Victor Pelevin’s Empire V (English translation published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) aspires to be a 21st Century The Master and Margarita. It follows a young man called Ram, who is drifting through life in modern Russia. He follows chalk marks on the floor to an apartment where he is offered a bright future. He is transformed into the vampire Rama, and is gradually educated about vampires and the controlling role they play in the world economy.
Pelevin paints a harsh and nihilistic view of contemporary Russian society. It’s a very cynical view of commercialisation: the vampires are a literal parasitic class exploiting the labour and hopes and dreams of ordinary people. They are not productive in themselves, but instead create a culture of discontent, ambition and greed that fuels the economic activity that creates the conditions for the vampires to thrive. Strange rituals link the vampires to a secret society of the rich and powerful in society, as if the Bilderberg group were participating in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut. The theatre the vampires create preserves their position of dominance.
The reader follows the naive Rama as he learns more about the new world and society he finds himself in. Like the worst social climbers out of water, he over-compensates in order to convince that he belongs as a member of the group. Pelevin contrasts Rama with another new vampire, the worldly-wise Hera. Achingly cool and very well-informed, Hera navigates vampire society with an ease and facility that Rama envies. Although regularly humiliated by her, it only fuels his attraction and desperation to please and impress her: a microcosm of vampire society’s control over the rest of the world.
Empire V is a cynical and disturbing read, but thought-provoking.
Goodreads rating: 3*