Analysis: “Buddha’s Little Finger” by Victor Pelevin

An explanation about this series

PDF Version with notes

Log 8(mini): Victor Pelevin – Buddha’s Little Finger

As a sophomore in Honors Humanities, I read The Master and Margarita for a book talk, and it seems that most of it went over my head. I had hoped that my second attempt at Russian literature with absurdist elements, with Victor Pelevin’s Buddha’s Little Finger, would go better, but it doesn’t feel like it has. To put simply, my answer to the question of what this book was trying to convey is essentially “I don’t know.” Given the nature of the book however this may actually be the key to understanding its message, or perhaps the manifestation of the message itself.

One aspect of that would be the idea that in order to reach some kind of enlightenment, one must become one with the “whirlpool of thoughts.” It is only then that the world becomes real, “only because you know.” Instead of being caught in the whirlpool, as you would when you are sucked into a dream, you must in a way, widen  your consciousness or awareness, until you are no longer aware of the movement of the whirlpool(the events/your existence in the dream) because it is inside you. I imagine that this is how one would “become the whirlpool.” The only way to escape the motion of the whirlpool is for it to occur inside of your consciousness, but that consciousness, your mind, created this situation in the first place, and so then we have to conclude that you have to expand your mind to include…your mind. It doesn’t make sense, and that seems to be the basis of the early conversation Pyotr has with Chapaev about where your consciousness/identity/existence actually exists. But according to Buddhist principles, which call for understanding the underlying processes of your mind so you can overcome them to achieve enlightenment (as my interpretation of the Wikipedia article tells me),

It seems to me like this whole adventure is the result of a lack of control over the conscious. Pyotr rarely has any active role other than in the very beginning and end, when he shoots a gun. Sure, he does get involved in a physical altercation to protect Volodin when Maria attacks him and he does have sex with Anna after wooing her with his poem. Instances like this however, have Pyotr reacting to events set in motion by external forces. But if this is really all in his mind, as his conversations with Chapaev and other seem to hint at, then the fact that these things occur out of nowhere makes it seem like Pyotr is reacting conscious to unconscious manifestations of his mind. He catches glimpses of the “underlying mechanisms” governing the world when Baron Jungren sends him into and out of the dark place with campfires and right as the white elephant improbably emerges from a bush a little while after he returns to the grassy steppe from the dark place. But this is all his mind, his conscious that creates this reality around him–and he is lost because he doesn’t see the processes of it. In the  mental ward, Pyotr thinks “Incidentally, I have always been astounded by one particular feature typical of people who are unaware of their own psychological processes.” To an observer, it seems that someone who has been lying for  a couple hours will suddenly and randomly leap to his feet and head off “simply because for some obscure reason –or perhaps without any reason at all – his train of thought has gone dashing off in some entirely arbitrary direction.” Unaware of his own psychological processes, and so unaware of that unawareness that he comments on that fact for others, Pyotr does exactly that as he springs up from his bed and heads off to find his case file in Timurovich’s office. And there is more hinting that this is Pyotr, as he is one of those “lunatics who determine the fate of our world,” because this world is born out of his conscious.

A brief aside: Pelevin’s satiric tone leads us to believe that “incidentally” implies exactly the opposite. One of the book’s defining features is it’s self referential and has great attention to detail, much like Kafka on the Shore. The color yellow occurs everywhere and in an almost coincidental way, on the bathhouse, the astrakhan hats, Chapaev’s gauntless, the gentleman at the door of the Musical Snuffbox. The same goes for the Mozart Fugue, or train image(he gets on a train to go to war, uses a train to describe the human condition, throws out the phrase train of thought, again uses a train to explain the sensation of moving through that dark place with baron. The plot and details all seem rather incidental, because in the book’s continuity, they don’t actually relate and affect each other. As readers however, we assume they do. So when the author makes a point to point out that something is incidental when so much of the novel is incidental, you wonder, is this truly incidental or is it even more important than the rest?

It reflects the nature of dreams, where random things in life reappear in random places. And for all of humanity’s various attempts to glean meaning from them, it could just be an arbitrary byproduct of  Besides the color yellow, there’s the word “Dinama” heard as “Dyanmo”(or perhaps the other way around), the drawings of Serdyuk drinking with his Japanese friend on grassy steppes, Maria’s airplane, and the Battle at Loyozola Junction manifesting as actual events that Pyotr experiences(whether it be in what he perceives to be a dream or reality), and even a small, random instance about a fly. As a reader, the reading experience is very much like a dream, as your eye or consciousness is confronted with a barrage of details and certain ones, relevant or not, catch your eye. The repeated observation of yellow objects was one of these. Another one was this: “I laughed out loud and two chickens walking along the edge of the road fluttered away from me in fright,” Pyotr notes when he is amused at himself for wondering that perhaps  “riches of the spirit” would be comparable to Kotovsky’s trotters in Anna’s eyes. The appearance of chickens(prior to this I was not aware that there were any chickens around at all) and the need to include them at all seems like an amusingly absurd detail. It begs the question for the writer of the manuscript, why did you feel the need to record that? Well that must be because this manuscript records “the mechanical cycles of consciousness” and such random observations are part of that; achieving “a complete and final cure” for the “inner life” requires going through a mind-boggling experience. Pyotr and Kotovsky(for him it is the incident with the gun and map soiled with glycerine) both seem to achieved a complete and final cure for the inner life because they’ve gone through so much weirdness, and the words of the preface imply that this manuscript is written such that it doesn’t necessarily completely represent the author’s experience accurately(I’ll elaborate later) but evokes the same feeling of being out of place, confused, and slightly amused at it all.

