Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids

Victor Pelevin~Russia
(To be released October 2011)

“The situation is rendered particularly acute,” the young
man continued, “by the fact that in the course of a predatory and
criminal process of privatization, the wealth of our country fell into
the hands of a bunch of oligarchs specially selected by agents operating
in the dark wings of the international stage, on the basis of their
spiritual squalor.  Not that they’re irredeemably bad people, no, you
shouldn’t think that, papa mama nuthouse eighteen.  They are more like
little children, incapable of striving for any goal except satisfaction
of their constantly shifting desires.  Hence all those soccer clubs,
giant yachts, twenty-thousand-Euro bottles of wine and other ghastly
aberrations, about which I think you have already heard more than

The Hall of the Singing Caryatids is literary sci-fi postmodernist
one-night stand.  Weighing in at just over one hundred pages, Pelevin
manages to blend humor, political commentary, and the more ludicrous
aspects of current society into a superb read.  Pelevin incorporates
hilarious parodies of name brand shirts and the people we hold up as
celebrities which isn’t done often enough in literature as far as I’m

The story begins with Lena, a young woman who is auditioning for a
position as a singer in a club.  It turns out that after being requested
to sing her song on top of a desk with one leg lifted in the air, she
lands the job in this prestigious underground club that caters to
Russia’s wealthy and powerful men.  Lena and eleven other women are
specifically chosen to round out the group of performers:

Lena looked around at the gathering.  In all, there were
twelve girls in the small conference room – they were all gorgeous, but
so assorted, so different, as if specially chosen to play up the
contrasting types of physical appearance – just to drive home the
beauty.  There two black girls, one cocoa, two dark girls from Central
Asia, two Japanese-looking ones with small, narrow eyes (Asya was more
beautiful than the other one) , five generally European-looking girls:
three blondes (Lena included herself), one brunette, and one with
chestnut hair.

This group comprises the Twelve Singing Caryatids of Malachite Hall. 
After a bizarre orientation meeting that leaves the women with more
questions than before about whom they are working for and what exactly
they are hired to do, they are led down a long hall into a dressing room
where they smear themselves with malachite paste and wear wigs in order
to resemble a caryatid.  They are told they are to sing and stand
without movement for hours like a caryatid which their boss, Uncle Pete,
explains via the Russian dictionary, “tells us that the word ‘caryatid’
signifies a sculpture of a woman that acts as a support for a roof or
appears to perform this function…” Uncle Pete also explains that to
maintain immobility during their shifts, the women will be injected with
a serum called Mantis-B.  Once injected and made up, the women are led
to Malachite Hall where they are placed on twelve pedestals and stand
motionless while purring two pieces without using any of the lyrics. 
With their eyes closed, they purr the theme from Swan Lake and the song
Mondo Bongo.  They are told to open their eyes only when spoken to by
one of the rich clients. 

After a couple of shifts, the injections of Mantis-B Lena begins to enjoy them because her “body felt like a light glass flask, with some
invisible flame of life burning inside it,”and she develops a sense that
there are two Lenas.  The second Lena is visited by a huge praying
mantis with five eyes that has the ability to read her mind and allow
them to communicate with each other without language.  Her interactions with the praying mantis are enlightening:

It could be described approximately as follows: whereas the last time Lena had thought that the world around her turned into something like the visualizer in Windows Media Player now she herself became the visualizer.  the world disintegrated into a host of discrete aspects that seemed absurd, astounding, impossible and terrifying taken separately, but together they somehow balanced each other out in a calm and happy equilibrium that settled into her head.

As her experiences with the praying mantis become more compelling and involved, it’s becomes more difficult for her to leave the world she enters after taking the injection.  She looks forward to working, despite the hierarchical system that even exists in this secret underground club that specializes in attracting the high-power men of Russia with ‘USAs’ – units of sexual attraction.  In their lunch cafeteria, the quoted maxims about beauty by people ranging from Larry Flynt to Kate Moss are plastered on the walls for inspiration.  The girls are looked down on by the mermaids who inhabit another hall because the mermaids are more beautiful than the caryatids.  Besides the presence of Uncle Pete, the only other man that garners attention by Pelevin and in turn by Lena, is the famous Russian oligarch and eligible bachelor, Misha Botvinik.  The story of Lena, the underground club, sex and murder come to a humorously horrifying conclusion when Botvinik enters the hall and choose Lena as the girl for him.  

Pelevin takes on the culture of beauty and the dynamics of power in this incisive novel as well as touching on the politics of consumerism.  It also wouldn’t be a too far of a stretch to say that Pelevin is, in some parts, using satire to mock the current patriarchal society and to make the point that beautiful, silent women are thought to be the only avenue that will  unleash the secrets of these powerful men.  The usurpers may then gain control of their motherland and recalibrate the country so that abuses of power by the rich are stopped and the disparate gaps between the rich and the poor are eradicated.  But in the end, it’s who uses whom first. 

I particularly enjoyed the satirical takes on the brand name shirts that Uncle Pete wears like “D & G” for “Discourse and Glamour.”  It’s this kind of humor that grounds the reader even more in Pelevin’s imaginative and seedy world.  The excesses that exist in the nooks and crannies of our culture are exploited by Pelevin to perfection, at times mirroring the excesses to drive the point home.  With Andrew Bromfield’s excellent and lively translation, this is a novel definitely worth a look, especially if you are wondering what author to read after Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

The Hall of the Singing Caryatids

By Victor Pelevin
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
New Directions
Paperback, 96 pp.
ISBN: 9780811219426

Other works by Victor Pelevin:

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