Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Empire V – the Prince of Hamlet – review

Author: Victor Pelevin

Translator: Anthony Phillips

 First Published: 2006 (untranslated)

Contains spoilers

The blurb: When he started following mysterious signs on the street, Roman thought he’d found the perfect opportunity to rebel against a controlling society. When the signs lead him to a doorway in an alley, and he’s knocked out, he realises he might have been wrong.

He awakens strapped to a set of parallel bars in a richly appointed sitting room, and begins a conversation with a masked man which will change his life. His world has been a façade – one which the mysterious man, known as Brahma, is about to tear away.

A stunning novel about the real world, and about the hidden channels of power behind the scenes, Empire V is a post-modern satirical novel exploring the cults and corruption of politics, banking and power. And not only are these cults difficult to join – it turns out they may be impossible to leave…

The review:I have previously examined Pelevin’s novel the Sacred Book of the Werewolf as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ and went not – though I am now second guessing that decision. That, however, is a different matter – for the purposes of this review the previous book is important because blog reader Sepulture mentioned this novel in a comment but at that time it was not translated into English. It is also important as some of the themes explored are very similar. I’ll come to that, of course, but since that post I have occasionally had a search for the novel to see if an English translation had been released and, finally, it is available.

The book follows Roman, whose name is changed (once he is turned) to Rama as all the vampires are given the names of Gods (I use the same concept in Concilium Sanguinarius), and his induction into the world of the vampires. I’m going to concentrate on Pelevin’s lore as it is rather interesting and pretty darn unique. The vampire is turned when an entity known as the tongue grafts itself to them. The tongue sits at the soft palate of the mouth and is a symbiotic creature. Turning occurs by choice off the tongue – for reasons explained in the narrative, Brahma’s tongue wants a change of host.

The tongues were creatures that looked like giant bats during the time of the dinosaurs and so have been apex predators for a long time. After the asteroid cataclysm, which wiped out the dinosaurs, the vampires managed to extract from themselves their own essence, in the form of the tongues, and lodged within large predators. They were responsible for adapting and breeding homo sapiens and now lodge within us, though that was not our primary function.

The vampires have long since stopped relying on blood (or the red liquid, as it is called, blood being a taboo word) and actually only take in blood (and a few drops of that) in order that they might read the personality and memories of the individual to whom the blood belongs. Rather the tongue feeds on bablos – an energy form derived from humans and generated by the pursuit of money. This, of course, leads us to the satire.

This is a satirical look at capitalism and we can look back as far as Voltaire and Marx for the connection of vampires with bankers and capital itself. Being a Russian novel it is clearly a satire of the post-Perestroika society. The novel is clearly Russian, the tone of the prose captures a timbre unique to that country. Again there is a Nabakov aspect – but this time spoken of within the prose. There is also a flirtation with the Nietzschean Übermensch. Further lore includes Death Candy – a distillation that allows vampires to become temporarily fierce warriors – and the transformation into a bat form, though the book does not reveal how this is physically attained.

I was transported into the prose and thoroughly enjoyed the journey. Well worth the wait for the translation it is a wonderful and unique take on vampire lore (and I haven't touched on the lore around Ishtar, the living vampire deity, as it is too spoiler heavy), even if it’s concept treads ground already covered by films such as Hanno Cambiato Faccia. The ending was an exercise in sucker punching the reader with the unexpected, which was ironically clear to see in the preceding prose, and was, thus, incredibly satisfying. 8 out of 10.

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