erasing clouds

Book Review: Victor Pelevin, The Helmet of Horror

by anna battista

Imagine being locked in a bare room that doesn’t have many distinctive features apart from a door and a computer. Imagine also that you can only use the computer to connect to a labyrinthine chat room in which eight mysterious strangers are discussing various philosophical problems. Intrigued by such a plot? Then open Victor Pelevin’s novel The Helmet of Horror and try to discover who’s masterminding the chat room and who its enigmatic guests may be. The new book by acclaimed Russian author Pelevin - perhaps more famous for his sci-fi stories and for his first novel Omon Ra, a satire of the Soviet state - is an updated version of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, commissioned for Canongate’s series “The Myths”, ancient mythological stories revised for modern readers and rewritten by famous contemporary authors.

Pelevin’s story opens with one of the characters, the very aptly named Ariadne, launching a “thread”: “I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself together with anyone who tries to find me - who said this and about what?” From then on, eight characters join the chat room, trying to understand where they are, if the environment they are writing from is real, imagined or dreamt or if they are in Heaven or Hell.

Some of the characters will even venture out of their cells to find, right on their doorstep, labyrinths or surreal landscapes. Two of the characters, Romeo y Cohiba and IsoldA, will fall in love and try to find a connection in the maze that might allow them to meet up. Religious fanatic UGLI 666 will venture out of her cell to find a cathedral, while Nutscracker will discover that outside his room there’s nothing else but an editing suite with tapes of candidates pitching for the role of Theseus (the hero who killed the Minotaur and escaped from the labyrinth with Ariadne’s help in the original myth).

It is anyway the character hiding under the screen-name Ariadne who makes the most important encounter when she sees in a dream a vision of the Minotaur, a creature called Asterisk wearing a strange and elaborate mask that might actually be a virtual-reality headset or a metaphor for the mind’s construction of the world. In-depth philosophical analyses will intrigue the characters taking part in the chat room that becomes an excuse to examine the meaning of the world, the differences between dreams and reality, mind and substance, and various other existential issues.

At first glance distracted readers might dismiss Pelevin’s book as a science fiction pastiche, but The Helmet of Horror is actually a multi-layered postmodernist text that engages and enthrals, mainly because readers are the main protagonists of the story as the author leaves them the task to infuse the text with a final meaning. Pelevin manages throughout the novel to conjure up a virtual reality that is at times scary, but it is often tinged with a dark humour.

Surreal and inventive, The Helmet of Horror echoes different writers, from Jorge Luis Borges to Nikolai Gogol while often gives you the impression you are taking part in a Socratic symposium in the year 2038. A pleasant read for those who like good fiction interspersed with brain-riddling philosophical exercises.


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