A week or two ago, if you had asked me what the strangest book I've ever read was, I probably would have answered, "Christopher Priest's The Prestige." If you've seen the film version, directed by Christopher Nolan and brilliantly acted by a cast including Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman and David Bowie, you have some idea of the strangeness of that novel. Some, but not all. In a distinctively English way, Priest took the idea of turn-of-the-century dueling stage magicians to places I never could have imagined...and keep in mind I read the novel after seeing the film.
I think we have a new winner, though. The title of strangest book I've ever read must now go to The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin. Pelevin, one of the finest contemporary Russian writers, released the book in his native language in 2005. It was released in English in 2008, translated by Andrew Bromfield.
Werewolf is narrated by A Hu-Li. Apparently, the Russian translation of her name is "So F---ing What," though in the original Chinese it means "A Fox Named A."
A Hu-Li is a werefox, but she's so much more than that. She's 2,000 years old, one of a sisterhood of werefoxes from ancient China. These foxes are a kind of energy vampires, using prostitution as a cover to feed off the sexual energy of men. Through a kind of hallucinogenic effect they produce with their fox-tails, A Hu-Li and her sisters never actually have to touch these men. A Hu-Li is, in fact, a 2,000-year-old virgin.
For the first time in her extremely long life, A Hu-Li is faced with the prospect of falling in love. She goes a little too far with a client who offends her; her imaginary whip draws real blood. This arouses the suspicions of an SVR (what used to be the KGB) officer named Alexander. Alexander is a werewolf. He may be Fenrir, the wolf from Norse mythology who, at the end of time, catches the sun and devours it. The two were-creatures are drawn to each other. By twining their tails together, they can act out any fantasy imaginable in their minds.
A Hu-Li has a sister who lives in England, with a husband who's obsessed with esoteric magic and believes in the coming of a super-werewolf. Alexander is convinced he is the super-werewolf, and together he and A Hu-Li embark on a strange journey through their own minds, over which they discuss the meaning of existence itself.
My favorite quote is this one: "The energy that serves for the conception of life does not belong to people. Entering into the act of love, a human being becomes a channel for this energy and is transformed from a sealed vessel to a pipe that is connected for a few seconds to the bottomless source of the life force. I simply require access to that source, that's all." Don't we all?