Then there are also phrases that are nonsensical, but stated in such a way that it seems to be the absolute, most certain truth in the moment, just as it is dreams are. Once, I had a dream that I was at Westview with a middle school age Indian boy who was half lizard. I knew with absolute certainty, that in order to escape the dinosaurs roaming about, we had to find the bunker hatch. In Pelevin’s novel, it’s something like “only the fat black fly methodically beating itself against the window-pane knew what to do next.” It is said with such terseness, such certainty, as a fact of life, an unswayable truth, and it is entirely unimportant. Just an interesting commentary. And the fact that it is terse invites only a passing thought to its implication–that our thinking and philosophizing makes it hard to know what to do with life(I think).

Other elements also emphasize that everything seems like a dream, whether Pyotr thinks its reality or not. Much of the description most often used is imagery, visual imagery. There’s the example of the train–moving through the dark place was like he was “walking at a leisurely pace along a  platform which was being towed at incredible speed by a train. Returning to the real world(in a sense) from that dark place was like watching scenery change on a stage. There are mentions of cold and smell, but for the most part, it’s all about the visuals.

For example, as Pyotr falls asleep in the car after leaving the Musical Snuffbox in the first chapter, the snow-covered railing he glimpses To be more precise, the railings were not simply close to the window, but were part of it; in fact, it appeared that they were bars across a small window. Unlike the Dinama example, this only points to the mental ward being a dream. But it seems that we’ve gotten off track and to be honest, trying to make sense of what is going on, trying to figure out what is reality and what is dreams in the book, is just as pointless an endeavor for me as it is for Pyotr. What I was saying about dreams is that they are often purely visual experiences, at least in my experience. I find that both the nature of dreams and Pelevin’s constant use of imagery for a variety of purposes can be compared to the Buddhist philosophical principle of

We must also consider this from the reader versus the character’s perspective. For one, the events through Pyotr’s eyes definitely seem very incidental. He ruminates on many things–the self, existence, liberation–but not so much the meaning behind all these events. He seeks some answer, but not the meaning behind all the strange occurrences. To him, it’s just written off as some actions and thoughts guided by some “strange reason”–that’s where the discussion ends, no need to think further–while to the reader frantically struggles to make sense of it all.

Meanwhile the narrative is told in first person, except from the excerpts about Serdyuk, Volodin, and Maria, which are said to be Pyotr’s writings. Through the first person point of view, we have a limited perspective of what is going on, even more so than when we look through the third person limited perspective used in Pyotr’s dream accounts(or what he believes to be dreams). Being in the first person puts us in a more intimate position: “he” does not want to know the true nature of reality and the self, “I” do. But by framing of the narrative as a journal, Pelevin also pushes us away, because it is explicitly acknowledged in the preface that this is a text. Within the text itself, it is acknowledged that there exists an author and an author’s intent–this is supposed to be “a record of “the mechanical cycles of consciousness in such a way as to achieve a complete and final cure for what is know as ‘the inner life.’” This makes it harder to really slip into Pyotr’s character and experience it exactly as he has, but as the preface writer acknowledges, it is still attempted “in such a way” that in theory, you should get to the same end point.

Chapaev also suggests that Pyotr name his book “Chapaev,” which suggests that this book is the actual account of Pyotr’s dreams and experiences that he describes himself writing, especially since the preface notes that the title was changed from “Vasily Chapaev.”

Even at the end of this, the text seems self-contained, a ways away from us. It seems like there some greater picture behind all this, something to do with the alchemical wedlock Russia needs with the West most likely. There must be some greater movement, as Tulku notes a “shift” in the balance of power on the continent, and there exists an organization called Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation(a reference to the Buddhist notion of liberation frome noted about the synopsis. It’s always describes “philosophical conversation” with n the cycle of suffering and rebirth and the true freedom characters in the book seek) that sees this as a big enough issue to have their chairman issuing this statement. The stakes are set high before we even begin, but we don’t know why and how. And the “manuscript” offers no answers because it was written well before all this. Of course I may just be analyzing a part of the book not meant to be analyzed.

