Book Reviews/Buddha’s Little Finger
"Cover image of Buddha's Little Finger Genia Chef, Decline of Europe, 1995
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Buddha’s Little Finger is a novel written in 1996 by Russian author Victor Pelevin. Combining Russian pop and high culture with Buddhist aesthetics and philosophy, the novel highlights the mutable, meaningless nature of reality for both its hero and for Russia throughout history.
Explaination of the Novel's Title[edit | edit source]
In Russian, the title of the novel is Чапаев и Пустота (Chapaev i Pustota), which in Russian can be read as either Chapaev and his sidekick Pustota, or, literally Chapaev and Void. This title carries more significance for a Russian speaking audience than an English speaking one, as the character of Chapaev is already established in the canon of Russian popular culture. The novel first appeared to an English speaking audience as The Clay Machine Gun, a reference to the appearence of Chapaev's mysterious weapon that is revealed towards the end of the book. The title Buddha's Little Finger also refers to this weapon.
Author's Background[edit | edit source]
Victor Pelevin (b. 22 November 1961 in Moscow) is a novelist and writer of short stories. He has a degree in engineering, but became addicted to writing in his mid twenties. His first short story was published in 1989, and since then he has published more than seventeen novels and short stories. (Wikipedia) His ironic and philosophical novels use the chaos of post-Soviet Russia as both an inspiration and a backdrop to their plots. Buddhist philosophy is often a central element in Pelevin’s novels. Pelevin has studied Buddhism in South Korea and travelled in China and Japan. About Buddhism, Pelevin says, “I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind. But it is not too different from the moral teachings of other traditions.” (Interview with Leo Kropywiansky) Pelevin currently lives in New York City.
- Omon Ra / Омон Ра (1992)
- The Life of Insects / Жизнь насекомых (1993)
- Buddha's Little Finger (aka Clay Machine-Gun) / Чапаев и Пустота (Chapayev and Void) (1996)
- Babylon (aka Generation Π, Homo Zapiens) / Generation "П" (1999)
- Numbers (as part of the book DTP(NN) - The Dialectics of the Transition Period (from Nowhere to No Place)) / Числа (часть книги ДПП(NN) - Диалектика Переходного Периода (из Ниоткуда в Никуда)) (2004)
- The Sacred Book of the Werewolf / Священная Книга Оборотня (2005)
- The Helmet of Horror / Шлем ужаса (2005)
- Empire V / Ампир В (2006)
- t (2009)
- S.N.U.F.F. (2011).
Essays and Short Stories
- Hermit and Sixfinger / Затворник и Шестипалый (1990)
- Prince of Central Planning / Принц Госплана (1992)
- The Yellow Arrow / Желтая стрела (1993)
- Blue Lantern and Other Stories (1991)
- P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan / П5: прощальные песни политических пигмеев Пиндостана (2008)
- Pineapple Water for the Fair Lady / Ананасная вода для прекрасной дамы (2010)
- 4 by Pelevin' (2001)
Plot[edit | edit source]
The novel is written as a first-person narrative of Pyotr Voyd and the book is set in two different times - after the October revolution and in modern Russia. In the post-revolutionary period Pyotr is a poet who has fled from St.Petersurg to Moscow and who takes up the identity of a Soviet political commissar and meets a strange man named Vasily Chapaev who is some sort of an army commander. He spends his days drinking samogon, taking drugs and talking about the meaning of life with Chapaev. Every night (according to his post-revolutionary life) Pyotr has nightmares about him being locked up in a psychiatric hospital because of his beliefs of being a poet from the beginning of the century. He shares the room in the hospital with three other men, each with their own individual form of fake identity. The reader does not know which of Pyotr's identities is the real one and whether there is such a thing as a real identity at all.
Principle Characters[edit | edit source]
Pyotr Voyd- The hero of the novel, we first meet him in civil war era Saint Petersburg, circa 1919. In the 1919 plotline, Voyd is an amnesiac war hero serving in the legendary army Vasily Chapaev. In the 1991 plot, however, he is a patient commited to a mental institution with severe and persistent schizophrenia, the main feature of which is the delusion that he is a Red officer in the Russian civil war.
Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev- Red Army commander
Anna- Chapaev's formidable machine-gunner sidekick
Dmitri Furmonov-regimental commissar, an official of the Communist Party in charge of political indoctrination and the enforcement of party loyalty, and real-life author of the socialist-realist mythmaking novel on Chapaev
Grigory Kotovsky- a cocaine addict and disciple of Chapaev
Timur Timurovich- The psychologist of the patients at the hospital
Semyon Serdyuk- is an inmate of the 17th psychiatric hospital who shares the room with Pyotr.
Vladimir Volodin-is a Russian gangster (so-called "new russian") and Pyotr's fellow inmate.
Maria- Maria or Simply Maria (a male character) is another roommate of Pyotr's in the psychiatric hospital.
Major Themes[edit | edit source]
identity in crisis
the individual versus the state
East versus West
The nature of reality
Publication History[edit | edit source]
Originally published in 1996 in Russian as Чапаев и Пустота (Chapaev i Pustota) or, Chapaev and the Void. The first English translation of the novel was released in Great Britain by publishers Faber and Faber under the title The Clay Machine Gun. The novel continues to appear under that title outside the United States. The first U.S. edition of the novel was published by Penguin in 1999 with a new translation by Andrew Bromfield. Bromfield’s translation changed the title to Buddha’s Little Finger.
Literary Context and Significance[edit | edit source]
Elements of Buddha's Little Finger place it as a direct descendant of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Both authors use the device of parallel plotlines to create an over all meaningful, artful work. Both works share the the theme of the reality of the individual vs. the reality of the state, with the madhouse being an important location of discourse around this theme. About The Master and Margarita and Bulgakov's influence on him, Pelevin says, "The effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination)." (From and interview with Leo Kropywiansky)
Buddha’s Little Finger has been read as belonging in the context of Russian post- modernism. Russian post modernism began to develop in the second half of the nineteen sixties with such works as Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. Russian post modernism was an underground form of expression, as its subject matter and described perception of reality (or lack thereof) was subversive of official state ideologies. (Lipovetsky pg. 42) According to literary critic Mark Lipovetsky, post modernism in Russia has two main tasks- the production of images which have no relation to reality, and the unmasking of the absence of any profound reality whatsoever. From the beginning of Buddha’s Little Finger, Pelevin barrages the reader with artifacts of Russian pop culture, an assault similar to overload of information experienced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The artist Il'ia Kabakov... has stated that while in Western conceptualism one 'thing' is substituted with another 'thing' or even with the verbal description of a 'thing', that is, its idea, in Russian conceptualism a 'thing' is substituted not with another 'thing' and not with its description (possessing some definite meaning), but with nothingness (stress added by the editor of this page). Kabakov explains that this effect is a product of the total devalorization of reality generated by the Soviet overproduction of simulacra - that is, ideological images that replace reality and eventually lose any meaning.” (Lipovetsky pg. 33) In Buddha’s Little Finger, Pelevin’s use of parallel plotlines compares the devalorization of reality in in revolutionary Russia with the contemporary devalorization experienced in the nineties.
Significant References to Russian History and Culture[edit | edit source]
Reds and Whites-The two main sides of the Russian Civil War (October 1917 – October 1922) were the Bolshevik Red Army and the anti-Communist White Army.
Chapaev, Anka, and Petka- Pyotr’s friend and guru is based off the myth of Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev (February 9, 1887 – September 5, 1919), who was a real commander of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. In 1924 Dmitri Furmonov, who in real life was not the head of the weavers but a commissar in Chapaev’s division, wrote a novel entitled Chapaev, which was made into a film in 1934. The film is a classic of Soviet cinema, and is well known in Russian popular culture. The film features Chapaev, his machine-gunner Anka, and his aide-de-camp Petka, all of whom are based off of historical figures and are reimagined by Pelevin in Buddha’s Little Finger. In Russian pop culture there is a whole sub genre of Chapaev jokes that feature the threesome.
- Chapaev, Petka and Anka, in hiding from the Whites, are crawling across a field, first Anka, then Petka and Chapaev last. Petka says to Anka, “Your mother must have been a dancer – your legs are so fine!” Chapaev responds, “And your father, Petka, must have been a plowman: you are leaving such a deep furrow!” (Anectdotoff)
- The guide of the Museum of the October Revolution demonstrates to visitors the skeleton of the Civil War hero V.I.Chapaev. “And what is that small skeleton behind him?” “That is V.I.Chapaev in childhood,” explains the guide. (Anectdotoff)
- Chapaev is sitting at a table and eating cabbage soup. Petka storms into the room, frightened: “Vasily Ivanovich! Inflation is advancing!” “Don’t panic,” said Chapaev. “Tell Anka to shoot it out with a machine gun.” (Anectdotoff) - Knowing the nature of Anna’s machine gun, this joke can be seen as particularly relevant and funny in the context of Buddha’s Little Finger.
