Thursday, September 1, 2016

Roadside Picnic: Life inside the Zone

If you're like me and wondered what the hell Stalker was all about, I would suggest reading Roadside Picnic, the book on which it was nominally based.  Tarkovsky took his idea from the character, Redrick Schuhart, a laboratory assistant and Harmont Branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures, leaving the rest up to the imagination.  The names were changed to protect the innocent.

While Tarkovsky chose to shroud the story in mystery, the Strugatsky Brothers lay it out pretty clearly in their science fiction classic.  Redrick, the Stalker, has gone into the zone countless times but each time represents a new set of challenges, especially with the Harmont Branch cracking down on the plundering of alien objects left behind by a visitation to a small rural town in Canada.

I suppose setting the story in a place outside Russia, allowed the Strugatsky brothers more room to explore new ideas and avoid heavy censhorship, but according to Boris in the afterward the book still underwent extensive editing before being published.  Red is Russian as is the scientist he leads into the Zone in the second chapter, but the rest of the characters are a hodgepodge of nationalities representing the UN mission that oversees these visitation sites.  There are 6 of them scattered around the globe, which Dr. Valentine Pillman explains in the first chapter.

What drew the aliens to the planet remains a mystery.  Dr. Pillman compares it to a roadside picnic in a later chapter when pressed by Richard Noonan, the head of security, to offer some kind of explanation.  Dick gets the Doctor drunk at a local bar and he starts offering all sorts of ideas but seems to feel they don't really amount to much.  We live in a world of chance encounters.  Noonan had come under fire for the continued pilfering of objects from the quarantined zone after he thought he had it under control.

Ultimately, Red makes one last visit in search of a mythical golden sphere, which forces him to confront his demons, much like the Stalker in the movie.  He had spent some time in jail and is trying to deal with his wife and deformed daughter, who he calls Monkey because of all her body hair.  Seems anyone who ventures into the zone has his DNA altered.

What makes the novel work is its humor, something sorely lacking in the movie.  You can see the Strugatsky Brothers were inspired by Kurt Vonnegut.  They even mention him in this novel.  Roadside Picnic was one of three books meant to be published together in an anthology entitled Unintended Meetings, but the publisher Young Guard didn't think they measured up to the standards of youth fiction and had the Strugatsky edit the books of the bad language, immoral behavior of the characters and physical violence.  According to Boris, there wasn't much left in the end and he felt the books were confined to a fate worse than death.  Mercifully, Perestroika came and interest in their books was expressed by the outside world and they were able to have Roadside Picnic and other novels published in full abroad.  Now, you can get most of their books online, although Space Mowgli, which was originally part of the trilogy, is still unavailable in English.  But, Dead Mountaineer's Inn is available in English, which was also made into a movie in 1979.

There has even been a second attempt made at the novel in a video game that fused together the story with the wasteland of Chernobyl, resulting in a new printing in 2012, the year Boris died.  Arkady had passed away the year the Soviet Union broke up.  The brothers loom large in Soviet science fiction.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Boris Godunov in the modern era

I found myself having to read Boris Godunov so that I could make any sense out of Eimuntas Nekrosius' latest production.  He was originally going to stage it in Moscow with a Russian cast but when Russia annexed Crimea, Nekrosius chose to cancel the production and reset it in Vilnius with a Lithuanian cast.

It came out last May, 2015, but my wife and I only got around to seeing it this past weekend.  Lithuanian theater is very different in that you don't get long running shows, but rather recurring shows.  It must make it tough on actors as one has to hold a whole repertoire in his head, as one could very well be performing one play one week and entirely different play the next week.  Each director has his core actors, but they draw actors from each other quite often.  It is quite impressive seeing these actors take on so many roles during the theater season.

Unfortunately, Boris didn't translate very well to the modern era.  In my opinion, this is a very specific story set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and seeing the characters come out in trench coats and leather jackets doesn't really work.  Marina Mniszech looked like a sexy WWII German spy seducing the poor False Dmitry in his cheap leather jacket, who had so madly fallen in love with her and wanted to drop his charade.  Marina convinces him to go through with his plot to usurp Boris.  There was something oddly Soviet about the whole production which belied the very nature of the play, set between the Muscovites and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as they vied for power over the Slavic world.

