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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Empire V

Victor Pelevin

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To purchase Empire V

Title: Empire V
Author: Victor Pelevin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 387 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Empire V - US
Empire V - UK
Empire V - Canada
Das fünfte Imperium - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • The Prince of Hamlet
  • Russian title: Ампир В (but re-published as Empire V)
  • Translated by Anthony Phillips
  • Empire V was made into a film in 2023, directed by Victor Ginzburg

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Our Assessment:

B : richly and effectively imagined

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 11/9/2009 Stefanie Peter
The Guardian . 17/3/2016 Eric Brown
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 10/3/2009 Burkhard Müller
Die Welt . 22/2/2009 Brigitte Helbling

  From the Reviews:
  • "Er lässt seiner Faszination für Dämonen und nachtfahrende Gestalten auch nun wieder freien Lauf. Dass er diese Figuren inmitten der aktuellen Moskauer Lebenswelt mit ihrer charakteristischen Mischung aus modischen Accessoires und turbokapitalistischen Grobschlächtigkeiten auftreten lässt, verschafft Pelewins Geschichten ihre Aktualität. (...) Pelewin hat diesen temporeich erzählten Schauerroman ganz offenkundig als Parabel auf die verborgenen und schädlichen Mächte der expansiven kapitalistischen Informationsgesellschaft angelegt. (...) Und doch ist Pelewins zitatgesättigter Schmöker auch jenseits dieses historischen Bezugsrahmens aufschlussreich und daher für ein breites westliches Lesepublikum nicht bloß von Unterhaltungswert. (...) Sein Roman ist wild, grellbunt und stellenweise überaus komisch." - Stefanie Peter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Pelevin’s all-out attack on contemporary culture satirises oppressive society, consumerism and the desire for power, though anyone new to his work should perhaps start with the more accessible and tightly plotted Babylon or SNUFF." - Eric Brown, The Guardian

  • "Gleich dem göttlichen Marquis entfaltet Pelewin nach und nach eine komplette Philosophie des Boudoirs am Horizont des staunenden Eleven. (...) Der Leser tut gut daran, sich statt an dieses progressiv verbiesternde Wahnsystem an die zahlreichen glitzernden Splitter zu halten, die der Autor eingesprengt hat. Plot und Charakterzeichnung gehören eindeutig nicht zu Pelewins Stärken, er ist seiner Neigung nach eher ein geistreicher Plauderer. (...) (N)icht wir, die deutschen Leser, sind das Publikum, für das Pelewin schreibt; viel, und vielleicht das Beste, dürfte uns entgehen." - Burkhard Müller, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "Was Vampire betrifft, ist Das fünfte Imperium mit Sicherheit eine der komplexesten Bemühungen der jüngeren Zeit, dem Phänomen der untoten Sauger auf den Grund zu gehen, wenngleich in seinem Auftritt mehr philosophisches Traktat als Roman. In der Reihung von Pelewins überaus erfolgreichen Romanen ist Das fünfte Imperium dagegen nur die jüngste Variation eines Gegenstands, das den Autor spätestens seit Das Leben der Insekten beschäftigt, nämlich die Bemühung, den freien Fall des post-sowjetischen Russlands in die kapitalistische Moderne zu fassen." - Brigitte Helbling, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in contemporary Moscow, the 'Empire V' of the title is a parallel world:

     It is the worldwide regime of anonymous dictatorship, usually called 'Fifth' to distinguish it from the Third Reich of Nazism and the Fourth Rome of globalisation. It is a dictatorship whose anonymity, as you know, extends only as far as people. In essence it is the humane epoch of Vampire Rule, the universal empire of vampires or, as we write it in secret symbolic form, Empire V.
       The novel is narrated by nineteen-year-old Roman, who is introduced to this world and guides readers through it. Finding himself selected to become one of them, he is put through an extensive and intensive 'vampire foundation course', and Empire V is less Bildungsroman than a chronicle of initiation, as Roman -- remade (or revamped ...) as Rama the Second -- leads us down this unusual path he's being taken.
       Pelevin creates a vampire-alter-world, superimposed on the familiar human one, that allows him to comment on mankind and the state of the world (and Russia in particular). So, for example, one vampire comments on the youth of today, observing about Rama:
Your generation has lost all knowledge of the cultural codes of the classics. The Iliad, The Odyssey -- all such works have been forgotten. Citations now incorporate previous borrowings and quotations which have been extracted from their original sources and so become completely anonymous. It is the most adequate cultural projection of the anonymous dictatorship, and at the same time the most effective of the contributions Chaldean culture has made to the creation of Black Noise.
       The vampires here are a refined and cultured lot and don't refer to what they're best-known for as 'sucking blood' ("yuck !" one old master protests, noting also that the "B-word" itself is to be avoided in speech); instead: "A vampire would say "while engaged in a degustation"". They don't leave deep marks after biting down either, showing a much lighter touch -- but the action is very revealing, giving the biter complete knowledge and insight into the one whose blood s/he has partaken in. And, with practice and experience:
Thinking becomes vampiric when sufficient degustations have been imbibed to generate new parameters of associative connections.
       The critique and allegory is both general -- "What is money ? It is the symbolic blood of the world" -- and, often, Russian-specific as when Rama -- born still in the days of the Soviet Union, though growing up in the new Russian state -- is pitied:
'You had a difficult childhood, you poor, poor boy.'
     'Why difficult ?' I replied, embarrassed. 'It was a childhood like any other.'
     'You’re right, a childhood like any other. That's why it was difficult. Everyone in our country has a difficult childhood. It's so as to prepare a person for life as a grown-up. Which is going to be so difficult it will totally screw you up.'
       Pelevin even notes, self-awarely and appropriately:
     'Yes, he's a marvellous writer,' one Chaldean was saying to another, 'but not great. In my opinion there aren't any great writers in Russia now. On the other hand, we have more and more who are marvellous. Of course, there have always been plenty of those.'
       As a vampire (in training), Rama enjoys privilege and comfort. They expect a lot from him:
     Your job is to become, in a short space of time, an individual of high culture and exceptional refinement, significantly superior in intellectual and physical capacity to the great majority of humankind.
       Despite the air of mystery around practically every new thing he encounters, he fumbles his way along easily enough. Pelevin builds and presents this vampire-world -- complete with a Tolstoyan line, embracing "The simple life" (though as one vampire notes,, there aren't many of them -- after all: "how is a vampire going to simplify his life ?") -- well enough through Rama's encounters with it.
       The path Rama takes, with all that he is introduced to and everything he learns, makes for a sense of progression and activity -- Empire V is event-full -- but really it is mostly an exercise in world-building, and using that world to philosophize. The novel does culminate in a dramatic showdown of sorts -- a duel between Rama and another, with, in a nice turn, neither the nature of the duel nor then the consequences of winning and losing being what might be expected -- but mostly it is a novel more of ideas than action -- with some of those being fairly good ideas, entertainingly presented.
       Empire V is, among other things (and not least), an exploration of the Russian psyche, and its warped contemporary form, and rings especially melancholy and true here, in observations such:
Any long-term inhabitant of Russia will long ago have identified a cardinal characteristic of our life: however revolting the current regime, its successor will be such as to suffuse memories of its predecessor with a painful glow of nostalgia.
       It all makes for a(nother) sad and somewhat ponderous -- but certainly also creative -- take on this nation and culture gone so horribly awry.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2024

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Empire V: Reviews: Empire V - the film: Victor Pelevin: Other books by Victor Pelevin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Victor Pelevin (Виктор Пелевин) was born in 1962.

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© 2024 the complete review

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