Just Maria-In the 1990’s the Mexican telenovela Simply Maria, or Just Maria was enormously popular in Russia, and was followed by over 140 million viewers (Stanley). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, soap operas were one of the Western imports that poured into Russia. “Russian intellectuals deplore this as yet another example of how the West, and particularly North America and the United States, is smothering the Slavic identity with its heedless exportation of pornography, game shows, comic books, rock music and above all, soap operas.” (Stanley)
New Russians- After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new class of wealthy business people emerged from those who were able to take advantage of rapid privatization. These “new Russians” are regarded in popular culture as nouveau-riche in a vulgar, criminal way, and are often associated with the gross economic and class divides that developed in the nineties. (Wikipedia)
Study Questions[edit | edit source]
- In Buddha's Little Finger, is Victor Pelevin writing about a uniquely Russian experience of the world, or does this novel appeal to a wider foreign audience?
- Buddha's Little Finger has been called "a work of pop-literature". Does this date the novel, or do you think it will withstand the test of time and remain relevant in the Russian post-Soviet canon?
- How does this novel portray Russian identity in crisis? As Pyotr is jolted from 1919 to 1991, his struggles with identity can also be read in the social upheaval of the parallel plot lines. Can Pyotr be read as a metaphor for Russia?
- What is Pelevin trying to convey in comparing 1919 and 1991 through parellel plot lines?
- How does Pelevin imagine Russia's relationship to the East? How is this different with its relationship to the West? Does Pelevin priveledge one over the other?
- Does the physical/historical world shape the consciousness of the individual? If so how and if not, why not?
References[edit | edit source]
Review by: Joseph P. Mozur Jr. World Literature Today , Vol. 74, No. 4, David Malouf: 16th Laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (Autumn, 2000), pp. 881-882 Published by: University of Oklahoma Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40156256, Viktor Pelevin: Post-Sovism, Buddhism, & Pulp Fiction
Joseph Mozur World Literature Today , Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 58-67 Published by: University of Oklahoma Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40157260 Russian Literary Postmodernism in the 1990s
Mark Lipovetsky The Slavonic and East European Review , Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 31-50 Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4213154 Reading for Entertainment in Contemporary Russia: Post-Soviet Popular Literature in Historical Perspective by Stephen Lovell; Birgit Menzel
Review by: Anindita Banerjee The Slavic and East European Journal , Vol. 50, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 705-707 Published by: American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20459379
Kropywiansky, Leo. "BOMB Magazine: Victor Pelevin by Leo Kropywiansky." BOMB Magazine: Victor Pelevin by Leo Kropywiansky. BOMB Magazine, 2002. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://bombsite.com/issues/79/articles/2481>. close
Ludic Nonchalance or Ludicrous Despair? Viktor Pelevin and Russian Postmodernist Prose Sally Dalton-Brown The Slavonic and East European Review , Vol. 75, No. 2 (Apr., 1997), pp. 216-233 Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4212362
The Hero in the Madhouse: The Post-Soviet Novel Confronts the Soviet Past Angela Brintlinger Slavic Review , Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 43-65 Published by: Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520269 Open Source. "Vasily Chapayev." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 July 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasily_Chapayev>
"Funniest Chapayev Jokes | 01 Worldwide Jokes." 01 Worldwide Jokes. Anectdotoff.com, Oct. 2007. Web. <http://www.anecdotoff.com/category/funniest-jokes/funniest-chapayev-jokes>.
Stanley, Alessandra. "Russians Find Their Heroes In Mexican TV Soap Operas." The New York Times 20 Mar. 1994. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/20/world/russians-find-their-heroes-in-mexican-tv-soap-operas.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.
Biography: Victor Pelevin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Pelevin
"Chapayev and Void." Wikipedia, The free encyclodedia. 31 Jan. 2012. 16 May 2012 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapayev_and_Void>
Bauer, Justin. "Revolution Time." Archives Articles. 1 June 2000. 16 May 2012 <http://archives.citypaper.net/articles/052500/ae.books.revolution.shtml>
Mozur Jr., Joseph P. "Buddha's Little Finger." The Free Library. 2000. 16 May 2012 <http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Buddha's+Little+Finger.-a073236554>