Vadim Babenko is a master of delving into the mind and heart of post-Soviet Russia with his contemporary literary works. The Black Pelican, his first novel, transcends genres with its complexity of story and supernatural elements. It was nominated for Russian Big Book Awards and the National Bestseller Awards.
Told in two parts, The Black Pelican, utilizes a borderline stark narrative style that does not follow a traditional plot driven storyline. Written with intermittent lush and beautiful turns of phrase, Babenko describes his hauntingly bizarre world. Readers may find themselves wondering if there really are mysterious men randomly running through restaurants or if animals with unsettling purple eyes really do exist. Rest assured, every bizarre scenario where the narrator finds himself in is one hundred percent real.
The story centers on Vitus, the narrator, who is journeying to the mysterious and enigmatic City of M., in pursuit of Julian, a former co-worker. Vitus cannot forgive Julian his sins: his success at work, his charisma, and perhaps worst of all, his triumphant wooing of Vera back from Vitus. Vera is one of the few women Vitus has connected with on an emotional level.
When Vitus arrives in the City of M. he is paranoid, on the border of nihilism, and at a tipping point in his life. The one thing he holds dear is his secret–his plan to kill Julian and get his revenge.
Soon after his arrival, Vitus meets the menacing hotel-keeper Piolin, and Gibbs, a man with only half a face that he says is due to an encounter with the Black Pelicans—birds that live only in myth for most of the population despite their very real and incredibly violent existence.
Unable to find Julian, Vitus fears that he will fail to carry out his murder. Piolin and Gibbs quickly come up with a plan to help him track down Julian. Vitus finds himself going to the surreal landscape of the Dunes with Gibbs and a motley crew: Sylvia and Stella. He soon realizes that the group itself has an ulterior motive. Meanwhile, the Black Pelicans loom menacingly on the horizon.
Inevitably, Vitus finds himself face to face with one of the Black Pelicans. His encounter leaves him scarred both mentally and physically. After the occurrences in the Dunes, Vitus takes time to heal and begins to contemplate his life. What happens next is something neither the reader nor Vitus expect.
Marked for life after his encounter with the Black Pelicans, Vitus must face several choices. Shall he return to the Capital and his old way of life? Should he go back to the City of M.? And most importantly, what should he do about Julian? At the heart of the novel is one man’s quest for fulfillment and meaning in an often cold and irrational world.
Those who take pleasure in contemplative literary works will find Vitus’ scenes of self-reflection, philosophical conjectures, and observations of others satisfying. This novel reflects the emotional turning point in Babenko’s life where he, indeed, met his own Black Pelicans face to face. His writing draws you into the construct of this treacherous and threatening landscape and engages you with its twisted and gripping characters.
The Black Pelican is a sagacious novel that is powerfully written. You will find yourself reflecting on the philosophical questions Babenko puts forth long after you have read the last page. We look forward to reading Babenko’s next work.
“Each book is a separate universe, a cosmos with its own metrics. The only thing that makes sense in my life is nourishing these universes in my mind for years, and when they’re mature enough, converting them into written narratives, fixing their inner logic, setting the laws of their physics.” – Vadim Babenko