Pushkin didn't have much time for either Poles or Lithuanians, even though his grandfather Hannibal was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church in Vilnius.  Hannibal was an emancipated slave who was rechristened Abram Petrovich Gannibal and raised in Peter the Great's household.  For Pushkin, the former Grand Duchy very much represented the Pale of Tsarist Russia.

However, in this play we see a major conflict between the two powers, which is based squarely on history.  The play is broken up into scenes, with entirely different sets that would seem by today's standards to be better suited for a movie.  Mussorgsky made it into an opera in the 1870s, which is often reprised.  Pushkin intended it as a play but it has rarely been produced this way.

Pushkin was steeped in Shakespeare at the time.  The relationship between Boris and Dmitry is very similar to that of Richard III but the structure of the play is entirely different.  Ultimately Boris simply dies, and the false Dmitry, who was actually a defrocked monk, gains the throne by default.  Pushkin chooses to end the play this way, even though the false Dmitry's reign was very short lived and it was the devious Prince Shuisky who ultimately gained the royal seat, the last in the Rurik Dynasty.

I'm not sure what the intent was here, as the translation I read didn't strike me as a very good one.  It read very straight up, as if Pushkin was simply providing an excerpt into early Russian history before Peter the Great subordinated the Polish-Lithuanian Joint Kingdom, with Catherine later absorbing Lithuania into the Russian empire.  Maybe it was a cautionary tale of all the tumult that existed before Russia achieved its greatness and why Russians should forever be wary of their western neighbors.

I'm equally puzzled why Nekrosius showed great interest in this play other than to further impress audiences with his ability to tackle difficult productions.  I think it would have worked better in Russian.  Language is an essential part in all of Pushkin's work language.  Translated into Lithuanian or English, it loses much of its meaning and resonance.

It does appear that Nekrosius was trying to reverse the cautionary tale, reminding Lithuanian audiences that at one time this country posed a serious threat to Tsarist Russia, linking it to the ongoing battle in the 20th century when Lithuania finally won its independence back in 1991.  However, you can only read this between the lines, as Nekrosius pretty much sticks to the original text.

Anyway, it was fun to watch.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in the tavern on the edge of the Lithuanian wilderness, where Gregory tries to fool the Russian soldiers with his interpretation of the Tsar's edict for the capture of a runaway monk.  Nekrosius had great fun with this scene, playing it to full absurdist effect, which was the hallmark of his earlier plays.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Just another roadside picnic

In an effort to kickstart this blog again, I recently received a copy of Roadside Picnic, which inspired Tarkovsky's Stalker.  I saw the movie years ago, and quite frankly couldn't make heads or tails of it, so am hoping that the book will help me put together some of the pieces before doing another viewing.  It was interesting to read that I wasn't the only one interested in the classic Soviet sci-fi novel.  WGN bought the screen rights to it and is planning a television series based on the novel.   A video game has also been designed around the theme.

Neither of the Strugatsky Brothers are with us anymore, but for decades they were kind of like the Coen Brothers of Soviet science fiction, turning out a great number of novels in the genre dating back to 1958.  They were mostly collaborative efforts, but there were a few solo novels as well, with Boris penning the last work in 2003.

Soviet sci-fi is what propels Victor Pelevin, one of my favorite writers, although he fuses it with contemporary thoughts and observations as was the case in Generation π, or Babylon as it has been retitled in English.

There's quite a  bit of Soviet and Russian science fiction translated into English.  Here's a sampling. Yevgeny Zamyatin is the most well known writer on the list.  We was the basis for another Tarkovsky movie, Solaris, which was also adapted into an American film.

It was more the existential aspect than the science fiction element that attracted Tarkovsky to these novels.  In Stalker, you get more a post-Apocalyptic feeling in which everything has been reduced to ruins and persons are left to interpret what it all means.  I gather the Strugatsky Brothers were more upfront in their novel, so very curious to read what it meant in their minds.

Friday, February 12, 2016

War and Peace in the Bedroom

It is hard to imagine what BBC expected when they signed a young director, Tom Harper, to do War & Peace.  The 35-year-old director did do Demons, but it was based on the fabulous adventures of van Helsing, not Dostoevsky.  There is little in Harper's resume to suggest that he was up to the task, which I suppose is why BBC enlisted veteran screenwriter Andrew Davies to adapt the novel to the television screen.

