the short story project


Viktor Pelevin | from:Russian

The Origin of Species

Translated by : Michele A. Berdy

Video: Yuval Ben Bassat

Introduction by Olga Sonkin

In “The Origin of Species” (the title of Charles Darwin’s renowned text, in which he proves the scientific theory of evolution), Viktor Pelevin revisits the character of Darwin aboard the “Beagle” research vessel, in a supposedly realistic-historical story. And yet, there is nothing realistic about this story; Pelevin’s Darwin is not a young man in his early twenties as Darwin indeed was during the Beagle expedition, but the image of Darwin as engraved in the historical consciousness, a kind of memorial of himself. Darwin’s scientific experiments in the story are the killing of apes, and each one of Darwin’s battles with an ape brings him one step closer to the great discovery—the theory of evolution. Thus Pelevin turns Darwin into the father of Darwinism in the social sense as well, i.e., the assumption that human society is also built on the principle of “survival of the fittest.” Pelevin’s Darwin examines the validity of the theory of evolution on himself, in a real battle of survival against a gorilla, and by doing so, Pelevin ridicules the scientific validity and the myth created around the character and work of the famous researcher. With fluent prose, in an almost mischievous move (like painting a Hitler mustache or giant elephant ears on the photos of pompous politicians), Pelevin transforms Darwin’s theory of evolution—“the origin of species,” into another creationism myth, simply one of many. And in the same manner, he transforms Darwin, who is considered the symbol of enlightenment and secularization, into a brawny bully whose strength lends him his glory.

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The hatch slammed shut above his head, muffling the voices of the men up on deck, and Charles Darwin cautiously went below deck. He held the railing, polished by many palms, with one hand and a candlestick with a thick wax candle in the other. As he stepped off the last creaking stair, he let go of the handrail and moved forward cautiously.

The floor had already been washed. The candle gave off enough light to make out the scuffed wall boards, a sticky barrel, several potatoes lying on the floor, and long rows of identical crates that faded into the gradually thickening darkness. The crates, held to the walls by thick cables, stood on both sides of the passageway. As Darwin took a few more steps, he could see several wine barrels and a few sacks piled up by the wall emerge from the darkness. The passageway widened. Up ahead something seemed to move. Startled, Darwin stepped back, but then he immediately realized what it was. A draft came out of the darkness, making the candle flame sputter and the shadows waver. That’s what looked like something moving up ahead.

Once Darwin passed the crates along the walls, he found himself in fairly spacious quarters. The corners were piled with junk: scraps of sailcloth, sooty cauldrons, and boards piled every which way. A piece of cable lightly swung in front of his face. Darwin raised his candlestick and looked at the ceiling. The piece of cable was tied to a massive hook screwed into the rough ceiling planks. Cautiously walking around the cable, Darwin took several steps along the pitching floor and stopped next to a table and bench by the wall.

There was a smell of mildew and mice, but it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it almost made the space homey. A long stick stood against the wall next to an open basket with a woven lid. They stood where he’d left them the evening before. Tossing to the side the long flaps of his frockcoat, Darwin sat down on the bench, put the candle on the table, and thoughtfully stared into the darkness.

Looking at the objects and their shadows emerging from the dark corners, he thought, “Doesn’t human reason grope its way in just this kind of gloom? In just the same way, don’t we grab out of the darkness the few connections accessible to our intellect and try to use them as the basis for our understanding of the world? Here is a barrel and next to it is a crate, but from what I see, it does not follow at all that such barrels and crates will stand everywhere, wherever I go… But why am I thinking about crates? Crates don’t matter. Crates don’t matter at all. What matters is that Lamarck takes one of the functions of human consciousness and mechanically transfers it to nature. He speaks of a kind of abstract progression of life towards self-perfection. But if that progression really were the main reason for development and transformation in the natural world, as Lamarck asserts, then all living things would perfect themselves equally. But in fact we see something entirely different! One species gives way to another, and then a third species replaces the second… Yesterday we established that the conditions in which life exists have the determining influence. But in what way? Why does one species die out while another thrives? What rules this sublime process? What force causes life to assume new forms? And how can we find harmony in what, at first glance, appears to be total chaos…?”

The Breguet in his pocket quietly played a few notes from the overture to Robert le diable, and Darwin came out of his reverie. As usual, his thoughts had led him far away – so far away that when he opened his eyes, he didn’t immediately know where he was and what he was doing there.

