I haven’t read too many werewolf stories… but, that being said, my favorite one definitely is (and has been for a while) A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia.
This is a thirty-five page short story, by a not-terribly-well-known-in-America author, Victor Pelevin. The story first appeared in an English translation in 1998, but was clearly written either shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, or immediately (as in, one to two years) after.
It might be a little tricky to find—so thank goodness for the internet, because the entire story is available online here.
(And, just a warning: the rest of this letter will be completely overridden with spoilers; so you can choose to proceed, or not, based on that knowledge…)
For it’s first ten pages, Werewolf Problem is a slow and meditative story. In fact, I think that the thing which keeps the reader going through its initial ten pages—which are mostly dirt-stained evocations of a failed attempt at hitchhiking through central Russia at night—is the strong contrast between such plot-less (though interesting) description, and the promise/menace of the story’s title. We read onward because we are waiting for that moment when, suddenly, the two elements will collide.
Once this moment comes, it is satisfying especially because for all intents and purposes we have, till then, been in an otherwise very different type of story. There is certainly nothing to prepare our protagonist, Sasha, for the events of his night. Twilight approaches, and Sasha, who hoped at first that he would be picked up by the sort of kind, reticent hitchhiker he has read about in books, instead resigns himself to such options as either spending the night in a dingy small town movie-theater—if he can manage to sneak in and avoid the workers’ attentions as they close up for the night—or just lying down outside, in front of an electric pylon near a tiny and deserted side road, hoping that no harm will come to him as he sleeps.
Yet, by the time he encounters the strange party in the wood, we readers have been primed for werewolfish expectation; not just by the title, but by little gestures—a mention of the full moon here, the use of the word “wolf” there—gestures which increase ten-fold the moment that Lena pulls Sasha into the little gang by the fireside.
Actually, there have been similar gestures to the fairy tales of Russia’s past. In that vein, the behavior of Lena, along with her instructions towards Sasha (on how to behave and what to say as he enters the strange gathering in the woods), are exact mirrors to this fairy tale structure as well: the sort of fairy tale where the young prince is infiltrating the gang of bandits, and rescuing the enchanted princess from under their noses.
Sasha may have hoped he was in one type of story at the beginning; the reader, for the first ten pages, may have thought they were in another. At this point, Victor Pelevin is certainly leading his readers to expect, instead, a third type of story that is just as distinct as the former two, and as different. (And this type of story—along with its common variations—would definitely be enough to make good on the promise of its ominous title.)
And, of course, the moment Sasha turns into a wolf, this narrative expectation is thrown out the window along with the former two. It’s trampled to death by the sheer joy and amusement of description, of the world seen suddenly through wolfish eyes—were-owls flitting overheard, hares sweeping by like jet planes, and secret little pacts and devices left in place by the were-humans preparing for this mesonoxian romp. Even the gloomy satirical presence of the shoddy, sour “Michurin Collective Farm”, from the first ten pages of the narrative, suddenly blooms into unexpected life as the setting for an enchanted battle by moonlight—where a werewolf’s bite will not turn a human into a werewolf but, far more poetically, reduce a werewolf back to a mere, unenlightened “human” state.
By the end of the story, the tone has modulated from this “joy-filled romp” to a “calm, contented ecstasy”. And the descriptions of urban life from the first ten pages, so sour and sarcastic and imaginative in their gloominess, are given a swift and complete reversal in the last few sentences. We have progressed from “the edge of a forest, thin and unhealthy looking, like the sickly offspring of an alcoholic” to descriptions like this:
“It was early in the morning, the sun had only just appeared, and the surface of the road ahead looked like an endless pink ribbon. On the horizon he could see the tiny doll’s houses of the approaching city…”
So. This is an ecstatic, playful story of werewolfishness. It is definitely about werewolves. It is certainly, absolutely, without question, a straightforward story about a man who finds a pack of werewolves and happily joins their rank.
* * *
Except for the part where it’s also a giant honkin’ allegory, and I didn’t notice this the first few times I read it, because it is about werewolves with such pleasure that there’s little impetus to go hunting for the allegorical content—at least, if you’re American-born, and certainly if you’re not from the time and the culture in which this story was written.