Suffice it to say young Tom is no Sergei Bondarchuk.  I question whether he even read the book, but rather adapted Bondarchuk's enthralling epic film to the television screen.  This new version was more about scenography than acting, with the characters pretty much reduced to stand-ins for the roles.  There were a few big name actors like Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson, but for the most part these were newbies or actors you hadn't heard about unless you tune into BBC programming.

Lily James was the star of the show, fresh off her success in Downton Abbey and as Cinderella in the latest cinematic version.  Her perky character fit Natasha Rostova well enough in the early scenes, but when the demand on her talents increased as the story unfolded she was woefully lacking.  I think it would have been better to try to enlist the services of Alicia Vikander, who gave a pretty decent turn as Kitty Oblonsky in Anna Karenina.  However, I think these actors got little in the way of direction and were left to their own devices as to how to draw something out of their characters.

It's worth comparing these two recent adaptations as they were both British productions.  Anna Karenina was a 2012 cinematic release by Joe Wright, who re-imagined the novel as a theatrical production, infusing it with rich colors and having the actors throw their hearts and souls into the Tom Stoppard script, with heightened dramatic effect.  The novel was shaved down to two hours, so there was a lot missing, but the intent of the novel was very much in place, and you really felt for Anna when her world fell apart over her illicit love for Count Vronsky.

Tom Harper gave War & Peace more space but utterly failed in capturing the intent of the novel.  He and Davies reduced it to a bedroom drama, where sex and intrigue drive the mini-series, particularly in the nasty characterization of Helene Bezukhova, who seems to sleep with just about everyone during the course of this series, including her brother.  This generated the most advance publicity, as there was no explicit reference to incest in the novel, but Davies felt it was implied in the novel and that was enough for him.

There is no nuance, nor theatrically in this telling.  It is a paint-by-numbers production with sex scenes thrown in so that you won't fall asleep over the approximately 6-hour running time.  The scenes were mostly shot in and around Vilnius, Lithuania, with a few scenes shot in Petersburg for dramatic effect.  There is no sense of an epic as most of the action takes place in the narrow confines of set productions.  As such, it might have behooved Harper to take the same approach as Wright and make this a theatrical production.  Of course that would have meant reading the novel and reducing it down to its essence, which it doesn't seem Tom Harper nor Andrew Davies had the patience to do.

The worst part about this production is the way Paul Dano played Pierre Bezukhov.  He kept the same doe-eyed, open-mouthed expression virtually throughout the movie.  It was like he projected Bezukhov as Oblomov, a slothful figure who finds himself on the receiving end of great wealth and doesn't know what to do with it. There is some attempt to get to the soul of Bezukhov's character, but nothing like Bondarchuk in his telling, who offered numerous philosophical and poetic asides as they related to the novel.  We are simply supposed to project from Paul Dano's woeful countenance what is lurking beneath his forlorn character.

James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky isn't any better, but at least Norton gives some measure of pride to his character, and you can see why Natasha might be attracted to him.  However, as the series unfolds, Norton also gets lost in his role, unable to project the changes in his attitude, particularly when he falls in love with Natasha.  Suffice it to say, the famous waltz in no way matches the original.

The periphery figures more or less fade into the background with a few notable exceptions.  Jim Broadbent gave Bolkonsky's father the fierceness he had in the novel.  Tom Burke was both charming and cunning as Dolokhov, the first of many to betray poor Pierre.  Tuppence Middleton was quite fetching as Bezukhov's treacherous wife.   Unfortunately, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson were given incidental roles, factoring little in the story.  

Brian Cox shined in his brief moments as General Kutuzov, but there was very little about the war itself in this telling.  Napoleon figured much less prominently than he did in history or the novel, which was just as well as because Mathieu Kassovitz was awful in the role.  The war is used mostly as a prop to show a few combat horrors and how the personalities of the leading men changed.  There is nothing like that scene in Bondarchuk's epic when Bezukhov wanders across the battle field trying to make sense of all the carnage.  These scenes were pretty much done on the cheap with CGI to give the illusion of Napoleon's Grand Armee.  Bondarchuk had spent millions recreating the battle scenes.