With that terse aside over, let’s continue. At the end of the book, it seems he has understood the mind. He creates that stream-like thing around him, and when he returns to the mental ward in modern day Russia and gets discharged, there’s a significant shift in tone that gives us a sense that he’s in control of reality(or whatever you want to call it). For most of the book, he’s the straight man, who, despite being pretty nonchalant about many strange things, is more confused and questions the circumstances around him more that Chapaev, Anna, the baron, Volodin, Maria, and Serdyuk. He’s the only one puzzling over the logistics of a white elephant appearing, being told to stop asking so many questions by Timur Timurovich and Chapaev(and I think I recall the baron doing the same as they walked around the dark place). Aside from Kotovsky, Pyotr is the only one who needs to understand something. Coming to the “real” world however, he slowly becomes the weird one in normal life, unperturbed by and unsettling the gentleman giving him a ride and the staff of the Musical Snuffbox. And for once, he initiates the next plot development–he shoots the chandelier not in self defense, not because someone told him to, but for no reason other than to hit it this time. A few pages earlier, he achieved catharsis and two pages later, he’s in Inner Mongolia. This whole section in between was like a bit of symbolic grounding, a way to connect what the reader has perceived as past and present in multiple jumpy timelines into one(more on time later). Significantly less prominent in this section are those “there were my thoughts as I” did this or “…I answered thoughtfully,” or any deep ruminations about the self or some observation of history or philosophy. He simply moves through, unrestrained by the events around him, not necessarily taking an active role in what happens but not passively defending against it either. He simply waits for the circumstances to arrange for him to reach Inner Mongolia.

Somewhere over the rainbow, I made a point about incidental details and occurrences. It seems that some of these details are not so incidental after all. Victor Pelevin was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962, after the Russian Revolution obviously, and he would have been about 40 when he wrote Buddha’s Little Finger. He grew up on Tverskoy Boulevard, which would explain the specific naming of that street and the reason he begins and ends the story on it. He got an undergraduate degree in electromechanical engineering and later worked as an engineering, served in the Russian Air Force, and pursued a graduate degree. Pelevin is not Buddhist himself, but he spent a lot of time in some Eastern Asian countries and practiced some Buddhist practices and philosophies, like mediation. Pelevin usually isn’t considered part of the main literary circles in Russia, which has even led some to speculate whether he is a real person, or some group of people(Wikipedia).

 

What was particularly maddening about this, was the sequence from the toi be burned bathhouse where Chapaev and Pyotr were drinking to the deployment of the clay machine gun. IN the bathhouse, it seems that there is amonet of overwhelming “total understanding and recall.” And after 300 pages of teasing at an answer but delaying its delivery until some new plot contrivance takes our attention(whether it be a chat that Chapaev saves for a later time because we must move on to the next destination, or a “I felt as though i were on the verge of understanding something extremely important…but this feeling passed” in the grassy steppes with Baron Jungsten, or a “I understand, Vasily Ivanovich, I understand” at the end of a conversation with Chapaev about waking from dreams), we finally get an explanation, this time framed as an actual realization, “as soon as I know, I am no longer free. But I am absolutely free when I do not know. Freedom is the biggest mystery of all. They simply do not know how free they are. They do not know who they are in reality.” Not two pages later, it turns out he understood nothing.

All this contributes to a general feeling of absurd, again. It’s all these contradictions. There is perspective in first person, yet less intimacy precisely because of that(thinking about it now, we are forced to fill that distance ourselves and that leads to more immersion, so then a lack of intimacy is fostered by a technique often used to create intimacy, and that itself creates intimacy). Paradoxical conclusions are reached: “Despite Kawabata’s similarity to a visitor from rostov – or rather, precisely because of that similarity – and especially because his face didn’t look particularly Japanese, it was really clear from the start that he was actually a pure-blooded Japanese who had just slipped out of his office for  a minute into the Moscow twilight.”

More contradiction lies in the reading and reflection process itself. At first, I hesitated to go further because it may be best to leave things undissected. Pyotr spends the entire book trying to understand something, but really the point was to understand that “I don’t know.” But in assessing the book’s intent as trying to convey that, I have inadvertently already done some dissecting. In realizing that maybe the point is to not know, I have tried to know.

At the end of this journey, and taking into account the way I have chosen my other reading material in the past, this way of thinking does seem like a cop-out. It’s easier to write it off as not meant to be truly understood anyway, in all its details, not meant to have an absolute or even remotely absolute answer. As soon as you begin to think about, let alone know, the answer, you are going about it wrong. Most people are like the driver in the end: they don’t have patience for the tedious and pretty much pointless musings on the inner life and the true nature of things. When the going gets absurd, they bail, and if you start ruminating, you end up like Pyotr.

I do note that with regret, I have no room to flesh out my thoughts on the fourth person, more Buddhist connections, and enlightenment, as this mini-log became more focused on dreams.

And as a final note, in the spirit of laziness and coincidence, it’s a happy coincidence that I should write a log about dreams essentially, all the while in the most severe throes of sleep deprivation, typing through the fear of the rustling of ice in the fridge and being startled by the rhythm of my own foot tapping on the ground. Maybe it’ll appear in my dreams tonight.

 

Bibliography

Bromfield, Andrew. Buddha’s Little Finger. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.

“Chapayev and Void.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

“Victor Pelevin.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

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