“Down to work,” he thought. “We’ll start off where we ended yesterday.”

He stood up, walked over to the wall, picked up the stick, raised it over his head and pounded on the ceiling three times. A second later three knocks replied. Darwin hit the ceiling once more and then put the stick back. He took off his frock coat and tidily hung it over a chair. He was wearing a black vest made out of thick leather, densely covered with short steel spikes. He loosened the ties on his chest, then stepped back from the table and started to swing his arms and jump in place to properly warm up his muscles before the experiment began. But he had almost no time for gymnastics. From the darkness came the creak of the hatch being opened, threatening voices and muffled growling. A ray of light fell for a second in the passageway that he’d just come out of, but then the hatch quickly slammed shut, and it became dark and quiet once more.

A few minutes went by as Darwin stood motionless by the table, straining to hear. Finally, from the darkness outside the illuminated space came the sound of scraping – of something heavy being moved. The floorboards creaked. Something like laughter sounded in the distance, and then a barrel flew out from the passageway and rolled right towards Darwin’s feet. Darwin chuckled and stepped aside. The barrel rolled past him, hit a sack of flour and came to rest.

Silence again. Suddenly a hard object hit Darwin in the chest and bounced off. Darwin jumped to the side and saw a large potato lying on the floor. Another potato flew out from behind the crates and hit him in the shoulder. Darwin stepped forward, placed his feet, clad in heavy boots, far apart, leaned over and whistled loudly. A blurry figure appeared in the passageway. The figure swung a long arm and another potato flew by his ear. Darwin picked one of the potatoes up from the floor, aimed, and then with all his might threw it right at the center of the blurry silhouette.

Out of the darkness came the sound of offended yelping that turned into quiet sniveling. Then a huge furry shadow came at Darwin. Growling in threat, the shadow moved forward and froze at the edge of the illuminated space. It was completely visible. And although Darwin was used to the sight, he automatically stepped back.

Before him stood an old orangutan, leaning forward on long arms that touched the floor. His head was pointed and his face protruded, giving him the appearance of a deformed child who had filled his mouth with too much food. His lips were wrinkled and swollen, his nose – flat and dark, but his utterly human eyes gazed scornfully and idly. From the waist up he looked like a huge bloated regular at one of Edinburgh’s pubs – a beer lover who took off his shirt in the heat. There were thick folds on his nearly hairless chest that looked like droopy breasts – a similarity intensified by the large, dark nipples – but Darwin knew that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on the creature’s steely muscles. But there was something feminine about the long, ginger plaits of long fur tufts growing on the flanks of the powerful body and the wide, firm hips and protuberant belly.

The orangutan lifted up his arms and then lightly pounded both fists on the floor. In reply Darwin stamped his foot, whistled again and moved forward. Their eyes met, and Darwin felt that the ape understood everything perfectly. He didn’t know how and in what images that primitive perception reflected the essence of what was happening, but he sensed that like himself, the ape was ready for the final combat, ready for the fierce and merciless battle for survival in this harsh world. Darwin understood this by the signs obvious to his trained eye.

The short neck of the male ape quivered, and the deep folds covering it expanded and contracted; as was typical, the orangutan expanded his neck sack when he was excited or tense. Sometimes he closed his eyes for a second and breathed out a quiet “ooo” and shifted his legs – the weight of his heavy body rested on his front paws, which were touching the floor. As he slowly moved towards the orangutan, Darwin stared at his front paws. When they came off the floor, he swiftly squatted down.

A huge paw swung above his head and grabbed empty air. Darwin was right next to him now. He abruptly stood up, and while the ape was trying to grab him again, he gave a sharp exhale and hit the ape in the chest. For a second the orangutan lost his balance and clumsily waved his arms. Darwin pounded his dark, flat nose with short and precise jabs.

The orangutan crashed to the floor, but immediately jumped up.

“Ooooo,” he bellowed.

Darwin whistled and the male jumped around him without getting too close. He moved by supporting himself on his arms and pushing his short, hairy legs far to the side. Darwin watched him with a cold smile, spinning so that he was always facing the orangutan. The orangutan stopped, lifted his arms off the floor and pounded his belly with oblong gray hands.

“Ooooo,” he bellowed again and flung open his paws.