I suppose you have to refresh the classics from time to time so as to kindle interest in a new generation, but it is doubtful today's kids are going to slog through a 1500-page book where the big payoff is Pierre finally getting together with Natasha after reading of Russia's great defense of its homeland and proud noble tradition.  This movie looked like it was derived from the Cliff Notes.

As my wife said afterward, you didn't care for anyone in this television series, except maybe Marya Bolkonskaya, who had to endure a tyrannical father through most of the series, only to find her love in the end as well.  There was something endearing about Jessie Buckley's portrayal.  As for Lily James, she looked like Cinderella in Tsarist Russian times not sure which Prince to take.  Fortunately, Bolkonsky made it easy for her.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Suitcase

I took Sergei Dovlatov's The Suitcase with me on a short holiday to the salt baths in the South of Lithuania.  I got a great kick out of this set of anecdotes based on articles of clothing from the Soviet era.  Dovlatov's books are few but are being reprinted and we should all be thankful for it.  He looks at the Soviet past with a wry sense of humor.  I particularly liked his short piece on a statue of Lenin with his two caps.

The New Yorker has a great piece on Dovlatov lifted from the afterward of Pushkin Hills, which is next on my reading list.  He was a journalist for many years, which he recounts in The Suitcase, as well as other brief stints as a sculptor's apprentice.  The Lenin stature fiasco sets up and even more farcical piece on a huge wall relief for a subway station devoted to Mikhail Lomonosov, out of which Sergei managed to nab the mayor's boots.

The stories are more or less based on his experiences, set up when his son discovers the suitcase in the closet of their Forest Hills home in New York.  Dovlatov had left the USSR as part of the Jewish "Aliyah" that began in the early 70s.  For years, it seemed he accepted his fate, which included an unhappy marriage recounted in one of the stories centered on a poplin shirt.  After his wife left for Israel, he decided to make his move as well, eventually catching up with her and settling in the United States.

He started an emigre newspaper and was published in The New Yorker, but sadly the drinking caught up to him and he passed away in 1990, not quite 50.  All together, 12 short books were published.  The Suitcase in 1986.  Most were written after he left the Soviet Union.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Book That Came in from the Cold

The Zhivago Project, as it was called, was an attempt by MI6 and the CIA to disseminate Dr. Zhivago among Soviet citizens at the height of the Cold War.  While it was an Italian publisher who ultimately made the book available to a wider audience, with Pasternak's knowledge, it was the British and Americans who exploited the controversial book in an attempt to stir up emotions in the Soviet Union, without the author's knowledge.

Pasternak with his wife, Olga, and daughter, Irina, 1959

Pasternak was already in trouble in the Soviet Union.  As Finn and Couvee describe in the prologue, the 66-year-old author was living in a state-supported writers' village, Peredilkino, when he was approached by a representative for a new Italian publishing company, which was desperate for writers of note.  Pasternak hadn't published anything in years, but was still regarded as an important poet in the USSR.   It seems Sergio D'Angelo would have been content with some of Pasternak's poetry, instead he was given a full manuscript for a novel, which Pasternak had been unable to get published in the Soviet Union.   

Dr. Zhivago was a sprawling epic, written over 8 years, that described the Russian civil war from 1917-1922, with roots back to the 1905 uprising.  It was a subject you had to approach gingerly in the Soviet press, but Pasternak chose to tell it how he remembered it, and for that reason found himself turned down by Goslitizdat, the state literary publisher.  He was a bit concerned about a foreign printing, but gave D'Angelo the green light.  

The book became an international sensation in 1957, when it was published first in Russian by the Italian publishing company, and then quickly translated into English by Max Hayward and Manya Harari in 1958, subsequent to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for literature that year.  The Soviet author was forced to refuse the prize and the money that came with it.  He died two years later, unable to enjoy any fruits of his labor.

It is unclear how British and American secret services got hold of the manuscript.  Some think through Isiah Berlin, who was also given a copy by Pasternak.  The underground hardback copies were surreptitiously given away at the World's Fair in Brussels in 1958.  The book was widely available by this point, so copies had already leaked into the Soviet Union, but MI6 was determined to make more copies available.  The CIA followed suit the next year with a paperback copy that was disseminated among Russian emigre groups in Europe.

