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Authors: Victor Pelevin

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BOOK: Empire V
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Samartsev raised his finger.

‘That unexpressed proposition is the foundation of the whole fragile mechanism of our young democracy …'

‘Do you mean to tell me that despite everything we do have some kind of democracy?'

‘In prospect, definitely.'

‘Why only in prospect?'

Samartsev shrugged.

‘Look, you and I are intelligent people. What that means is that, provided we act together, we, the intelligentsia, can arse-lick any dictatorship to death. Unless, of course, we don't ourselves expire prematurely from hunger.'

The specialist in youth culture added quietly:

‘Any dictatorship except the anonymous dictatorship.'

Samartsev jabbed his elbow into the specialist's side.

‘You and your youthful honesty!'

Apparently the jab in the ribs had finally woken up the youth culture specialist.

‘Regarding young politicians,' he said, ‘there are some bright lads among them, make no mistake. Not just bright, either. Talented. Real latter-day Gogols.'

‘You seem to think there's a new Gogol born every day,' grumbled Samartsev.

‘No, what I'm saying, it's true. Not long ago one of them got five hundred dead souls on to his payroll – I was telling you about it, wasn't I? Three times in a row. First time round they were Fascists, second time gay activists, third time Orthodox environmentalists. What it boils down to is that we'll always be able to find the right people to entrust with the destiny of our country …'

Enlil Maratovich dragged me away to meet more Chaldeans.

‘I name you Kolovrat, like the Slavic warrior of old!' Samartsev shouted after me. ‘
Sieg Heil!
'

The next person I was presented to was the Chief of Spectacle, a small, puny individual dressed in a black robe. His mask was so big it looked like an astronaut's space helmet. The eyes that peered out from the slits in the mask were large and sorrowful. He looked like Gollum from
The Hobbit
– if that individual had for some reason taken monastic vows.

‘This is Mr Modestovich,' said Enlil Maratovich. ‘He has achieved great things for our culture, bringing it, one might say, into global safe harbour. We too now regularly produce exciting blockbusters about the struggle between good and evil, which invariably culminate in the forces of good triumphing at the end of the second episode.'

Modestovich's view of himself was altogether more downbeat.

‘We make tasteless jokes about light and darkness,' he said shuffling his feet ingratiatingly. ‘That's how we make our living …'

‘Delighted to meet you,' I said. ‘You know, there's something I have long wanted to ask a professional: why it is that in most mainstream movie releases the good guys invariably win? After all, that's not often what happens in real life.'

Modestovich cleared his throat.

‘A good question,' he said. ‘To an ordinary person it would be difficult to explain without equivocating, but to you I can speak plainly. If you will permit, I shall give you an example from agriculture. In Soviet times they used to conduct experiments to study the effect of different kinds of music on the growth of tomatoes and cucumbers, and also on milk yields. It was noted that major tonalities encourage vegetables to become juicier and milk yields to increase. Music in minor tonalities, on the other hand, produced vegetables that were small and dry, and the milk yield went down. Of course, a man is a more complex organism than a tomato or a cow. Nevertheless, the same rule applies. People are constructed in such a way as to find the triumph of evil unbearable.'

‘Why is that?'

‘For the answer to your question,' said Modestovich, ‘we would both have to apply to Enlil Maratovich. It is the way you vampires have developed our species. Facts are facts: to confront a human being face to face with victorious evil is like obliging a cow to listen to the “Moonlight Sonata”. The results will be deeply discouraging in terms of quantity, of quality, of fat content and all other parameters. The same is true of people. When evil triumphs everywhere people lose the will to live, and whole nations can become extinct. Science has shown that early Mozart is the best way to optimise a cow's milk yield. Similarly, until the day he dies a human being should be maintained in a state of radiant optimism and good humour. There exists a complex of positively constructive values that it is the job of mass culture to instil. We have to ensure that the principle is not seriously eroded.'

‘What does this complex consist of?' I asked.

Modestovich rolled his eyes, evidently trying to recall instructions that had been hardwired into his memory.

