and dissolution of humanity. The readers belonging to the academia will find a lot of nudging references to their internal problems and insecurities. And, surely, there are some pithy observations that are bound to be quoted by the media for the months to come, one of which is definitely the following:
It is an idea that I would hesitate to expose before my coreligionists, for they, perhaps, will consider it a bit blasphemous, but for me there is a relation between the absolute submission of the woman to man, such as described in Story of O, and the submission of man to God, such as envisaged by Islam.
The publication of the novel coincided with the horrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo. The latest issue of the magazine featured a caricature of Houellebecq on its cover. As you might remember, in my post about the forthcoming publication of Submission, I expressed hope that it would not provoke aggression against the author on the part of Muslim radicals. Now that I have read the book, I do not think it will be the case. The novel turned out by far more tame than I could have expected. Most of the readers who have bought it anticipating loud confrontational statements against Islam will be most probably disappointed. Very indicative of this distanced attitude is Houellebecq’s recent interview to The Paris Review, in which he says:
But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.
Indeed, when acting as a literary critic through the main character, Houellebecq shows his best in the novel. That is when the lukewarmness disappears, and he is utterly engrossed in the subject. Submission had hit the first place on the French Amazon bestseller list already two weeks prior to its publication and at the time of writing this review is firmly established in this position. It would be great if the works of J. K. Huysmans tangentially benefited from the predictable roaring success of Houellebecq’s admonition to Europe.
Like wildfire, the news of the new Houellebecq novel is spreading throughout the cyberspace. The first post in English that I noticed had appeared in the indispensable Literary Saloon. The information in French is available now at various sites; for example: Le Figaro, France 24, Sud Ouest. It looks like the most complete information for the time being is at Les Inrocks.
The Local provides a write-up in English about the forthcoming novel under the headline Muslims rule France in provocative new novel. So, Houellebecque’s forthcoming dystopia will deal with “a future France where a Muslim party wins the presidency”. Something one could expect from the author of the scandalous Platform.
According to the short description of the novel, the main character is a literature instructor at university specialising in the French fin-de-siècle writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Well, interesting choice, as Huysmans not unlike Houellebecque had his fair share of provocation at the end of the 19th century with the publication of The Damned, a novel about Satanism rampaging in France with a shocking (for that time, of course) description of a black mess. I am not going to draw any hasty conclusions before Houellebecque’s novel is published, but I do hope that the inevitable scandal will not spiral into a Salman Rushdie or a Danish cartoon situation. Anyway, Huysman’s novel looks like a useful preliminary read for those waiting for the publication of Submission.
Update 1: The Germans, as expected, are the first to deliver the translation of Houellebecque’s new offering. Unterwerfung is already available for pre-order.
Update 2: My review of the novel is now up.
Update 3: Actually the Italians seem to have beaten the Germans to the punch, with Bompiani releasing Sottomissione on January 15.
Update 4: The UK edition of Submission is now available for pre-order.
I thought I had given up on Pelevin completely when I abandoned his novel Snuff (still not available in English), which read like clumsy Young Adult sci-fi with marginally funny political jokes and the indispensable chastisement of popular culture by ironic subversion of its memes. Mind you, I used to hold this writer in very high esteem when his first works appeared in the 1990s. That was his heyday. I still think that the best thing he has ever penned is Buddha’s Little Finger AKA The Clay Machine-Gun. However, it’s been a while since I read it, and I have no idea what I will make of this novel if I re-read it. The first review published on this blog, if you remember, was that of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. My main gripe with it was the repetitiveness of the plot, the characters, the ideas, well, pretty much everything. The same could be said about most of Pelevin’s novels since Homo Zapiens. The painfully familiar patterns keep emerging in each new novel whose main character is yet another adept of secret knowledge (e.g. a ‘shroom-ingesting visionary copywriter, a werewolf, a vampire) who exposes the illusory character of what we are accustomed to call reality and leads us to some zen-like revelation, taking a dig at the most topical political and cultural issues in Russia on the way. Nothing new in this respect could be said of his latest novel. Nonetheless, since I did finish it, and even liked certain things about it, I thought I would share my impressions with you.
The title refers to Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges which is based on Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale play of the same name. More exegesis-prone readers will correct me, but I think that here the resemblance between the two works ends. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the zuckerbrin of the title is a portmanteau word combing the last names of the Facebook creator and of one of the co-founders of Google. As usual, Pelevin tries to be at the bleeding edge of all the major trends in our society; hence a lot of attention in the novel is devoted to that integral part of our existence which we spend online.
