Victor Pelevin on Carlos
My Mescalito Trip
LA Weekly MAY 3 - 9, 2002
ONE OF THE TERMS THAT CAME INTO MODERN English
from the Russian in the wake of "gulag" and "pogrom"
was "samizdat." It is usually defined as a system of
clandestine publication of anti-Soviet texts in the countries
of the former Eastern bloc. This definition somewhat implies that
"samizdat" meant Solzhenitsyn. In fact, "samizdat"
meant Castaneda. The explanation is simple: When you live in a
gulag from the day of your birth, reading a book about gulag in
your free time feels a bit too patriotic. You want something different.
Castaneda wasn't officially forbidden in the
pre-perestroika Soviet Union. Neither was he permitted. Getting
caught with Castaneda's pirate translation might have led you
into mild trouble, comparable to the consequences of drunk driving
or urinating in a public place, but never landed you in jail.
It was a problem of possessing samizdat, not Castaneda - an issue
of form rather than content. And this samizdat form transformed
Castaneda into something quite unpredictable.
Castaneda's most beautiful trick was based
on the popular belief in the existence of fiction and nonfiction.
This belief takes it for granted that there is a qualitative difference
between two books if the first one tells a success story that
never happened to a fictitious character, and the second one tells
a success story that will never happen to you. In a way, this
difference does exist. But it is not a difference between two
books, it is a difference between two settings of the reader's
mind. Here lies the real magic that makes the four Gospels either
a dull specimen of ancient postmodernism or the Truth that proves
itself as it unfolds in front of your eyes. Never mind the text.
What matters is the legend, or, to be precise, your willingness
to kindle this legend with life.
Castaneda capitalized on this psychic phenomenon
- which, by the way, he described in his books - with the ease
and brilliance no other modern prophet was able to match, at least
in business terms. His work was considered nonfiction, though
later his publishers unobtrusively moved it to the arcane "Arkana"
category. But if the mass-market production of Castaneda's books
in the West firmly placed Don Juan among the phenomena of the
'60s'70s pop culture, in the Soviet Union he was a mystery known
to the selected few even a decade later. If some of his Western
readers perceived the term "nonfiction" as a maneuver
to increase the sales, this kind of thinking was totally alien
to us. At that time the notion of a best-seller didn't exist in
our culture. The dust-covered volumes of Brezhnev's pensive prose
that filled every bookstore were not best-sellers, they were best-printers.
As far as we were concerned, there was only one indecent marketing
trick that led to multimillion-print runs. It was to be a Politburo
member. And Castaneda was not. So we didn't have any serious motive
The samizdat incarnation of a Castaneda book
was a photocopy of the typewritten translation. That was the reason
why your access to a Xerox machine could drastically improve your
position in the esoteric hierarchy. The quality of your Castaneda
sheets showed your proximity to the mysterious center of occult
knowledge: There were copies of copies, copies of copies of copies,
and thus to eternity. Sometimes the letters were so dim that when
you were finally able to finish the page, you felt like an Egyptologist
who had managed to understand the inscription on a badly damaged
The translations were technically correct,
but the style was more field notes than literary text - which
doubled the feeling of authenticity. Sometimes you were given
a book "till tomorrow" and had to read it overnight.
Sometimes you would hear, "If you get in trouble, I didn't
give it to you, okay?" It wasn't a mere nonfiction anymore,
it was a non-nonfiction where a combination of factors created
a cumulative effect of such force that some Castaneda readers
saw lucid dreams an hour after they had read about the art of
dreaming. And some were able to put into practice Don Juan's motto
that knowledge is power.
THERE WAS A PLACE IN MOSCOW CALLED BIRD Market
- a flea market where you could buy pets, plants and many other
things. Once, when I was in my early 20s, I went there to look
for something I needed. Passing by a long table with plants, I
saw a strange bald cactus with a tag that read, Lophophora williamsii.
That sounded familiar. I remembered where I had seen these words
- in the introduction to a Castaneda book. Then I remembered the
meaning. It was the Latin name for a power plant that Don Juan
used to call Mescalito. Mescalito was both a plant and a spirit.
The next few weeks were a confusing period
of time for the cactus collectors of Moscow. It seemed that a
big new player entered their tight little universe. He was operating
on a scale unheard of in the past, and disappeared without a trace
after exhausting the entire Moscow stock of a particular cactus
known mostly for its beautiful flower and complete absence of
Speak, memory. Some peyote plants were big,
mature and dark, some were light green and tiny. Some grew from
the gray sand, some were implanted in another cactus, forming
together with it a strange gibbous monster. I remember the floor
of my room, transformed by the twilight and the power of my intent
into a barren expanse of the Sonora desert where I had been so
many times with Don Juan and Carlos during their promenades. Walking
in the desert required your entire attention, as its surface was
covered with plastic flowerpots of various forms and colors arranged
in an orderly pattern, like an army prepared for a battle. And,
as history shows, when there's an army prepared for a battle,
it is only a matter of time when this battle starts.
Unfortunately, Mescalito just said no. This
plant needs a lot of sun radiation and a special kind of soil
to produce the amount of mescaline sufficient to summon his noble
spirit. So, despite the fact that the number of buttons I ate
would have made Don Juan whistle in respectful disbelief, the
result was nil, or very close to it: a kind of perceptual distortion
that you might not even notice if you don't expect it to happen,
or something that you start to feel only because you wait for
it to begin. I walked in the forest, looked at the sunset. There
was nothing special apart from the squeaking of sand on my teeth.
However, my Mescalito trip had one curious side effect. Two days
after it, perestroika began.
WHICH TAKES ME BACK TO CASTANEDA. I KNOW about
all the vitriol that his books attracted, and in many cases it
was well-grounded. My own problem with Castaneda's metaphysical
model is even deeper than all the criticism I heard. It is not
only my problem. Talking about Castaneda's books with a Buddhist
monk in a Korean monastery once, I said, "There's a concept
I can't digest. A place where Castaneda says that awareness is
a bluish glow that surrounds the Eagle's emanations." "Absolutely,"
said the monk. "If this is so, who's aware of this bluish
Yet I love him even with the bluish glow. He
is much like this gibbous monster cactus, which doesn't have a
holographic certificate of being the genuine authentic Peyote™,
and doesn't really take you high, and perhaps can't even be called
a cactus at all. But it gives you a little side effect that suddenly
makes the side center and the center side. With all his tricks
and failures, he shines high above the blurred crowd of many a
"distinctive voice of his/her own" on the steep road
from obscurity to oblivion. No matter what faults his books might
have, they possess a very rare quality, the most important in
the universe, that is hard to define otherwise but in Castaneda's
own terms: They have heart.
Victor Pelevin is the author of the novels
Buddha's Little Finger and Homo Zapiens, both available from Viking.
He lives in Moscow.