The Life of Insects by Victor Pelevin

translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998 179 pp. 22.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


The Russian Arthur, dressed in a three-piece suit, meets his friend Arnold and his Russian-speaking American friend, Sam Sacker, at a Black Sea resort. Their brief, desultory conversation ends with the three of them leaping over the balcony balustrade and flying away, seeking someone to bite. Five pages into The Life of Insects the reader realizes the "life" the title refers is psychological, not biological, for Arthur, Arnold, and Sam are mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes, dung beetles, cicadas, fireflies, ants-their inner lives in a crumbling Crimea (the soil, not the political structure) are explored in this novel. We discover that insects' primary concerns are death and metaphysics.

"The Crimea is imperceptibly transformed from the spa of the Soviet Union into a Roman province, and your heart is filled with the inexpressibly familiar feelings of all those who have ever stood on its ancient roads at night, listening to the song of the cicadas and gazing up at the sky without thinking. The straight, narrow cypresses seem like columns left behind from buildings demolished long ago; the sea murmurs exactly the same way it always has; and before you rolls your sphere of dung. You sense for a moment just how mysterious and incomprehensible life it, and how tiny a part of what life could be we actually call by that name."

Thus, the reflections of a plucky young dung beetle, orphaned by the arbitrary horror of a spike heel on the boardwalk. And why, the moths ask, do we fly toward the light, since "you become a moth the moment you realize you're surrounded by darkness?" In the final analysis, "everyone flies to this light, because there's nothing else."

More metaphorical undertaking than Animal Farm allegory, The Life of Insects finds links between insects and humans in the sudden arbitrariness of our deaths and the unconscious and unknown possibility for transmogrification. For us, religion's promise of another life for the soul helps structure our life on this earth. For the insects, the transformation from "the defenseless white sausage of a body" into a "typical young fly in a short sexy dress with spangles" is more troubling and mysterious.

Like last year's Lives of the Monster Dogs, which portrayed a society of spectacle-wearing, booze-swilling canines, the novel's characters embody humor both broad and droll. After giving birth, the hungry ant Martina looks over at the limbs of her dead husband, contemplating a snack to revive her. "I'm not doing it for myself," she claims as she rips into his skin with her sharp mandibles, "It's for the children."

Death and transformation, failed hopes and the origins of God's grace-Pelevin packs it into a remarkably compact space. A tree, completely rotten, "glowed in the darkness. The entire clearing in front of it was covered with a colorful shifting carpet of insects. They were gazing spellbound at the stump, which emitted waves of charismatic energy that transformed it into the sole and incontrovertible source of meaning and light in the universe. Somehow or other Mitya understood that these waves were nothing more than a reflection of the attention of all the insects who had gathered there in the clearing to see the tree stump."

Seemingly episodic, The Life of Insects is an intricately structured narrative in which clever and sophisticated tricks are engineered with the temporal sequence of events. Victor Pelevin's latest novel is playful, smart, and thought-provoking.