The first deja-vu comes with the narrator. Like so many of his predecessors in Pelevin’s previous works, he also becomes an adept of secret knowledge. By following some meditative practice discovered in esoteric reading matter left to him by a deceased relative, the young man turns into a quasi-omniscient being who can penetrate the thoughts of other humans and influence their actions. The guy realizes that now he is a Kyklops (the spelling of Cyclops dating back to the Greek original), a being of a higher order whose primary task is to keep the world in balance by preventing the occurrence of certain events which can lead to serious historical cataclysms. One of the examples given early on is the fact that the outcome of the recent coup d’état in Ukraine depended on whether a certain woman would take with her an umbrella or not. Everybody who’s at least seen the movie The Butterfly Effect will roll their eyes at this. Yes, and that’s my major beef with the new novel. I don’t know how many readers will learn for the first time from The Love for Three Zuckerbrins about Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, the lepidoptera causing hurricanes, the multiple universes, and the half-dead feline named after the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist. Perhaps they will get excited at the way Pelevin weaves these scientifically charged themes into the fabric of his narrative. As for those who might have heard something about all of this: well, they will have to suppress a yawn or two. Considering the hyper-newness of many events mentioned in the story, this recourse to rather hackneyed tropes massively abused in tons of science fiction novels before does not look very congruent. Especially, if these ideas are presented and “explained” by the Russian writer in a very direct way. It seemed as if Pelevin himself had just recently discovered the popular explications of the basics of chaos theory and quantum physics, and was eager to share these findings with the reader.
The said hyper-newness is in fact a staple of any Pelevin novel, and this is something I really like about his works, although, of course, you have to be aware of all the relevant recent events to get that particular aspect of his books. To achieve this effect, Pelevin apparently adds some hot information to the manuscript when the new novel is already finished. What it boils down to is that you read in his books about some event that you have just recently seen discussed on television or in newspapers. You think to yourself: “It happened, like, several months ago, and it is already in a Pelevin book! How come?!” Those with insider knowledge will understand what I’m talking about. Pelevin is really good at provoking such a reaction from his reader. Of course, those reading the translations will never experience anything of the kind because of the time elapsed since the publication of the original. In case of this novel, the riots in Kiev, the subsequent overthrow of President Yanukovych and the annexation of Crimea by Russia have for the narrator the same topicality as for the readers of the book.
The cosmological premise of the novel is underpinned by the scenario of the insanely popular video game Angry Birds. The Birds in the fictional universe of Pelevin are the archenemies of the Kyklops, believing him to be an evil God, and doing their best to destroy him through other unsuspecting people. However, they cannot harm the narrator directly as they live in a different dimension. The assassination attempts of the Birds are surreally depicted in a subverted Angry Birds fashion because it is the Birds which catapult different human beings at the green pig that stands for the hateful creator who is in reality none other than our narrator Kyklops. It might look pretty madcap to a newcomer to Pelevin’s oeuvre, but, again, those acquainted with his previous works will immediately spot a resemblance with the story Prince of Central Planning in which Pelevin drew heavily on the computer game Prince of Persia. Despite its silliness, I quite liked this use and abuse of the popular smartphone game because in a way, it does reflect some of the current zeitgeist and definitely can be used as material for an alternative cosmological view.
The following passage describes the flight of one of the human projectiles launched by the Birds by means of a huge catapult:
While soaring in the sky, Nikolai gradually started to notice the traces of the preceding hits against the abode of the Creator — dents left on the mysterious substance of space-time. He didn’t know what it was in reality: his consciousness deciphered what he saw into imagery familiar to humans.
He wasn’t the first live projectile launched by the Birds into the Boar. Around what appeared to Nikolai as the ruins of the circular colonnade lay a multitude of corpses covered in red dust. Earlier he had taken them for outcrops in the soil.
It was an infernal dumping ground of freaks, harpies and chimaeras. Webbing, wings, clawed tails, many-toothed jaws, spines, stings… As if somebody’s evil will experimented with different shapes, trying to pick the lock of the final gate, crossing angels with swine. … The most gruesome, of course, were the small details: the dyed locks of wool, the rings in the forked ears, the jewelry piercing the eyelids and lips. … The garments and jewelry on some of the freaks suggested that the Birds had wiped out whole civilisations and cultures in order to test a new tip for their spear. And those live spearheads must have pondered in the light of the ancient stars: what force and for which purpose had brought them into being?
