Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Life of Insects



I wouldn't call it light reading, but The Life of Insects is a book you can consume at one sitting.  You will probably find yourself wanting to reread parts of it, particularly the interesting dialog between fellow moth-men, Mitya and Dima, which as their names imply appear as two halves of the same coin.

Viktor Pelevin's short novel from the early 90s is not so easy to categorize.  Some have viewed as allegory, others as science fiction and fantasy.  It would seem Pelevin took his cue from a few lines of Brodsky,

I sit in my garden and the lamp is burning.
Not a single lover, friend or servant.
Not a single lord or beggar present
Nothing but the harmony of insects' droning.

not Kafka as many persons would like to think.  Pelevin purposely keeps the reader off balance with all the shape-shifting that takes place as his insect humans move freely back and forth from one form to another.

The book essentially follows three stories with three other short pieces fit into the interlocking chapters.  Perhaps the most compelling story is that of  Marina, a queen ant who descends to earth in the form of a shapely young women in a tight-fitting mini skirt and stiletto heels, finds herself having to clip her wings to adjust to a new world along the Crimean coastline.  She happens to have just enough crumpled up ruble notes in her little purse to see a French film that more or less serves as her training film.  From that point she begins to build her nest using a trowel to dig and her skirt as a little sack to help disperse dirt away from her entrance at the base of an decaying motel.  In her hunt for food, she encounters a rival queen ant with Pelevin seeming to relish the "ant fight" which ensues.  Marina also waits longingly for her male ant to come, decorating her chamber more or less as she remembers in the film, doing the best she can from available materials.  At the extreme point of despair, she hears the tell-tale sound of a trowel nearing her chamber, finding her mate in the form of a decorated soldier named Nikolai.  True to the nature ants, the world she soon finds herself invited into is a military one.  The ball Marina attends gives the reader the sense that this military order hopes to revive Tsarist times in the wake of the Soviet collapse.  But, the happy spell she finds herself in soon crumbles and Marina is left to tend to a cache of white eggs.  Only then does Marina seem to fully realize who she is, abjectly consigning herself to her fate.

Pelevin's metamorphoses take on dream-like proportions in his tale of two moths, which is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's The Double, with the hallucinogenic dreams evoking an "underworld" not unlike that of Alice.  The moths, Mitya and Dima reach the most existential levels of the novel as they try to discern between light and dark.  Unlike Kafka, where it is essentially a long journey into darkness, Pelevin plays with both halves of the same sphere, quite playfully even in his chapter with the dung beetle.  There is no clear beginning or end, but rather a fascinating little journey into the lives of insects.

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