“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” -Zhuangzi
Years ago I was thankfully urged to read the novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, an epic Russian satiric novel about the Devil and his retinue causing mayhem in the Soviet Union. In it, characters turn into witches, a giant cat drinks, shoots, and leaves, and modern people are shown to be generally greedy and vain and hilariously unprepared for the predations of the Devil and his minions. Recently I have re-read The Life of Insects by contemporary Russian author Viktor Pelevin, who himself was struck by Bulgakov’s ability to thoroughly skewer Russian society by inflicting inexplicable myths onto the totalitarian Soviet world-view, and has incorporated both satire and magic realism into his novel, exposing the insects within us.
Written in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unraveling shifts that followed, The Life of Insects is set around a seedy decaying Crimean resort. It starts with two rather shady Russian businessmen meeting a third, an American, here to sample the “local business opportunities”. Then effortlessly they transform into mosquitoes and hunt for fresh blood to try. Or were they already mosquitoes and transformed briefly into bloodsucking opportunistic businessmen? A brief explanation of the shape-shifting from the author at this point is all the help the reader going to get, and after that, it’s every louse for himself as several protagonists merge fluidly from human to hexapod as the stories themselves weave and fold in on each other with gleeful abandon. Descriptions, biology, and even scale of the characters and settings vary even in the same sentence. A desperate fly prostitute named Natasha is mistaken for a speck on the American’s dinner plate, but is soon sidling up to him in a dress of shimmering iridescent green,
“The shyly fluttering wings, looking like two sheets of mica glimmering with all the colors of the rainbow, were covered with the standard pattern of dark lines; no special skill in wing reading was required to read her simple fate in them.”
More than just a satire of Russian society (with plenty of jabs at both communism and capitalism), Pelevin’s novel is partly a series of essays on the connections we feel with insects in our everyday struggles: Mosquitoes are often viewed as lazy contemptible parasites, and Dung beetles are thought to be Sisyphean toilers, blindly pushing their balls of dung before them. A young girl in high heels lands in the resort town filled with promise and romance, and quickly and inexorably finds herself alone and pregnant, trapped in a hovel; she is a young ant, and the narrative of an ant queen’s brief and only flight of freedom, followed by an enforced sedentary life as an egg-producer is one most people can relate to. It is hard not to identify with Seryozha, a cicada larva spending an eternity shoveling through the workaday dirt of his existence, unearthing the same front door, office, and desk each day, hoping to someday emerge into the world above. Even more than portraying humans as animals, insects have an extra edge of otherness and insignificance attached to them in our psyche, which makes comparisons even more apt. We are powerless to stop a moth from its determination to fly towards the lamp, and feel deeply for its folly. In Pelevin’s world, the moths tell their story, here represented as two endlessly philosophizing winged compatriots trying to understand the nature of the light they feel driven towards, until at one point he comes to a revelation:
“I’ve just realized, he said, “that we’re really not moths at all. And not..”
“It’s probably not even worth trying to express it in words,” said Dima. “And anyway, nothing around you has changed just because you’ve understood something. The world’s just the same as it was. Moths fly toward the light, flies fly toward shit, and they’re all in total darkness. But now you’ll be different. And you’ll never forget who you really are, right?”
“Of course,” replied Mitya. “There’s just one thing I don’t understand. Have i just turned into a firefly, or was I always one?”