Darwin quickly jumped into his chest, and the two of them fell to the floor. While Darwin’s fingers squeezed the ape’s wrinkled throat, he tightly wrapped his legs around the ape’s protuberant belly. The orangutan tried to twist away and managed to jerk several times under him, but Darwin held on and squeezed his fingers even more tightly. For a while the ape’s paw pounded him on the side wildly but weakly, and then he suddenly grabbed his side whiskers – apparently the ape wanted to grab him by the throat, but Darwin had anticipated that and tucked his chin into his chest. The orangutan tugged harder at his whiskers and pulled Darwin toward himself, almost pressing Darwin’s face against his own.

For a while the man and ape lay motionless. Only their fast, wheezing breaths broke the silence.

“Essentially,” Darwin thought, wincing at the putrid stench from the beast’s mouth, “nature is one. It is one enormous organism, in which various creatures and species carry out the functions of different organs or cells. And what at first glance might look like an irreconcilable battle for life is really nothing more than the self-renewal of the organism, a process similar to what goes on in any living thing when old cells die off and are pushed aside, as it were, by new ones that appear in their place… What is individual existence from the point of view of a species? What is the existence of a species from the point of view of everything that is alive? It’s fiction…”

The two bodies did not move. One pair of eyes stared into the other. Two entities met, came together in something like a lover’s embrace, but only one of them could win, only one could go on living while the other one, less capable and therefore not worthy of existence, must die and become food for myriad other creatures – big, small and completely invisible to the eye – that would also have to fight to the death for every bit of dead flesh.

“And so,” Darwin thought, gathering strength for his last effort, “even the most violent battle between two living creatures is merely the interaction of two atoms of existence, a unique kind of chemical reaction. In fact we are one. We are cells of one immortal creature that is constantly eating itself, whose name is Life. Nature does not distinguish individu-u-u-u-…”

The orangutan jerked, arched his back, and two hate-filled groans flowed together into one long howl of suffering and love for life. For several moments it was as if there was one four-armed and four-footed body – it was impossible to say which body and limbs was whose. A hand gripped a throat. Fingers pulled out a clump of hair. One quivering torso pressed into the other. Ribs cracked, teeth ground together, fangs were bared. There was a bubble of saliva and a gurgling. Heels hammered the floor. Every cell of tense muscles fought a battle to the death and tried to use all the power stored in it, as if sensing that this was the last chance. Powerful hips pressed into a groin, a pelvis jutted out. Calves crawled up each other. A hairy knee pressed into a soft belly. Nostrils flared, and a blue pimply tongue tumbled out of a mouth.

For a while two competing wills trembled in balance, but it was already decided – one of them jerked, gave in, gave up and melted under the press of the other. A few seconds passed. Two of the four eyes became dull with apathy and slowly glassed over.

Darwin became aware of himself again. He shook his head, unclenched the fingers on the furry throat and slowly rose to his feet. His entire body hummed. A torn fingernail on his right hand hurt, his bruised knee ached, but none of that could compare to the feeling that rose from the depth of his heart and gradually reached his mind. With a shaking hand he brushed some litter off his chest.

“You must always see the victory of existence behind the grimacing mask of suffering and death,” he thought. “In essence, there is no death. There are only contractions for the birth of a new and more perfect world. In this Lamarck was absolutely correct.”

He looked around. All the component parts of the clutter around him – the crates, sacks, a potatoes lying on the floor – had assumed a new quality. Each object was christened with the ecstasy of victory and chastely revealed the beauty hidden within, like a virgin pulling aside the veil covering her face to the warrior who had conquered her. Life was magnificent.

On legs stiff from the recent exertion, Darwin slowly walked back to the table where the candle burned. He sat down on the bench. No new thoughts came to him for a while. Then he looked at his scratched, hairy fist and recalled Lamarck.

“It isn’t nature’s conscious striving for perfection after all,” he thought. “We see that selection takes place, and the less fit give way to the more fit. Thus one species pushes out another and takes over its habitat. But a question arises: what exactly determines the level of fitness? Is it strength?”

He looked at his fist again. On the back of his hand was a tattoo depicting three blurry crowns surrounding an open book. On the pages of the book “Dominus illuminatio mea” was inked in large, deep blue letters. A bluish vein pulsed rapidly between “Dominus” and “illuminatio.”