So that’s the first part to spotting the allegory: some familiarity with the situation in which it was written.
But then there’s the second part, which is mainly the real thing that eventually pointed me in the right direction. See, this is a short story in a collection of stories where every other story is political commentary and allegory of some sort, mostly on the subject of how Soviet realism clashed with actual reality. So, though it was the story I liked the most, it also puzzled me a bit by standing out in comparison as so relatively straightforward.
Of course it’s nothing of that sort. The story is, in its own particular way, about religion. And it is about the extreme difficulty the Soviet Union encountered in its attempts to stamp out a religious mindset and replace it with Leninism and Stalinism and all the other -isms it could come up with. And it is about the fact that, even after nearly a century of an official no-religion policy, the majority of Russians—from casual janitor up to the high intelligentsia—remained unusually superstitious and prone to odd, unscientific convictions and philosophies.
In Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s lovely novel The Funeral Party, her dying Russian artist is being treated simultaneously by a licensed Russian doctor and an unlicensed Russian faith healer. This isn’t played for laughs—rather, it’s a wry observation of daily fact in Soviet culture, and also about 100% accurate in the attitude that most Soviet Russians would take to medicine… and also every other aspect of their life.
I can think of some more examples like this, but instead, why not go for some anecdotal evidence from my own childhood:
My paternal grandmother, when ill and dying in America, had visits from licensed doctors, and also from a cultured and educated man who was famous in the immigrant Russian community for his “laying on of hands” technique, despite the fact that both he, and we, were not Catholic but Jewish.
My parents both worked in the scientific fields and could otherwise be sarcastic and skeptical people, but, as a child, I was trotted around to more varieties of “alternative medicine” doctors than I can easily recall (and various Russian family friends were always recommending new ones). It actually didn’t occur to me question the oddity of this experience until very recently—I just accepted it as a normal part of life.
My grandfather would kiss his car gently on the steering wheel every time he finished parking it, because he believed in showing gratitude to inanimate objects, so that they would repay you with faithful service. My aunt-by-marriage recently advised me that I can cure my insomnia by bathing outside in the morning with my bare feet in the dirt, because being close to the ground and the soil is a reliable prescribed way to refresh the soul and, through this method, refresh the body and cure it of its ills. And my maternal grandma has mentioned visiting a famous psychic in Russia, to learn whether she’d be allowed to emigrate in her lifetime or not. This psychic had a massive house with beautiful furniture, but she never locked her doors. No one in the city dared rob her house because, as they all knew, she would find out who it was with her powers, and then put a curse on them.
A sort of vague, faith-based, mysterious understanding of the world persisted in the Russian mindset for the entirety of the Soviet Union’s existence, regardless of its attempts to cast that mindset out. So that’s the first thing to keep in mind.
The second thing to keep in mind is that there is also a very strong tradition, in Soviet literature, of writing a story that is ostensibly about one thing but actually about something else entirely—usually it is a subject which, if stated openly, could get you sent off to Siberia, or killed, or merely blacklisted, depending on the decade that you were writing it in.
And, even if Pelevin was writing this story in an era when the threat was no longer so dire, this type of story was drilled into the consciousness—it was not an unfamiliar mode. And it was also also a tried-and-true method of phrasing pungent ideas in an agreeable shell.
So here we have a story which references three different modes of Russian-tinged narrative before settling on its final Russian-tinged choice.
We have a story, also, which presents a cynical ten-page perspective on that most prized of Soviet myths: the charm of the little village, the charm of the collective farm. And it is a cynicism that would be quite familiar to anyone from that time and place, simply because everyone was aware of the shoddy reality of those myths (and if this story was written immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, instead of shortly before it, then the shoddiness would be particularly galling). No, the strange surprise to the reader would not be the gloomy and sarcastic first ten pages. It would be the sudden imbuing of meaning and sincerity to those surroundings that comes flooding in unexpectedly:
“But the greatest transformation that Sasha sensed was in his own awareness of himself… The change in his self-awareness had affected the meaning of life, and he realized that people could talk about it, but they couldn’t feel the meaning of life in the same way as they felt the wind or the cold. But now Sasha was able to feel it, he felt the meaning of life continuously and clearly as an eternal quality of the world itself, and that was the greatest charm of his present condition. No sooner did he realize this than he also realized that he was not likely ever to return to his former existence of his own free will—life without this feeling seemed like a long, tormenting dream, dim and incomprehensible.”
