Authors: Victor Pelevin
All trade marks mentioned in the text are the property of their owners. All rights are reserved. Names of goods and politicians do not indicate actual commercial products; they refer only to projections of elements of the politico-commercial informational field that have been forcibly induced as perceptual objects of the individual mind. The author requests that they be understood exclusively in this sense. Any other coincidences are purely accidental. The author’s opinions do not necessarily coincide with his point of view.
Once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi.
It’s hard at this stage to figure out exactly how this situation came about. Most likely it involved more than just the remarkable taste of the drink in question. More than just the caffeine that keeps young kids demanding another dose, steering them securely out of childhood into the clear waters of the channel of cocaine. More, even, than a banal bribe: it would be nice to think that the Party bureaucrat who took the crucial decision to sign the contract simply fell in love with this dark, fizzy liquid with every fibre of a soul no longer sustained by faith in communism.
The most likely reason, though, is that the ideologists of the USSR believed there could only be one truth. So in fact Generation ‘P’ had no choice in the matter and children of the Soviet seventies chose Pepsi in precisely the same way as their parents chose Brezhnev.
No matter which way it was, as these children lounged on the seashore in the summer, gazing endlessly at a cloudless blue horizon, they drank warm Pepsi-Cola decanted into glass bottles in the city of Novorossiisk and dreamed that some day the distant forbidden world on the far side of the sea would be part of their own lives.
Babylen Tatarsky was by default a member of Generation ‘P’, although it was a long time before he had any inkling of the fact. If in those distant years someone had told him that when he grew up he would be a
he’d probably have dropped his bottle of Pepsi-Cola on the hot gravel of the pioneer-camp beach in his astonishment. In those distant years children were expected to direct their aspirations towards a gleaming fireman’s helmet or a doctor’s white coat. Even that peaceful word ‘designer’ seemed a dubious neologism only likely to be tolerated until the next serious worsening in the international situation.
In those days, however, language and life both abounded in the strange and the dubious. Take the very name ‘Babylen’, which was conferred on Tatarsky by his father, who managed to combine in his heart a faith in communism with the ideals of the sixties generation. He composed it from the title of Yevtushenko’s famous poem ‘Baby Yar’ and Lenin. Tatarsky’s father clearly found it easy to imagine a faithful disciple of Lenin moved by Yevtushenko’s liberated verse to the grateful realisation that Marxism originally stood for free love, or a jazz-crazy aesthete suddenly convinced by an elaborately protracted saxophone riff that communism would inevitably triumph. It was not only Tatarsky’s father who was like that - the entire Soviet generation of the fifties and sixties was the same. This was the generation that gave the world the amateur song and ejaculated the first sputnik - that four-tailed spermatozoon of the future that never began - into the dark void of cosmic space.
Tatarsky was sensitive about his name, and whenever possible he introduced himself as Vladimir or Vova. Then he began lying to his friends, saying that his father had given him a strange name because he was keen on Eastern mysticism, and he was thinking of the ancient city of Babylon, the secret lore of which was destined to be inherited by him, Babylen. His father had invented his alloy of Yevtushenko and Lenin because he was a follower of Manicheism and pantheism and regarded it as his duty to balance out the principle of light with the principle of darkness. Despite this brilliantly elaborated fable, at the age of eighteen Tatarsky was delighted to be able to lose his first passport and receive a new one in the name of Vladimir.
After that his life followed an entirely ordinary pattern. He went to a technical institute - not, of course, because he had any love for technology (he specialised in some kind of electric furnace), but because he didn’t want to go into the army. However, at the age of twenty-one something happened to him that changed the course of his life for ever.
Out in the countryside during the summer he read a small volume of Boris Pasternak. The poems, which had previously left him entirely cold, had such a profound impact that for several weeks he could think of nothing else - and then he began writing verse himself. He would never forget the rusty carcass of a bus, sunk at a crooked angle into the ground on the edge of the forest outside Moscow at the precise spot where the very first line of his life came to him: "The sardine-clouds swim onwards to the south.’ (He later came to realise this poem had a distinctly fishy odour.) In short, his was an absolutely typical case, which ended in typical fashion when Tatarsky entered the Literary Institute. He couldn’t get into the poetry department, though, and had to content himself with translations from the languages of the peoples of the USSR. Tatarsky pictured his future approximately as follows: during the day - an empty lecture hall in the Literary Institute, a word-for-word translation from the Uzbek or the Kirghiz that had to be set in rhyme by the next deadline; in the evenings - his creative labours for eternity.
Then, quite unobtrusively, an event of fundamental significance for his future occurred. The USSR, which they’d begun to renovate and improve at about the time when Tatarsky decided to change his profession, improved so much that it ceased to exist (if a state is capable of entering nirvana, that’s what must have happened in this case); so any more translations from the languages of the peoples of the USSR were quite simply out of the question. It was a blow, but Tatarsky survived it. He still had his work for eternity, and that was enough for him.
Then events took an unforeseen turn. Something began happening to the very eternity to which he had decided to devote his labours and his days. Tatarsky couldn’t understand this at all. After all, eternity - at least as he’d always thought of it - was something unchangeable, indestructible and entirely independent of the transient fortunes of this earthly realm. If, for instance, the small volume of Pasternak that had changed his life had already entered this eternity, then there was no power capable of ejecting it.
But this proved not to be entirely true. It turned out that eternity only existed for as long as Tatarsky sincerely believed in it, and was actually nowhere to be found beyond the bounds of this belief. In order for him to believe sincerely in eternity, others had to share in this belief, because a belief that no one else shares is called schizophrenia; and something strange had started happening to everyone else, including the very people who had taught Tatarsky to keep his eyes fixed firmly on eternity.
