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The Life of Insects Hardcover – February, 1998

4.0 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Victor Pelevin has the sort of unbridled comedic imagination that can make most writers seem insipid by comparison. Born in 1962, the Russian writer has already published three story collections as well as a splendidly funny take on the Soviet space program, Omon Ra. From time to time his effects lurch out of control, yet Pelevin's manic level of invention tends to carry us along until he regains his equipoise. Certainly this is the case with The Life of Insects. This time, Pelevin sets his story in a sleazy Crimean resort town, where his characters eat, drink, make merry, make love... and turn into insects. This is no soft-focus allegory: the author is superbly specific about his entomological creations. "Arthur and Arnold had turned into small mosquitoes," he writes, "of that miserable hue of gray familiar from prerevolutionary village huts, a color that in its time had reduced many a Russian poet to tears." The sex scenes are a mite (as it were) much, though nothing more gruesome than you'd see in your average PBS documentary. Still, Pelevin's best trick is to makes his six-legged protagonists appear all too human. A self-doubting cicada, for example, finds himself envying the relative ease of an ant's life: "But he never dwelt on such comparisons, aware that once he stopped and began to compare himself with others, it would begin to seem that he had already achieved a great deal, and he would lose the sense of resentment toward life that was essential to continue his struggle." The Life of Insects is a black-comic Metamorphosis for the 1990s, minus Kafka's gravity and with an extra dose of Slavic neurosis. --William Davies

From Library Journal

Pelevin has a genuine gift for transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. In his previous novel, Omen Ra (LJ 6/1/96), the young author travestied the Soviet space program, suggesting that the entire project existed only on paper and in the depths of the Moscow subway system. His most recent satire is set in contemporary Russia at an ailing Black Sea resort inhabited by characters who appear to be insects invested with human personalities. The three main characters include two Russians and a visiting American, blood-suckers all, who are actually mosquitoes. As they fly about the resort bickering, preying, and eluding their predators, they encounter other insects who struggle with challenges both sacred and profane: building a burrow, raising a child as a single parent, finding the meaning of life. Viewed from Pelevin's unique, bug-eyed perspective, these conventional activities emerge as delightfully imaginative phenomena, humorous yet melancholy. Vivid description, a sure sense of irony, and inventive prose add up to an excellent parody of life in Russia today. Recommended for all literary collections.
-?Sister M. Anna Falbo, Villa Maria Coll. Lib., Buffalo, N.Y.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 179 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux (T); 1st American ed edition (February 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374186251
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374186258
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,191,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Victor Pelevin's The Life of Insects, a tale of the absurd, opens with one of many startling metamorphoses. Samuel Sacker, a hard-driving American businessman, is visiting a crumbling Black Sea resort hotel with two shabby Russian business contacts. The three would-be entrepreneurs are looking for ways to exploit possibilities for easy money in a new Russia.
After this trio coordinates its vague business strategy, they abruptly transform into mosquitoes. Sam is the luckiest...he becomes an impressive, agile brown creature, while the two Russians take on "that miserable hue of grey familiar from prerevolutionary village huts." Together they fly to a nearby town to have dinner, i.e., to suck the blood of the local residents. Sam, who refuses to listen to the warnings of his partners, becomes perilously drunk after sucking one man's cologne-slapped skin. So much so that on the return to the resort, he must suffer the consequences.
A shimmering satire of post-perestroika Russia, the characters in The Life of Insects metamorphose from human to insect to insect-like human to human-like insect from sentence to sentence, so seamlessly and frequently that the attributes of the different species appear more as transparent overlays than as fixed, distinct qualities. They are people and they are insects, and as such their actions can be viewed both literally and metaphorically.
In these fifteen loosely linked stories, Pelevin successfully walks a very delicate line: he simultaneously builds believable characters with real human struggles, matches their personality and personal quirks to vivid insect lives and spoofs various aspects of Russian culture and international literature.
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Format: Hardcover
We're in the midst of a spate of bad novels involving dogs, ants, and apes who have been blessed with the gift of speech. Most of these suffer from a heavy-handedness, a portentous style that outweighs the book's content and the author's ability.
Victor Pelevin is in a different league altogether. His ability is magnificent, his subject matter is immense, and he does it all with a light touch. The protagonists in "The Life of Insects" are neither insect nor human in the usual sense, but transcendant creatures who flicker back and forth between the two. The transitions are shocking, sometimes gruesome, and frequently funny, but never seem contrived. And why not? Despite our free will and our intellect, we humans too are subject to the full force of biology and social organization. We grow up, mate, find a niche in the established order, deal with catastrophe, and die. Along the way, we occasionally wonder about the meaning of it all. This may be a trite message, but in Pelevin's hands, it soars.
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Format: Hardcover
I must express my outrage with the utter lack of accuracy in the translation. I understand that no translation could possibly retain all the literary elements of the original text (I myself translate, amateurishly) however, that does not mean that the text must be deliberately mangled. In other words, this book MUST be read in Russian in order to truly appreaciate it's brilliance.
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Format: Paperback
In 1994, Russian author Viktor Pelevin first published his commentary on Russian society after perestroika and even after the fall of the Soviet Union. While many reviewers focus on the unique Russian character of Жизнь Насекомых [The Life of Insects], I was struck by its quality as an allegorical commentary on Russian society. While obvious comparisons to certain Russian masters like Chekhov and Turgenev seems inevitable, I thought more of the allegories and social commentaries of authors such as Zamyatin, Nabokov, and even Orwell. I read a 1996 translation into English by Andrew Bromfield.