As a werewolf story, there are true oddities to its structure, and odd non sequiturs in some of its phrases. As an allegory about the undercurrent of faith and a conviction in deeper purpose that persisted in the unacknowledged aspects of Soviet culture, however, everything fits right into place. Even—no, especially—the bit at the end, about the elixir: why, of course the trappings and icons of faith are themselves mere objects, though helpful if they are the stepping stones which open the windows of your soul…
I really think the allegory is scrawled all over the story: the bit about hearing the “call”… the bit about only werewolves having truly human shadows… the fact that the werewolf bite doesn’t just turn Nikolai back into a human but, in reality, strips him of what the story itself identifies as true humanity…
“…Sasha glanced at his shadow and instead of the long silhouette of a muzzle he saw the outline of a rounded head and two protruding ears—his own human ears. When he looked up he saw the leader staring directly him.
‘Do you understand?’ the leader asked.
‘I think so,’ said Sasha. ‘Will [Nikolai] remember anything?’
‘No. For the rest of his life—if, of course, you can call it a life—he will think that he had a terrible nightmare…’”
From this perspective, the true toxicity represented by Nikolai becomes clear. Yes, Nikolai’s forged letter makes use of a Soviet-approved style of propaganda rhetoric, in such little humorous details as the reference to Stenka Razin, or the faux-academic attempt to claim werewolfishness as a “fundamentally Russian concept”. So he’s clearly a satire of the Soviet mode, at least in some degree. But it’s Nikolai’s monologue beforehand which best encapsulates that particular brand of Soviet-Communist arrogance crossed with typical bureaucratic disdain:
“’What can you [wolves] actually do to stop me? Nothing… So what’s left is just your word and mine, and on the walls of the bubble they are equal. Only mine is more elegant—though, in the final analysis that’s a matter of taste. In my view, my life is a magical dance and yours is a senseless dash through the darkness.’”
A senseless dash through the darkness—a description that is quite a slap on the nose in its uncaring reduction of the experience that Sasha has been having in his brief time as a wolf: an experience of meaning and purpose seeping in from all corners.
And it is typical, somehow, in how it mirrors the Soviet government’s hypocritical attempts to dictate what could and could not be Legitimate Logic, and Real Thought, and Purpose To Life.
It is the Purpose To Life bit, I think, which is particularly important.
The real fantasy of this story is the notion that Nikolai, and what he represents, can be so easy to dismiss, so easy for the wolves to override and contain. The fantasy, here, is that you can make people like Nikolai play by the rules of faith—or, as the story would put it, truth—instead of the other way around.
“Truth” might be a better word for what I’m trying to describe—a felt, instinctive sense of spiritual truth. It’s tempting to quote from the story almost at random to show this in action:
“’…I might be making it up as I go along,’ said the leader, ‘but it’s still true.’
He turned to go, but stopped when he saw Sasha’s inquiring gaze.
‘Did you want to ask something?’
‘What are werewolves, really?’
The leader looked him in he eye and bared his teeth slightly.
‘What are people, really?’”
It’s a section which reads as whimsical and hand-wave-y from a pure werewolf perspective; but relevant, and tied to the core theme, when read from the somewhat gnostic perspective of spiritual truth.
I am not a religious person. (Well, I’m an atheist. So I’m about as un-religious as you can get.) As a consequence, I can be frequently bored by stories which delve into the details of religion for their content, because too often it can be like overhearing the familial concerns of strangers sitting next to you on the airplane: occasionally diverting, sometimes riveting, but frequently completely irrelevant to my daily lived experience. So this story is apparently not just my favorite werewolf story but my favorite religion story—because I think it does a really marvelous job in capturing what it is that any sense of faith can contribute to a lived experience; and the sensation of discovering faith, and true community, for the first time—like coming across that missing piece of your heart that you never even knew you were longing for.
