The Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin; translated by Andrew Bromfield (New York: New Directions, 1996; originally published in 1993. 96 pp)
Victor Pelevin is a Russian author best known for Omon Ra and Generation P. He has won the Russian Little Booker Prize and the Russian National Best Seller. He lives in Moscow.
Andrew Bromfield was born in Yorkshire, England. He is a translator of Russian literature and an editor and co-founder of the literary journal, Glas.
Metaphors for Life
What’s your preferred metaphor for life? Are you in favor of “Life is like a box of chocolates; you’ll never know what you’re going to get.”? Perhaps you prefer, “Life is a game.” That one points toward the business-minded, the ones in favor of competition. No matter your preference, metaphor speaks toward the deeper meaning of life. You can say life is unpredictable, but discussing a box of chocolates makes for a more vibrant definition.
Victor Pelevin’s The Yellow Arrow explores a metaphor for life as its central premise.
Andrei lives on “The Yellow Arrow” a seemingly endless train, proceeding through endless days in a somewhat somnambulant state. His life does not have meaning:
“’Maybe I seem just like one of these yellow arrows falling on the tablecloth to someone,’ he mused to himself, ‘and life is nothing but the dirty window that I’m flying through: and here I am falling, falling for God knows how many years already onto the table, right there in front of the plate, while someone looks at the menu and waits for breakfast…’” (8).
Andrei and his fellow passengers barely understand the concept of “train” and the external world passing by outside. The train is all they know and the destination seems to be a vaguely understood notion of a ruined bridge.
“The passengers don’t even know what the train they’re riding in is called. They don’t even know that they’re passengers. So what can they know” (22)?
Much of The Yellow Arrow circles around the concept of self-realization. Andrei feels the pull of purpose, but he doesn’t have a framework around defining it. He only comprehends the need to be somewhere else:
“I want to get off this train while I am alive. I know this is impossible, but I want to do it, because to want anything else is sheer madness. And I know that the phrase ‘I want to get off the train while I am alive’ does have a meaning, although the words which make it up have no meaning. I don’t even know who I am. Then who will leave this place? And where will he go? Where can I go to, if I don’t even know where I am—at the point where I started to think this, or at the point where I finished? And if I tell myself that I am here, where is this ‘here’? And what does it mean, ‘I tell myself’” (39)?
A novella, Pelevin’s structure around the story offers an intriguing clue to the direction of the story. The chapters count backwards. The reader begins at chapter 12 and finishes the story at chapter 0. It’s as if the story represents a ticking time bomb.
While the story bears no influential connection to the critically acclaimed movie, Snowpiercer. Much of the metaphoric purpose connects. While The Yellow Arrow does not exists within a post-apocalyptic milieu, the restrictive nature of a train permeates the story.
Metaphors are always open to interpretation, but especially considering the timing around the publishing of this story just after the fall of the Soviet Union, there’s a clear connection to the concept of statehood and its restrictive pull toward monoculture.
A quick and engaging read, Pelevin utilizes a central metaphor around a train to ask deep questions about purpose. The Yellow Arrow is worth reading.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5