What Russian literature has to teach us about Guantanamo by mattsteinglass
June 16, 2009, 1:20 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Literature, Russia, United States

With at least a few of the Uighur detainees finally enjoying their well-earned freedom in the very civilized country of Bermuda, reflecting on Guantanamo is feeling at least slightly less morbid than it did for a long time. But during my visit to Finland I got back into Russian literature a little — basically, I dropped by a bookstore and picked up a couple of recent Russian novels for the first time in years — and that has prompted me to reflect once again that the relevant literary referent for the US’s merry adventures in torture and gulags comes from the land of the ice and snow. We’ve already covered Dostoevsky. Today let’s talk Victor Pelevin.

In Helsinki, I picked up Pelevin’s latest, entitled “П5: Прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана,” or “P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan”. (The words for “farewell” and “song” begin with the letter P in Russian, so it’s five P-words in a row, hence the “P5”. The word for “five” also begins with P, extending the alliteration.) The book’s cover is fantastic — on the front, two kitschy fat-faced Chinese manga fairies in Disneyfied Central Asian outfits are embossed in red plastic and gold glitter; on the back is an image of a dead Teletubby with a bullet hole in his forehead, surrounded by a Hallmark wreath (again embossed with gold glitter) and the English legend “Forever Young”. The back cover boasts a banner line (in Russian) “The truth of life in every word!†”, while the cross — a cross, one notes, not an asterisk, with reference to the oleaginous ubiquity of Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Russia — sends us to a footnote at the bottom of the back cover: “This guarantee extends to each word, but does not apply to combinations of words in quantities of two or more, irrespective of parts of speech, components of sentences…” etc.

So far I’m still on Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Singing Karyatids,” which concerns a girl named Lena who is recruited with 11 others to stand for days at a time completely naked, stock-still, and covered with a green paste that makes them appear to be made of malachite, posing as a “karyatid” (the Greek female figures who hold up roofs in the neo-classical eclectic architecture that proliferated in Russia in the late 1800s) in a bunker 300 meters beneath Moscow, waiting for participants in orgies to ask them to sing or otherwise put them to use. Lena and the other girls are aided in this endeavor by doses of a muscle-freezing formula created by Soviet scientists in the 1980s to help snipers remain absolutely still. They are initially recruited by a fat cigar-smoking sleazeball named “Uncle Petya”, who then presents them for an inspirational speech by the real boss, a smooth and clean-cut athletic man in a dark grey suit, a “grey cardinal” (apparently in the KGB or FSB), who explains to them that their mission involves the national defense, and that “despite the superficial…ambiguity, shall we say, of your work, it is every bit as important as that of the sailors of the submarines that carry our country’s nuclear shield. Perhaps even more important — because war today is not what it was half a century ago, and is carried out with completely different means.”

I probably should have written the above paragraph the other way around, because what’s spectacular in Pelevin’s work here, as in his early novel “Omon-Ra”, is the bitter and hilarious contrast between patriotic ideological rhetoric and high technological jargon, and the humiliating and disgusting everyday reality of the human service activities undertaken in the service of these high goals and supposedly sophisticated machinery. In “Omon-Ra”, the hero is recruited into the Soviet unmanned space program only to find that it is not in fact unmanned, and that human volunteers are required to carry out the functions supposedly performed by robots before dying in the vacuum of space. In P5, the reader is equally gob-smacked and horrified both by the atavistic language of patriotic militarism employed by the “grey cardinal” and by the alternating tedium and exuberant sexual degradation of Lena’s actual work. Lena herself, seemingly, couldn’t care less about either one; she is utterly devoid of illusions about the nature of society and is happy to accept any legitimation for work that will earn her good money. The power of the writing comes from the contrast of the “grey cardinal’s” language — “it is a tremendous responsibility, but also a great honor” — and the comic treatment of Lena’s absurd work regimen, standing naked in an underground room, waiting for perversion.

So: Guantanamo. What was the language that echoed in those soldiers’ and interrogators’ heads, when they enlisted? What did they think they would be doing? Defending the nation from nihilistic murderers? Saving innocents? Fighting for democracy? Did they imagine they’d end up doing this by inserting a spider into a cardboard box in which a naked man was confined? By smearing ketchup on someone and pretending it was menstrual blood? By placing their underwear on his head? How did the rhetoric of justice spin itself down to these acts of petty, tedious, absurd cruelty?

It’s always been the Russians’ peculiar fortune to be able more quickly to perceive the gaps between the ideology we create to justify Western society, and the actual activities that constitute that society. In part that’s because in Russia, Western ideology has never fit well, and has tended to quickly collapse or be spun into a caricature of itself. In Russia, the “Washington consensus” rhetoric of privatization and the free market was warped into the absurdities of the oligarchs, just as the Marxist rhetoric of an earlier generation had been warped into the absurdities of Stalin’s show trials. The width of the gap between ideology and reality in Russia fueled the genius of Dostoevsky and, now, Pelevin. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to be so quick to perceive the absurdities of such ideologies that they are unable to take political principles seriously, and they repeatedly end up with societies in which a thin overlay of cynical ideology masks a politics and economy of pure unprincipled force.

That said, Victor Pelevin is fantastic, and everyone should read him.


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