Whatever the intentions, Khrushchev survived this attempt to undermine the Soviet state.  He had much more to worry about in the fallout of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 than a pesky intellectual like Pasternak.  When Khrushchev finally got around to reading the book, he regretted having made the effort to suppress it.  

Probably in some way, the book did encourage Nikita to initiate a thaw that allowed long suppressed books like The Master and Margarita to be published during the 1960s, which similarly became an international sensation.  However, that credit should probably go to Ilya Ehrenburg's The Thaw, published in 1954, when Khrushchev first came to power following Stalin's death.  Whatever the case, The Zhivago Affair should make for interesting reading.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tattoo You

One of my recent discoveries is Danzig Baldaev, a graphic artist from the Soviet Union who became famous for his illustrations of tattoos he copied while serving as a prison guard in Leningrad.  Fuel publishers has generously reprinted these illustrations in three volumes.  The tattoos served as an inspiration for David Cronenberg, who liberally borrowed from the tomes in illustrating Viggo Mortensen and other characters in Eastern Promises.

But, what caught my eye was a collection of Baldaev's political cartoons, simply entitled Soviets, which cover a broad range from the mid 1950s to 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  Baldaev is not only a fine illustrator, but has a wonderful dark humor that is obviously a product of his years as a prison guard.  Needless to say, these cartoons weren't published in their time.  Baldaev also offers a collection of cartoons in the same vein entitled Drawings from the Gulag.

Robert Crumb has nothing over Danzig, who survived the Soviet period and lived to tell his tale in pictures.  The first volume of criminal tattoos was published before his death in 2004, with the latter volumes coming post-humously.  The illustrations are accompanied by searing photographs by Sergei Vasiliev from 1989-1993.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

This Ukraine Brawl Is Better Than Michelangelo

(2paragraphs)  Capturing the perfectly-timed photo is not easy: when it happens it’s by accident. Usually the result is funny or weird. Occasionally it approaches Art: that’s the case with this photo of a brawl in the Ukrainian parliament that artist James Harvey thinks has all the compositional beauty of a Renaissance painting. Harvey found the image at Imgur, complete with Fibonacci Sequence overlaid to show its Golden Ratio.

According to Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian, “the Fibonacci spiral has been placed on top of it to show just why its elements cohere so satisfyingly… the violence spirals exponentially outward from the focal point of the fight up to the reddened face of the man at the top of the image.” Luckily for art and mathematics enthusiasts, there should be other accidental Renaissance art waiting to be discovered courtesy of the Ukrainian and other parliaments.

Friday, March 28, 2014


This story broke in Lithuania shortly after the petition was made available, and now it is gaining much wider circulation.  Seems the government is calling on Russia's cultural elite to back its annexation of Crimea, an action not seen since Soviet times.  Many leading cultural figures signed the petition, some out of patriotism, like Valery Gergiev who considers the Ukraine "an essential part of our cultural space."   Others out of fear of reprisals. Boris Akunin (pictured above) stands out as one of those who refused to sign the petition,

“It’s just that under Stalin, if a prominent cultural figure dared to protest he’d be shot; under Brezhnev he’d be imprisoned; now he just risks losing state donations and having to travel economy class — but this often proves enough.  It’s a fascinating sight to watch people make this moral choice.”

When hearing of the petition, Lithuania's leading theater director, Eimuntas Nekrošius, and favorite of Russian theaters, cancelled a production in Moscow.  He is famous for his reinterpretations of Shakespeare and has often worked with well known Russian actors on stage.  It is really a shame to see this political divide splitting the cultural arts, as this has been one of the truly great interchanges between Russia and the world.

The worst part about the petition is that it appears to have been inflated much like the referendum in the Crimea, with several names printed without permission and at least one of those listed no longer alive.  A very sad case of history repeating itself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fantasy and Construction

I was pleased to find what appears to be a reprint of Catherine Cooke's AD profile of Yakov Chernikhov, one of the leading avant-garde architects of the early Soviet era.  Like many of these architects, his ideas remain largely on paper as the rise of Soviet realism in the 1930s had little room for these "futurists," with their ideas being absorbed by European schools like the Bauhaus in Weimer Germany.  The Architectural Design Profile is pretty hard to find these days and fetches a collector's price, but the Dom book is readily available.