The Life of Insects Rather than focus on the story of a single protagonist working his way through society, Pelevin opts to tell several stories in a single novel, allowing a picture to emerge of a society as a whole, not from the top-down as if by some Soviet-style central design, but rather from the bottom-up, where individuals live their own lives, only vaguely aware of others outside of their sphere. The Life of Insects becomes a commentary on modern society, Russian society, with various factions each being represented by some variety of insect, beginning with enterprising mosquitoes in a clear reference to the "New Russians" that emerged at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Readers of Russian works will feel at home in The Life of Insects, as the story and its presentation has a distinctly Russian feel to it, something of a fatalist acceptance that whatever superficial changes we might make, nothing will ever be fundamentally different.
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Format: Paperback
A translator's note at the beginning of Victor Pelevin's "The Life of Insects" states that "Mitya and Dima are both diminutive forms of the Russian name Dmitry." This struck me as an interesting and enigmatic note, standing starkly alone in the middle of the page immediately preceding the book's epigraph. As it turns out, Mitya and Dima are moths (or are they humans?) drawn to the light in one of the many episodes in Pelevin's remarkable and imaginative satire of life in modern Russia. As Mitya explains, "if I wrote a novel about insects, that's how I'd represent their life: a village by the sea, darkness, and a few lamps shining in the darkness above this repulsive dancing. But to fly to those lamps means . . . [death]."
"The Life of Insects" is the novel Mitya would have written. Set in an old resort hotel by the sea, the story begins with intrigue: Sam, an American, meeting two Russians, Arthur and Arnold, while a loudspeaker blares, first in English ("The Voice of God, Bliss, Idaho, U.S.A."), then in dreamy Ukrainian. The conversation among them immediately puzzles the reader, talk of hemoglobin, glucose, insecticides in the blood. "Sam looked around at his partners. Arthur and Arnold had turned into small mosquitoes of that miserable hue of gray familiar from prerevolutionary village huts, a color that in its time had reduced many a Russian poet to tears." Arthur and Arnold, the Russian mosquitoes, in turn looked enviously at Sam, an American, "a light chocolate color, with long elegant legs a small tight belly, and wings swept back like a jet plane's."
From this first episode, I realized I was in for a wild imaginative ride, and Pelevin did not disappoint me.
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