So. Kudos to this story for that, too.
At the same time: allegory aside, it remains a really fun werewolf story, distinct in its flavor from what you usually find in that particular genre.
But I guess that is the thing about context, and one of the reasons I wanted to write this letter in the first place. Missing context is often confusing. And, at least that particular confusion can help you realize you might be missing context. It can cause you to seek it out.
More often, missing context is simply invisible. Especially with a story from a different culture—especially with a story in translation. (For example, I really wonder what the original Russian title was, because the nuances in the phrasing would imply very different things.) And even when you are someone who can otherwise be a Good Reader, and are striving to make up for that handicap, this is the sort of thing that can sometimes be a near-impossible job.
This story collection came my way by an older cousin, someone far more familiar with Soviet reality than I will ever be. It was on his bookshelf; I snatched it down and read it; and then he let me ‘borrow’ it and later refused to take it back. (I think he was cutting down on his physical belongings at that point—he has ascetic tendencies.) This cousin has complained that the translation is not a very good one, and that, as a whole, Pelevin’s fiction is difficult to translate well because it relies so much on an awareness of late-Soviet pop culture.
So, that leaves me with the question: what else am I missing?
And what have I unintentionally distorted, or just gotten plain wrong?
Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything.
I don’t know.
Well. Anyway. Here is one more excerpt to round off this letter. And whether it’s somehow about prayer, or about communing with the world, or just a gorgeous piece of description of wolves howling at the moon, I don’t know. But—contextualized or not—it’s a beautiful, memorable passage just the same.
“He pricked up his ears… The melody seemed to be coming straight from the moon and it sounded like the music that had been played in the clearing before their transformation. It had sounded dark and menacing then, but now it was soothing. It was beautiful, but there were annoying gaps in it, empty patches. Suddenly he realized that he could fill them in with his own voice, and he began howling, quietly at first, then louder, raising his muzzle to the sky and forgetting everything else—and just then the melody blended with his howling and became perfect. Other voices sprang up beside his. All of them were quite different, but they didn’t clash at all.”
So, that’s my two cents on this story. I’ve wanted to write about it for a number of months, and now I have…
On with the show!
 Pelevin has a significant international reputation, but Americans are notoriously provincial in not caring about that sort of thing. Occasionally copies of his books show up in the Strand. And I did once see somebody reading a Pelevin novel on the subway! But, I think they were a European tourist, oh well…
 Yes, every other story, including the second one in this collection, Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream, which at least three different reviewers have described as “a witty exercise in taking solipsism to its logical extreme”. It is, actually, a fairly blatant commentary on the hypocrisy of Perestroika. The story lays it out clearly in the first few pages, which is the main reason that I was able to follow along without issue. Essentially, the story draws a strong comparison between the ultimate ineffectiveness of “applied solipsism” and the Soviet assertion that now, with Perestroika, everything is So Much Better! When, actually, the reality of life for most Soviets was in many ways either unaltered or somehow shabbier. So, we get Vera Pavlova—an attendant at a public bathroom—musing briefly on how, with Perestroika, life will just get better and better! And then, abruptly, she discovers how to master the mystery of life, gains world-changing powers, and the story appear to lurch into a totally different direction, as Vera begins to use her new powers to upgrade her job and situation, metamorphosing the bathroom and her particular employment till it becomes more and more lavish, becomes, in her own words, a “life [that] was gradually getting better and better…” And, actually, I suspect that much of the rhetoric referenced by Vera and her friend Manyasha, in their discussion about how their human “will and imagination form these lavatories around us”, is lifted directly from optimistic Party rhetoric during the Perestroika era… but this is not something I can confirm for certain. Just a bit of a hunch. The point is: dressing up a shitshow doesn’t change the fact that it is, well, a shitshow. And the story literally ends with a shitshow that can no longer be contained—an explosive flood of shit that erupts with a vengeance from the walls of the glorified public bathroom and coats the world in solid shit till Russia is submerged like Atlantis—I swear it makes more sense in context and actually this story is really great, I like it a lot, and it has one of the oddest and best endings.