cover image Buddha's Little Finger

Buddha's Little Finger

Victor Pelevin. Viking Books, $25.95 (335pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89168-9

The ambitious, time-traveling scenario of Russian writer Pelevin's third novel finds the aptly named poet Pyotr Void tumbling between two distinct nightmares. In the first he is serving as commissar to the legendary Bolshevik commander, Chapaev, during the 1919 Russian Civil War. Pyotr pines for Chapaev's machine gunner, Anna, entertains officers who come to pinch cocaine (acquired by an accident of fate) on the pretext of discussing the nature of the intelligentsia, and feels horribly disjointed all the while. Then, Pyotr wakes up in a present-day mental hospital in Moscow distinctly labeled ""schizophrenic."" He observes his doctors and roommates (including an effeminate man who has assumed the identity of ""Maria"") until he almost feels comfortable, only to be pumped full of sedatives and returned to the year 1919. The two settings provide Pelevin, who won Russia's ""Little Booker"" prize for his collection The Blue Lantern, with plenty of room to obsess about political changes and social realities in Russia (at one point, Maria announces, ""That's always the way with Russia... when you see it from afar, it's so beautiful it's enough to make you cry, but when you take a closer look, you just want to puke""). Just when the plot seems to fragment into an irretrievable mess, Pelevin stitches things up rather nicely with some loosely applied Buddhist principles. Bromfield's translation is smooth, the prose crisp, lively and humorous as well as richly philosophical. This work will surely cement the reputation of Pelevin (whose satiric novels include Omon Ra and The Life of Insects) as one of contemporary Russia's leading writers. (May)