Caught in the Internet

Victor Pelevin: The Helmet of Horror (Шлем ужаса)

Just like all eras, today has its own mythology. In today's vulgar myth-creation, popular writers and movie stars take the place of ancient heroes, and ancestral legends are replaced by trivial stories and trendy clichés of pop culture. Mythological consciousness doesn't get destroyed but it transforms according to the spirit of the age. This is the idea that Scottish publisher Canongate followed when it called upon numerous contemporary writers, including Victor Plevin, a cult figure of postmodern Russian literature, to adapt an ancient myth into today's society. The task probably wasn't new to the author as the Pelevinian prose has always built upon the blending of the 'myths' of philosophy and media culture, classic and mass literature. The final product is The Helmet of Horror, published in 2005, in which Pelevin deconstructs one of the best-known stories of ancient Greek mythology, the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Knowing the author, the choice isn't surprising at all, since there's no better metaphor to express the 'postmodern state', the world of illusions than a labyrinth.



It's as if the characters in The Helmet of Horror were the tied prisoners of Plato's cave. Mysterious figures wearing chitons, staring at computer-generated pictures projected on the walls of their cells. Separated from each other, they can only connect in an online chatroom. The long conversation that takes place here is what The Helmet of Horror is about. You don't know who they are and how they got into this unusual situation. The only certainty is that they primarily exist in a virtual reality. With usernames that are bizarre, yet telling (Monstredamus, IsoldA, Nutscraker, Organism (-:, etc.), they wait for Theseus to log in while trying to find their way in the surreal maze following the dreams and instructions of the user called Ariadna. The world outside their prison is just as difficult to understand as their more and more diversified chatting. Outside their cells, every character finds themselves in a labyrinth of their own personality where the mythical bull-headed monster is waiting for them, wearing the helmet of horror, a complex device that in a paradox way, generates the virtual reality which is the scene of the hole story.

Is the Minotaur in the labyrinth or the other way round? Pelevin uses this question to invoke Jorge Luis Borges who frequently used the labyrinth element in his works, particularly in "The House of Asterion" that includes the monologue of Minotaur buried in the world created by himself. Besides the clear literary parallel, to express the mental background of his work, Pelevin also applies the widely used simile of philosophy of mind, namely the human mind pictured as a computer; eventually the helmet of horror is the mind itself in which a simulation called reality, that is life is conceived, and consciousness is also just an illusion of course. Similar to most of the author's other works The Helmet of Horror is also a gradual realisation of the emptiness of the illusion that takes the place of reality. Even if Pelevin's characters find their way out of the cave, there is no doubt that all they'll reailse outside is that the sun, representing the world of ideas, is only a neat visual effect. There's no ultimate truth in Pelevin's works. The only thing the reader can do is embrace the games of postmodern prose and the mixture of various cultural ideas and phrasings. As a (self) ironic thought in the book reads: "postmodern ... is the mad cow disease of culture; it has to feed on flour ground from its own bones." However, it's still unclear if the reader will be able to digest the literary result of this process.



"No one relised that the book and the labyrinth are the same..." – Pelevin quotes Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" in the foreword – somewhat inconsiderately. If the text does indeed function as a labyrinth where the reader tries to find the way like Theseus does, then this is a fairly simple maze. You try to get lost and find hidden allusions in The Helmet of Horror in vain. The author doesn't lead you on the secret paths through smartly scattered hints. Instead, he hands you the full map. While the aforementioned paradoxes and the ambiguous ending of the story are unquestionably thought-provoking, the meeting of the different literary and philosophical horizons takes place mostly in terms of exaggerated didaction – regardless of Pelevin's undeniable creativity and unique humour taking expression through easily identifiable use of intertextuality, eg. the diverse appearances of the original myth. You will rarely find pleasure in exploring the book's secrets on your own, although there are some instances (like collating the initial letters in the list of the characters' names).

The layout of The Helmet of Horror has similar contradictions as well. The structure, resembling the workings of an online forum, is original and clever but the unique form's only significance is the metaphor of the labyrinth related to the many exciting interpretations in the story (eg. the internet-parallel, the psychological approach or the christian concepts); beyond these, it is absolutely incidental. The fact that there's no real plot (a characteristic feature of Pelevin's prose, making the lack of dynamic storytelling acceptable for even his most apoplectic critics) because of the uniform present tense as a result of the chat-discourse, is no real problem. However the text doesn't really follow the colourfulness and special dynamic of virtual phrasings. Although the characters do have some originality, reading longer continuous parts, you'll find that The Helmet of Horror uses the same dry language all along only rarely vivified by the ease and humour of everyday slang. If Plevin had aimed at showing the emptiness of virtual dialogues, he was effective. However, from the reader's perspective it's rather unsettling.



So, despite the fine idea, that is the postmodern relocation of the myth of Theseus to a chatroom, setting the different cultural paradigms by the ears rarely has any entertaining results (as opposed to the author's numerous other stories). This way, The Helmet of Horror ends up being a weaker piece among the puzzle of Pelevin's works, which makes me wonder why Cartaphilus decided to publish a second edition after the original release by Palatinus in 2006. There's no doubt Pelevin is one of the most interesting authors of the extremely exciting post-Soviet literature, but the creativity and playfullness that helped him achieve this rarely appear in The Helmet of Horror.


Victor Pelevin, A rettenet sisakja, translated by László Bratka, Cartaphilus, 2011.