It wasn’t as though they’d shifted their previous point of view, not that - just that the very space into which their gaze had been directed (after all, a point of view always implies gazing in some particular direction) began to curl back in on itself and disappear, until all that was left of it was a microscopic dot on the windscreen of the mind. Glimpses of entirely different landscapes began to fill in their surroundings.
Tatarsky tried to fight it and pretend that nothing was actually happening. At first he could manage it. By keeping close company with his friends, who were also pretending that nothing was happening, for a time he was able to believe it was true. The end came unexpectedly.
When Tatarsky was out walking one day, he stopped at a shoe shop that was closed for lunch. Swimming about in the summer heat behind the glass wall of the shop window was a fat, pretty salesgirl whom Tatarsky promptly dubbed Maggie, and there in the midst of a chaos of multicoloured Turkish handicrafts stood a pair of unmistakably Soviet-made shoes.
Tatarsky felt a sensation of instantaneous, piercing recognition. The shoes had pointed toes and high heels and were made of good leather. They were a light yellowish-brown, stitched with a light-blue thread and decorated with large gold buckles in the form of harps. It wasn’t that they were simply in bad taste, or vulgar; they were the clear embodiment of what a certain drunken teacher of Soviet literature from the Literary Institute used to call ‘our gestalt’, and the sight was so pitiful, laughable and touching (especially the harp buckles) that tears sprang to Tatarsky’s eyes. The shoes were covered by a thick layer of dust: the new era obviously had no use for them.
Tatarsky knew the new era had no use for him either, but he had managed to accustom himself to the idea and even take a certain bitter-sweet satisfaction in it. The feeling had been decoded for him by the words of Marina Tsvetaeva:
‘Scattered along the dusty shelves of shops (No one has bought them and no one buys!) My poems, like precious wines, will have their day’: if there was something humiliating in this feeling, then it was not he, but the world around him that was humiliated. But in front of that shop window his heart sank in the sudden realisation that the dust settling on him as he stood there beneath the vault of the heavens was not the dust that covered a vessel containing precious wine, but the same dust as covered the shoes with the harp buckles; and he realised something else too: the eternity he used to believe in could only exist on state subsidies, or else - which is just the same thing - as something forbidden by the state. Worse even than that, it could only exist in the form of the semi-conscious reminiscences of some girl called Maggie from the shoe shop. This dubious species of eternity had simply been inserted into her head, as it had into his, in the same packaging as natural history and inorganic chemistry. Eternity was contingent: if, say, Stalin had not killed Trotsky, but the other way round, then it would have been populated by entirely different individuals. But even that was not important, because Tatarsky understood quite clearly that no matter how things panned out, Maggie simply couldn’t care less about eternity, and when she finally and completely stopped believing in it, there wouldn’t be any more eternity, because where could it be then? Or, as he wrote in his notebook when he got home: ‘When the subject of eternity disappears, then all of its objects also disappear, and the only subject of eternity is whoever happens to remember about it occasionally.’
He didn’t write any more poems after that: with the collapse of Soviet power they had simply lost their meaning and value.
No sooner had eternity disappeared than Tatarsky found himself in the present, and it turned out that he knew absolutely nothing about the world that had sprung up around him during the last few years.
It was a very strange world. Externally it had not changed too much, except perhaps that there were more paupers on the streets, but everything in his surroundings - the houses, the trees, the benches on the streets - had somehow suddenly grown old and decrepit. It wasn’t possible to say that the essential nature of the world had changed, either, because now it no longer had any essential nature. A frighteningly vague uncertainty dominated everything. Despite that, however, the streets were flooded with Mercedes and Toyotas carrying brawny types possessed of absolute confidence in themselves and in what was happening, and there was even, if one could believe the newspapers, some kind of foreign policy.
Meanwhile the television was still showing the same old repulsive physiognomies that had been sickening the viewers for the last twenty years. Now they were saying exactly the same things they used to jail other people for, except that they were far bolder, far more decisive and radical. Tatarsky often found himself imagining Germany in 1946, with Doctor Goebbels shrieking hysterically on the radio about the abyss into which fascism had led the nation, with the former Kommandant of Auschwitz heading the Commission for the Detention of Nazi Criminals, and SS generals explaining in clear and simple words the importance of liberal values, while the whole cabal was led by the newly enlightened Gauleiter of Eastern Prussia. Tatarsky, of course, hated most of the manifestations of Soviet power, but he still couldn’t understand why it was worth exchanging an evil empire for an evil banana republic that imported its bananas from Finland.
But then, Tatarsky had never been a great moral thinker, so he was less concerned with the analysis of events (what was actually going on) than with the problem of surviving them. He had no contacts that could help him, so he dealt with things in the simplest way possible, by taking a job as a sales assistant in a trading kiosk not far from where he lived.
The work was simple enough, but quite hard on the nerves. Inside the kiosk it was half-dark and cool, like inside a tank; Tatarsky was connected with the world by a tiny little window, scarcely large enough to allow him to push a bottle of champagne through it. He was protected against possible unpleasantness by a grille of metal rods crudely welded to the walls. In the evening he handed over the takings to an elderly Chechen who wore a heavy gold ring; sometimes he might even manage to squeeze out a little bit for himself over and above his wages. From time to time novice bandits would come up to the kiosk and demand money for their protection in squeaky, still-breaking voices. Tatarsky wearily directed them to Hussein. Hussein was a short, skinny young guy whose eyes were always oily from the opiates he took; he usually lay on a mattress in a half-empty trailer at the end of the string of kiosks, listening to Sufi music. Apart from the mattress, the trailer contained a table, a safe that held a large amount of money and a complicated version of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle with a grenade-thrower mounted under the barrel.