‘There are many provisions,' he said, ‘but only one pivotal concept. Chaldean art must without prejudice, as the lawyers say, subject life to a dispassionate examination and, after harrowing doubts and hesitations, come to the firm conclusion that at the root of today's social structure essentially lies good – which will, despite everything, prevail. Manifestations of evil, dark though they may appear, are ephemeral and are always directed against the existing order of things. In this way the recipient's consciousness senses a correspondence between the concept of “good” and the concept of “the status quo”. From this follows another conclusion, namely that service to the good, something every man in the depths of his heart desires to fulfil, consists in the daily production of
bablos
.'

‘Can such primitive brainwashing really work?' I asked.

‘Oh, oh, my dear young man, it's not as primitive as all that. As I said before, a man is more complicated than a tomato. Paradoxically, however, this makes the task simpler. To make a tomato juicier, you must make it listen to music in a major key. Whereas in the case of a man all you have to do is tell him that the music he is listening to is in a major key. It may be possibly be distorted by an inferior performance, but only for a while and not completely. Therefore in the end it makes no difference what music is played …'

My next introduction was to the Chief of Sport, a dynamic iron-pumper wearing the same kind of fluffed-out sheepskin skirt as my opponent in the duel. No doubt as a result of this coincidence, which was obvious to both of us, our conversation was rather short and strained.

‘How do you feel about football?' asked the Chief of Sport, raking me with an appraising glance.

I had the impression that he had X-ray eyes that were measuring the muscles underneath my clothing. I was also uncomfortably aware that the effect of the death candy had worn off.

‘You know,' I said cautiously, ‘if I may be completely honest, the main objective of this game – the kicking of a ball into a goal – has always seemed to me rather contrived and artificial.'

‘Ah, well then, better play chess.'

I could have said much the same about chess, but decided not to prolong the conversation.

The introductions and acquaintances continued for a long time. To the best of my ability I was affable to the masks and they were friendly back to me, but from the wary glints from golden eye sockets I understood that the Chaldeans existed exclusively in an atmosphere of fear and mutual hatred. This, however, had the effect of binding them together as tightly as Christian love or the joint possession of high-risk volatile shares could ever have done.

From time to time I thought I could recognise well-known people passing by. Sometimes my attention was caught by a familiar coiffure, sometimes by a way of stooping, or by a voice. But I could never be absolutely sure. Once, indeed, I would have gone to the stake to assert that no more than a metre away from me stood the famous mega-sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The clue was in the studied skill with which he had fastened his gold Hero of Labour star to his robe: it was slightly askew, slightly too high, slightly ridiculous, and from a distance successfully conveyed the impression that its wearer was a man entirely devoted to the life of the spirit, and touchingly ill-adapted to worldly life (I had seen him on television with the star stuck equally casually on the lapel of his jacket). But Enlil Maratovich steered me past him so I had no chance to verify whether my guess was correct or not.

Eventually I had been introduced to all the people who needed to meet me, and Enlil Maratovich left me to myself. I was expecting a rush of attention, but hardly anyone even looked at me. From one of the buffet tables I took a glass of red-coloured liquid with a plastic straw in it.

‘Do you know what this is?' I asked a mask standing next to me.

‘Mosquito,' he muttered indifferently.

‘Who are you calling a mosquito?' I asked huffily.

‘It's a cocktail made of vodka and cranberry juice. Some glasses just have juice in them, but the straws in the cocktail ones have a sharpened end, like a syringe.'

And with that he took two cocktails and disappeared into a far corner of the hall.

I drank a cocktail, and then another. Then I walked up and down the hall for a while. No one took any notice of me.
Sic transit glamuria mundi
, I thought, listening to the babble of modish conversations all around me. They were about different topics: politics, movies, literature.

‘Yes, he's a marvellous writer,' one Chaldean was saying to another, ‘but not great. In my opinion there aren't any great writers in Russia now. On the other hand, we have more and more who are marvellous. Of course, there have always been plenty of those. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?'

