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The Boston Phoenix Bug Out

In two newly translated novels, familiar pests inhabit surprisingly complex worlds.

By Megan Harlan

MARCH 16, 1998: 

THE LIFE OF INSECTS, by Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pages, $22.

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, by Bernard Werber. Translated by Margaret Rocques. Bantam Books, 262 pages, $23.95.

The Life of Insects opens with one of many startling metamorphoses. Samuel Sacker, a hard-driving, dapper American businessman, is visiting a crumbling Black Sea resort hotel with two shabby Russian business contacts. After the three coordinate vague strategies to expand market share, they abruptly transform into mosquitoes -- Sam turns into an impressive, agile brown creature, while the two Russians take on "that miserable hue of gray familiar from prerevolutionary village huts" -- and fly to a nearby town to suck the blood of the locals. Sam, loath to listen to the warnings of his less sophisticated associates, gets perilously drunk off a man's cologne-slapped skin. And on the way back to the resort, he loses his briefcase.

Throughout Victor Pelevin's shimmering satire of post-perestroika Russian society, characters morph from human form to insect form and back, so seamlessly and frequently that the attributes of the different species appear more as transparent overlays than as fixed, distinct qualities. In other words, these people are, most of the time, also insects, and their actions -- like those of the capitalist bloodsucker Sam, flying free in a countryside of unsuspecting Russian peasant folk -- can thus be viewed both literally and metaphorically.

And so, in each of these 15 linked stories, Pelevin pulls off a delicate magical realist balancing act: he simultaneously builds believable characters with real human struggles, matches their personality quirks to vivid insect lives, and wittily spoofs various aspects of Russian culture and international literature.

There is Marina, a daft, dreamy ant in red stiletto heels who craves a life out of romantic French movies, but who instead suffers a bossy army-ant boyfriend, an unwanted pregnancy, and a tragedy at a high-society ball straight out of War and Peace. There is the poignant coming-of-age story of a young dung beetle, initiated by his dour father into the sacred rites of scarabs and their arcane Egyptian religion. There are hip, countercultural hemp bugs who spout paranoid pothead theories. There is even a "Natasha," a naive young greenbottle-fly prostitute who paints "the suckers on her hands" with lipstick, the better to seduce Sam. There are Mitya and Dima, two moths with wings "like a cloak of silver brocade" who ruminate in cryptic nonsense phrases, á la Lewis Carroll's Caterpillar, on their deadly attraction to bright lights. And in a story titled "Paradise," a cicada -- who spends his life digging tunnels blindly through the ground -- has an identity crisis. Is he, in fact, a cockroach? Should he stop his possibly pointless digging and become a computer programmer instead? Is life about struggle or pleasure?

Though it shares some superficial similarities with Kafka's Metamorphosis, Pelevin's fictional universe is more reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. Inventive, lyrical, and playfully philosophical, The Life of Insects lucidly projects the complexities of human life onto the sparkling strangeness of the insect world.

By contrast, Empire of the Ants is a deft bit of genre fiction, a harrowingly earnest sci-fi yarn in which the "aliens" don't come from outer space but already live in socially complex colonies here on earth. Werber, a French science journalist, seems most at ease when detailing believe-it-or-not factoids from the creepy-crawly kingdom (ants can carry objects that are 60 times their own weight and work 24 hours a day for months on end). He never stretches for existential connections between human life and ant life, nor does he delineate the kind of well-rounded characters that would make such connections possible. Rather, he evokes in vividly icky detail an ant's-eye view of the world -- a sort of Watership Down of the thoraxed set.

Told in the form of two concurrent stories -- one starring humans, the other ants -- the novel opens with the tale of Jonathan Wells, a Parisian locksmith who has recently inherited an apartment from his eccentric Uncle Edmond. Edmond, a brilliant and mysterious entomologist who was killed by a swarm of wasps in Africa, has left a single instruction to Jonathan: "Above all, never go down into the cellar!" Naturally, Jonathan, his wife, his son, and his dog will all disobey. First the dog disappears, and Jonathan investigates downstairs, only to emerge with the canine's bloody remains and a strange smile. He grows obsessed with his uncle's scientific research and with his Encyclopedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge (passages from which, most ant-related, pepper the narrative). Finally, he descends permanently underground, with worried wife and child in tow. Whole squadrons of police, firemen, and detectives will also disappear into the suspicious cellar -- their fates unclear until the finale.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the action takes place in totalitarian ant kingdoms, where vicious wars and silly place-names are rampant. Several miles away from Uncle Edmond's apartment is Bel-o-kan, an ant city with 18 million inhabitants. Of this dizzying, wiggling mass, Werber focuses on three individual ants: the "327th reproductive male," whose pluck makes up for the fact that, among ants, "males are half-beings"; the beautiful, intrepid heroine, dubbed "56th female ant"; and the mascotlike "103,683rd asexual ant." These nameless ants dare to break free from their drone lives to solve some mysteries of their own: What is the secret weapon held by their mortal enemies, the dwarf ants of Shi-gae-pou? Why is their colony suffering from a spate of unnatural ant-on-ant killings?

Werber often paints his beloved bugs in lovely, exacting strokes ("The one thousand, three hundred little portholes that made up each spherical eye were dusted, moistened, and dried. . . . They polished their beautiful russet shells until they sparkled like drops of fire"). This appreciation informs his overriding theme: that humans should embrace a "new way of thinking" that would allow us to understand the ant world on its own terms. Werber's stance is problematic, though, because the ant society he portrays resembles so exactly any number of violent, oppressive human societies. And though his hyperrealistic, action-packed evocation of anthood makes a palpable sensory impression upon the reader -- and more than earns the Close Encounters of the Invertebrate Kind climax -- his shallow characterization undermines any hope for psychological or emotional resonance. Even ants deserve better than that. Ultimately, Werber reaches no deeper than the exoskeleton -- or the skin.

Megan Harlan, a New York-based writer, has written for the New York Times Book Review and Salon.

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