The novel consists of three novellas written by Kyklops and the meta-story linking them together. The longest novella has the English title Fuck the System and is a disturbing description of a future society with echoes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, the Alan Moor of V. for Vendetta and, most pertinently, the Wachowski siblings. The main character of this story portraying a Matrix-like society is a certain Kesha who used to be an inveterate Internet troll in his previous life three hundred years before. He and his social partner (a wife of sorts), like most of the denizens of this brave new world, live in a tiny cell in a cyclopic edifice called “cluster” which is several kiolmetres tall and from the outside looks like an enormous garbage dump.
It resembled a huge multi-storey installation composed of scratched beer cans, dirty balloons, patched nest boxes and milk cartons turned grey by time: that is how the individual lodging units looked; they had been manufactured at different times and attached to the common anti-gravitational base.
He is connected to the global control system by different cables and tubes which feed him, wash him, and extract his bodily fluids, while special wires implanted right into his brain keep him immersed in virtual reality indistinguishable from lived experience. This rather unoriginal scenario allows Pelevin to vent his sarcastic condemnation of all the major evils of the Internet from addiction to social networks to online pornography. This bleak futuristic world is ruled by the above-mentioned zuckerbrins, which are some kinds of algorithms that transfer power from one to another every second. The main engine of this narration derives from a very peculiar love triangle between Kesha, his social partner Marilyn and the avatar from Kesha’s virtual environment represented as a Japanese schoolgirl. As a corollary to the technological advances of this society Kesha does not have real physical relations with Marilyn as they meet each other and make love in the shared cyberscape, but experience physical pleasure with the help of the devices called respectively Google Dick and Google Pussy. In this particular future the famous Internet-related services company has developed into a worldwide leader in the manufacture of prosthetic genitals. Kesha’s adultery is effected by superimposing the virtual image of the Japanese schoolgirl onto the virtual image of his wife. This captivating love adventure unrolls among the alarming reports of the cyberterrorist Batu Karayev insidiously wreaking havoc to the matrix by sending viruses to the servers maintaining the collective dream of the cluster dwellers. The nightmares triggered by Karayev’s program are so powerful that many of the dreamers actually die upon experiencing them. As many will rightly suppose, sooner or later the paths of Kesha and the elusive terrorist will cross.
The main events of this dystopian scenario unfolding in one of the countless universes have precedents in the framing narrative of Kyklops set in our time and some interesting reverberations in a completely different future world which appears to be a satirical version of the Biblical paradise. The whole picture may seem a bit confusing, but we shouldn’t forget that Pelevin is a writer who does not necessarily tie all the loose ends.
The novel was mostly panned by the Russian reviewers, and one can clearly see why. In terms of the plot, the characters and the major themes it adds very little to the previous works of Pelevin, and some of the moralising at the end will seem to many rather banal and dispensable. Nevertheless, the book has its moments (some of them very funny) and certainly deserves being translated with explanatory notes, so that the foreign reader will at least have an idea why some passages will make the context-aware Russian reader laugh out loud. By the way, compared to most of the previous novels, you will not find a single swear word in Russian in this novel, which is Pelevin’s sarcastic response to the recent absurd obscenity ban which prohibits swearing in Russian arts and media. So, for example, instead of writing “fucked”, the author left three asterisks with the footnote “the verb beginning with f used in the past tense”. And that is another proof that Pelevin, regardless of undeniable quality issues in his latest effort, still remains the most up-to-date Russian writer you will ever read.
If like me, you cannot read Turkish, you, most probably would not be able to read this announcement by Milliyet, or, naturally, this one by Radikal Kitap. Fortunately for us, there is already some information in English available from the English language Today’s Zaman. The novel, whose Turkish title is Kafamda bir Tuhaflik, is due on December 9, and this is what they have to say about it:
The 480-page book follows the love story between a street vendor named Mevlut and his girlfriend, as well as Mevlut’s life in the streets of İstanbul throughout a period that spans over four decades, from 1969 to 2012, during which he works in a range of different jobs. Throughout these decades, Mevlut witnesses the various transformations the city, the people and Turkey in general undergo. All the while, Mevlut often wonders what the source of this “strangeness” in his head is — a strangeness that makes him different from all the “others”
The English title suggested by Pamuk himself in several interviews is A Strangeness in My Mind. According to the author, it should be available in English in 2015, which means that the translation should be already under way. I personally quite liked the weird atmosphere of his The Black Book, which I heartily recommend. Judging by the works discussed on this blog, you would probably guess that for me the stranger, the better, and I do hope that Pamuk’s new novel, which he spent six years writing, will not disappoint me in this respect.
Update: The English translation is already available for pre-order. The translator is Ekin Oklap.