I don't talk much about architecture in this blog, but it was a major component of the early Soviet period, with architects like El Lissitzky working with Mayakovsky on For the Voice, a pamphlet that evocatively captured the era.  Here is a wonderful short animation feature based on the book.  Lissitzky would eventually have a profound influence on European modern movements, particularly in his use of the "proun."

Chernikhov did get at least one project built - this water tower for the Red Nail Maker's Factory in St. Petersburg.  Like so many of the projects from that era it was constructed in reinforced concrete and has managed to weather the test of time.

Friday, March 7, 2014


As Russians try to rewrite what they see as a historical wrong, I find myself digging into the history of Crimea.  Orlando Figes has written two books on Crimea, including this history in 2010.

It was in 1954 that Khrushchev decided to attach Crimea to the Soviet state of Ukraine, primarily so it would benefit from a new hydro-electric dam.  I suppose at the time Khrushchev never imagined Ukraine becoming an independent state.  Neither did many Russians, especially those who lived in Crimea.

As far as history goes, it depends on how far back you want to go.  For centuries this was a Greek enclave, before being annexed by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.  It became bitterly fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th century, culminating in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

I suppose from the point of view of history, Khrushchev's "gift" couldn't have been more ill-timed, coming 100 years after the start of the Crimean War.  The Greeks had all left.  The only indigenous people remaining were Crimean Tatars.  The vast majority of the population was Russian, which now found itself under the Ukraine SSR.

Another stroke of bad luck came when the Soviet Union melted down and Ukraine became an independent state.  Yeltsin formally relinquished Russian interest in the region with the Partition Treaty of 1997, but Crimean Russians pressed for and got a semi-autonomous state with its own parliament, essentially giving it home rule.  While any attempt at secession would have to be approved by the Ukrainian government, this hasn't stopped the home parliament from putting forward a referendum on March 16 which would seek return to Russia.

This isn't much different than what we saw with South Ossetia and Abkhazia back in 2008, although these two breakaway Georgian republics sought independence, not re-annexation.  Russian Crimeans can't really stake a claim to a separate identity as Ossetians and Abkhazians can, so I suppose from their point of view it makes sense to be back within the Russian fold.

What has everyone up in arms over this crisis is the way it is being handled.  We saw the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia over ethnic differences not that long ago.  We also saw the much more violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which no one wants to repeat.  What is to stop other principally Russian territories inside the Ukraine from similarly seeking re-annexation into Russia, leaving Western Ukraine a  rump state?

This kind of de-evolution of government is usually not very healthy.  Better to form a federation like Switzerland did, uniting ethnic Germans, Italians and Swiss, than trying to split states, especially when there is so much overlap as there is in the Ukraine.  It seems we still tend to look at countries in terms of political maps, making them easier to divide and rule.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Chapayev and Void

I still find myself waiting for a translation of Viktor Pelevin's latest book, SNUFF.  In the meantime I've gone back and read some of his earlier titles and recently ordered Buddha's Little Finger.  The English translation dates from 2000 and was reviewed in The New York Times.  It first appeared as  Чапаев и Пустота (Chapayev and Void) in 1996, and under the title Clay Machine Gun in the UK.

Pelevin revisits that chaotic time when Gorbacev was desperately trying to hold the crumbling Soviet Union together through the eyes of a poet, Pyotr Voyd, who has run afoul of authorities over a couple poems he had published in an underground newspaper.  Once again we get a character caught between two worlds, trying to make sense of the mechanisations behind the world we see, not much unlike in Generation π.

What makes all his books interesting is the way he plays with time and space, much like Kurt Vonnegut, who I imagine is one of his literary heroes.  Pelevin also has a great sense of the consumerist society we live in and how easy it is to manipulate people, both politically and commercially.  Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions comes to mind.  However, there is a spiritual side to Pelevin as well.  He takes Buddhism quite seriously.  Here's an interview with him conducted by Leo Kropywiansky for Bomb magazine.

It is also worth noting that a film based on the novel is in post-production and due out this year.  It is an international production with a joint Russian-German-Canadian cast and will be in English.  His only other book to be made into a film was Generation π.