Skip to content

Ergo Sum

Personal tools
You are here: Home » Members » cmcurtin's Home » The Life of Insects, Victor Pelevin

The Life of Insects, Victor Pelevin

Document Actions
In 1994, Russian author Viktor Pelevin first published his commentary on Russian society after perestroika and even after the fall of the Soviet Union. While many reviewers focus on the unique Russian character of Жизнь Насекомых [The Life of Insects], I was struck by its quality as an allegorical commentary on Russian society. While obvious comparisons to certain Russian masters like Chekhov and Turgenev seems inevitable, I thought more of the allegories and social commentaries of authors such as Zamyatin, Nabokov, and even Orwell. I read a 1996 translation into English by Andrew Bromfield.

The Life of Insects Rather than focus on the story of a single protagonist working his way through society, Pelevin opts to tell several stories in a single novel, allowing a picture to emerge of a society as a whole, not from the top-down as if by some Soviet-style central design, but rather from the bottom-up, where individuals live their own lives, only vaguely aware of others outside of their sphere. The Life of Insects becomes a commentary on modern society, Russian society, with various factions each being represented by some variety of insect, beginning with enterprising mosquitoes in a clear reference to the “New Russians” that emerged at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Readers of Russian works will feel at home in The Life of Insects, as the story and its presentation has a distinctly Russian feel to it, something of a fatalist acceptance that whatever superficial changes we might make, nothing will ever be fundamentally different. Especially in the case of ants and dung beetles, we are shown very clearly that for whatever struggles might take place at the individual level, circumstances far beyond our control will dictate the manner of our daily lives as we hope to produce another generation of the species before we meet our own ends. If we live long enough to observe and pause long enough to reflect, we'll see our children doing exactly as we did—and only then will we really understand why our parents said what they said and did what they did as we struggled to reach maturity.

Some will be more pensive, actively thinking about where they are going instead of being shocked to see history repeating itself in front of their eyes. They will think about terms like paradise that people talk of, thinking about how pointless it is to dig, always to dig through the dirt, where breakfast and lunch are largely the same, and one always struggles to dig well enough to reach the surface. When finally getting there, realizing just what it means, and unable to share the insight.

Others will be more social, staying abreast of the news, sharing observations, insights, and experiences with others. While they experience their own ups and downs, their friends will be there, always supportive and a force for balance and stability. The trick, of course, is not to attract too much attention along the way, lest they find themselves on the receiving end of some action by the authorities to limit their influence.

Each of these has particular meaning in modern Russian society, with commentary not being difficult to follow—the text fairly clearly spells out the necessary parallels. Even so, similar lessons can certainly be drawn for other social structures as well.

I thought the translation equal to the task of presentation of the book in English, making it accessible even to those unfamiliar with Russian society beyond a place where one might see abbreviations such as NKVD and KGB. (One unexpected joy comes from familiarity with the issue of translation of language between Russian and English and the ability to sense the quality of translation. I am anxious to see the text in the original language and what construction Pelevin himself used that required Bromfield's nice little trick with the use of Ai— й + а, perhaps? Addendum: as it turns out the text is available online and it was just as I suspected.)

I thought the text an interesting tour of contemporary Russian society, as told by someone who lives within it but clearly sees it not just as a whole but in all its parts. The novel's structure was worthy to carry its ideas and the ideas worthy of consideration for society more broadly.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-07-04 10:22 AM
In Print

This site conforms to the following standards: