The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin

helmetofhorrorCatching up in my reading of the Cannongate Myths Series, I decided to read a book I have had on my shelf for a while: Victor Pelevin’s take on Theseus and the Minotaur The Helmet of Horror.  Some years back I had read Pelevin’s Buddha’s Little Finger and I picked up his contribution to the myth series when it came out.  But for some reason it never got read.

So when I began to catch up on the series (see here and here) I picked up The Helmet of Horror.  I am glad I did as it was a quick and fascinating read, but one not easy to describe.  Here is the publishers description:

Victor Pelevin, the wildly interesting contemporary Russian novelist who The New Yorker named one of the Best European Writers Under 35, upends any conventional notions of what mythology must be with his unique take on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. By creating a mesmerizing world where the surreal and the hyperreal collide, The Helmet of Horror is a radical retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur set in an Internet chat room. They have never met, they have been assigned strange pseudonyms, they inhabit identical rooms that open out onto very different landscapes, and they have entered a dialogue they cannot escape — a discourse defined and destroyed by the Helmet of Horror. Its wearer is the dominant force they call Asterisk, a force for good and ill in which the Minotaur is forever present and Theseus is the great unknown.

The Helmet of Horror is structured according to the way we communicate in the twenty-first century — using the Internet — yet instilled with the figures and narratives of classical mythology. It is a labyrinthine examination of epistemological uncertainty that radically reinvents this myth for an age where information is abundant but knowledge ultimately unattainable.

The chat like dialog makes for quick reading and the mysterious nature of the setting is quite compelling.  You find yourself reading feverishly trying to figure out what is going on.  And for those with a background in philosophy and literature there is a deeper level of symbolism and argument going on; most of this went over my head I am afraid.

But in the end the absurdist nature of Pelevin’s style leaves the ending rather unsatisfying and incomplete.

More below.

Pelevin opens the book with an intriguing introduction that is a commentary on myths in general – including the modern myth of progress – and an introduction to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Pelevin posits that myths might function as shell programs for the computer that is our mind: “a set of rules that we follow” and “mental matrices we project onto complex events to endow them with meaning.”

He then applies this to Theseus and the Minotaur:

Why does the Minotaur have a bull’s head?  What does he think and how?  Is his mind a function of his body or is his body an image in his mind?  Is Theseus inside the Labyrinth?  Or is the Labyrinth inside Theseus?  Both?  Neither?

For Pelevin it seems there is no right or wrong answer but simply that “Each answer means you turn down a different corridor.”  Many claim to know the truth but, according to Pelevin, no one has returned from the Labyrinth.

This intro really gives the game away.  It indicates that Pelevin isn’t offering answers but merely exploring corridors.  And if you enjoy clever conversations about what we know and how we can know it then you will get a kick out of the story/conversation.  But there is something lacking; a sense that the possibilities were not fulfilled here.

The folks at The Complete Review summarize this sense well:

As a variation on the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Pelevin does come up with some ingenious ideas, but on the whole it’s more clever than a convincing re-imaging of the myth. Pelevin offers enough to amuse and entertain, but it doesn’t feel like he’s done all that he could with the material and this specific approach.

Digging deeper I think John Mullan’s review in the New Statesman captured this weakness best:

The form that Pelevin uses is potentially well adapted for testing ideas (think of the philosophical dialogues of Hume or Berkeley). But while Pelevin likes to raise a question – is myth the opposite of progress? – he does not like to stay with it long enough for it to acquire any weight. Ditto with his satirical sallies. He inserts references to contemporary politics randomly, but without force.

But I am not so sure Pelevin would disagree with this critique so much as think it was not his intention.  His style is not to provide answers but to ask questions and point out holes in our conceptions and perceptions; the way we think we see and know.

Most readers, however, I think will come away with a sense that Pelevin’s new conceptualization of the myth held the promise for more insight and less clever jokes.  But if you like clever questions and witty asides, The Helmet of Horror is certainly entertaining.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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