“No,” Darwin thought. “If it were just a matter of physical strength, the Earth would be inhabited solely by elephants and whales. Clearly it’s something else. But what? What? Sometimes I feel so close to finding the answer…”

Holding his powerful skull in his heads, he slipped into a long reverie. The light of the candle wavered a bit, the wax dripped, and invisible mice squeaked. Darwin thought for a long time. His massive figure was utterly motionless, like a monument.

At last he stirred. He stood, picked up the stick standing against the wall, and pounded on the ceiling four times. Four whacks immediately answered from above, and Darwin pounded on the ceiling one more time. Then he put the stick back, bent over the basket, lifted its woven lid and took out two green bananas. He shoved them into the pockets of his wide, black pants, completely unlaced his vest, pulled it off over his head and tossed it on the table next to his coat.

When the unseen hatch slammed shut and the floorboards in the passageway creaked under soft, heavy steps, Darwin was already ready. This time no potatoes flew at him – the new guest moved without any agitation. As he walked, he didn’t drag his knuckles along the floor; he moved confidently, without haste.

An enormous gorilla appeared in the spot of light. He was evenly covered with short black fur – only his face and hands were bare, so he looked like a giant dressed in dark tights. Darwin suddenly felt small and weak. His shoulders were almost as broad, but he was a head shorter.

“And so,” he thought, gulping and standing firmly as the floor pitched beneath his feet, “It’s not a matter of brute force. Then what determines nature’s choice? Perhaps being fit to deal with the conditions of life? The ability to better use what the environment provides?”

He took a step toward the gorilla. Its small eyes, set deep in its skull, looked out from under arched eyebrows with caution, but without fear. Its mouth was like a disfiguring scar. Only its ears, one of which Darwin could see when the gorilla turned its head to look at the corpse of its predecessor, were completely human-like.

Seeing the dead body agitated the gorilla. The animal gave a low growl, like a dog, showing huge yellow fangs. He turned to look at Darwin, who couldn’t pause for even a second.

Darwin took two quick steps and used all his strength to leap off the floor and grab a cable coiled at the ceiling. His body swung forward like an enormous pendulum. When there was less than a yard between him and the gorilla, which stepped back in fear, he quickly pulled his legs up toward his belly and then kicked the wide impassive face with both heels. At the last moment the ape tried to lean back, but he wasn’t quick enough.

The blow was terrific. The gorilla recoiled, lost his balance and crashed heavily to the floor. The ape seemed to be stunned. It fell and lay motionless. Darwin lightly jumped down to the floor and walked up to it.

“So what is fitness?” he thought. “What determines if a being is ready for life in a particular environment? The ability to survive? But then it’s a vicious circle. Fitness determines the ability to survive, while the ability to survive determines fitness. No. I’ve lost the thread of logic…”

He pulled back his leg to strike, but at that very moment the gorilla opened his eyes and pushed off from the floor. His jaws clamped down on Darwin’s boot. Fortunately, Darwin was able to pull out his foot, but the beast’s teeth sunk into the heel, biting through the thick steel shank. Darwin pulled back and his foot slid out of the boot. With one jump the gorilla was on its feet. In a matter of seconds he bit and rent the boot into a formless mass of torn leather. Tossing it to the side, the ape strode towards the scientist, growled, and held its paws out. The wavy fur on its head stood on end.

“So,” Darwin thought, “Maybe the laws of nature are universal, but they manifest themselves in the lives of each species with varying intensity? That is, there is some sort of interaction of various patterns whose totality determines the result of natural selection?”

“Grrrrr,” he shouted.

The gorilla jumped back a step.

Darwin pulled a banana out of his pocket, wiggled it before the gorilla’s face and then tossed it towards the ceiling. The ape scratched his head as it threw its paws up trying to catch the banana, but at that moment Darwin swung his bare foot at the ape’s defenseless belly. The gorilla sobbed and bent over just as a powerful hook from the right hurled him back to the floor. The animal fell on his chest, and Darwin, not wasting time, tossed him on his back and grabbed his throat.

“The intellect,” he thought, squeezing his steel-like grip harder and harder, “or even a precursor to intellect – is a factor that can improve the chances in the battle for survival of a species that is less physically fit …”

But the battle for existence had just begun. The gorilla came to after being knocked to the floor, growled and tried to flip over onto his back. Darwin spread his legs wide to give himself better leverage and doubled his efforts. The gorilla burbled, and then pulled his enormous paw back. Darwin saw the wrinkled hand with leather webbing between the middle fingers fly by his face. And then it grabbed his ponytail. Darwin’s eyes dimmed with pain and he loosened his grip. The gorilla immediately used that to fling himself onto his side in one mighty jerk. Now Darwin had to use all his strength to hold him in place – if the ape turned just a little bit more he’d be totally defenseless before its ferocious teeth.