‘Certainly,' returned the second Chaldean, his eyelids fluttering meaningfully through the slits in his mask. ‘But you were speaking of marvellous writers. If on the other hand there are some who really are, surely that means that they must be great, don't you think, on the other hand?'

Among the crowd were some Chaldeans from the West, who had presumably come to swap experiences. I heard a few snatches of conversations in English:

‘Do Russians support gay marriage?'

‘Well, this is not an easy question,' came the diplomatic response from a voice with a strong Russian accent. ‘We're strongly pro-sodomy, but very anti-ritual …'

Also, apparently, there were some oil people, as I deduced from frequent expressions coming to my ears such as ‘black liquid'. I went back to the table, downed another cocktail and soon began to feel better.

The variety show on the stage was going in full swing. The vampires were performing for the benefit of the Chaldeans a kind of floor show of local talent, apparently in a bid to inject a sense of cordiality and bonhomie into the relationship. Most of the time it was not very successful. Moreover, I picked up from the reactions in my part of the room that everyone had seen the programme many times before.

The first item was Loki dancing a tango with his rubber woman, described for some reason by the Master of Ceremonies, a tall Chaldean in a red robe, as a ‘cult cultural object'. As soon as it was over, a group of Chaldeans climbed up on to the stage and presented Loki, on behalf of his silent partner, with a box wrapped in multiple layers of gold paper and tied with a scarlet bow. It took a very long time to unwrap.

Inside was a huge dildo, ‘King Solomon's member' as the presentation committee explained. Along the side of this pink rubber log could be seen the inscription: ‘And this too shall Pass!' I thought this must be a reference to the immortal couplet still visible on the thigh of the teaching aid. From the comments of people standing near me it was clear that this joke was also repeated year in and year out (someone mentioned that the previous year the rubber phallus had been Shakespearian black, a rather risqué stunt in our complicated times).

After that, on to the stage came Enlil Maratovich and Mithra. They performed a skit about life in China featuring the Emperor Jin-Lun and a stray mosquito. Enlil Maratovich was the mosquito and Mithra the Emperor. The point of the skit was that the Emperor notices he has been bitten by a mosquito, which makes him very irate. He starts to itemise to the mosquito the long list of all his earthly and heavenly titles, and at each new title the stunned mosquito bows his head lower and lower, simultaneously thrusting his sting (a telescopic aerial from an old radio set, which Enlil Maratovich kept pressed against his head) deeper and deeper into the imperial leg. By the time the Emperor, having at length concluded the review of all his titles, prepares to despatch the mosquito with a blow from his hand, the mosquito has also completed his work and happily buzzes off. This sketch was greeted with genuinely warm applause, from which I deduced that there were a good many representatives from the business elite in the hall.

There was then a collection of skits involving both vampires and Chaldeans, more like a sequence of short scenes and dialogues. Some of them referred to films I had seen (as I had recently been informed, this was known as ‘mature postmodernism'):

‘Would you like a geisha girl?' asked the vampire.

‘Is that the kind who, when she throws a glance at you, you fall off your bike?'

‘Yes, that's it.'

‘No, thanks all the same,' replied the Chaldean. ‘We want rumpy pumpy, not a bicycle crash.'

And so on.

Tired of standing for so long, I sat down on a stool near the wall. I was completely worn out, and my eyelids felt as though they had been stuck together. The last thing I saw with any clarity was a stunt performed by four elderly Chaldeans to whom I had not been introduced. They performed a rather wild dance, almost impossible to describe: like a quartet of pigs trying to emulate classical ballet steps by a quartet of swans. What was piquant about this number was that the Chaldeans were dressed as Teletubbies with thick gold antennae of the appropriate shape poking out of their masks.

Later various vocal numbers took over the stage, and at last it was possible to keep my eyes closed for long periods while still keeping abreast of the proceedings. Jehovah stepped up to the microphone with a guitar, ran his fingers once or twice over the strings, and in an unexpectedly fine voice started to sing something cryptic, reminiscent of early King Crimson:

BOOK: Empire V
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