Darwin moaned and felt that he was about to lose consciousness. Something reddish flickered before his eyes, and then he suddenly saw clearly, like a colored engraving, a three-story house standing on a high river bank, overgrown with ivy nearly up to the roof – the house in Shrewsbury where he had spent his childhood. He saw his room filled with boxes of shells and bird’s eggs, and then he saw himself, when he was little, in a tight, uncomfortable frock coat, wandering along the sea shore at low tide, looking at the mollusks and fish carried in on the tide. Then he clearly saw the inspirational face of Professor Grant, his first teacher, talking about the larval forms of leaches and bryozoa, and then other faces slid by, seen only in portraits but strangely alive – Grandfather Erasmus, who died seven years before he was born; Carl Linnaeus; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; John Stephens (and he immediately recalled the note under the drawing of the rare beetle in his book on British insects ‘’captured by C. Darwin, Esq.”). All those faces looked at him hopefully, all waiting for him to find the strength in himself to win and continue the work he had begun, all sending him their help and support through the darkness of years and miles.

“I don’t have the right to die,” Darwin thought. “I still have not ascertained it all… I cannot die now.”

Using superhuman strength, he tensed all the muscle of his large body and twisted the hand clutching the ape’s neck under him. He heard the quiet snap of the neck. The gorilla went limp in his strong grip, but for a while Darwin could not release his hold and lay on top of the animal, waiting for his breath to return to normal.

“Yes,” he thought, “It’s not only intellect, but will, too. The will to live. I must calmly think all this over.”

He stood up, slowly walked over to the table, threw his frock coat on his shoulders and picked up the candlestick with its burning candle. His scratched chest was still bleeding, his leg hurt, and his strained neck ached – but Darwin was happy. He was a few steps closer to the truth, and its solemn light — still not bright but clearly visible — illuminated his soul. Darwin stepped over the dead gorilla, walked around the indecently splayed legs of the orangutan, and headed toward the exit.

When the hatch to the deck slammed open, Darwin was blinded by the sunlight. For some time he blinked rapidly, holding on to the handrail, until several deferential arms reached down to help him climb up to the deck.

Darwin covered his face with his hand. When his eyes became more accustomed to the light, he unglued his eyelids and saw the boundless bright blue surface of the ocean and the white checkmarks of birds flying over it. Off in the distance, over the low ship railing and through the sparse net of rigging, he saw the green shore of some unknown island as it dipped under the ship rail and then rose again.

“Sir Charles, are you all right?” the captain’s voice sounded by his ear.

“Don’t call me ‘Sir’,” Darwin muttered. “For God’s sake.”

“Believe me,” the captain said solemnly, “for me and the entire crew of the Beagle, it’s a great honor to accompany you on this trip.”

Darwin gave a weak wave of his hand. As if in confirmation of the captain’s words, a weapon right by him exploded and a white cloud of smoke rose up above the water. Darwin raised his eyes. The sailors stood in rank along the side of the ship – almost the entire crew. Dozens of eyes looked at him lovingly, and when the captain’s aide, who stood before the ranks in his dress uniform, waved his sword, “Hurrah!” boomed across the deck and sea.

“I asked you not to,” Darwin said. “Really – it makes me uncomfortable.”

“You are the pride of Britain,” the captain said. “Each of these men will tell their grandchildren about you.”

Darwin, embarrassed and dourly squinting at the line of sailors, walked along the deck. Next to him, trying to keep up, walked the captain, followed hurriedly by the boatswain in white gloves, holding a bucket with a chilled bottle of champagne. The humid wind, flinging open the sides of his frock coat, pleasantly cooled Darwin’s bare chest, and he felt his strength quickly returning.

“What are you thinking about?” the captain asked.

“I’m thinking… Oh, God, tell them to stop shouting.”

The captain made a hand gesture and the booming ‘hurrah’ fell silent.

“I’m thinking of my research,” Darwin replied drily.

“Sir Charles,” the captain said, “Believe that when I imagine the heights and depths that your fearless thoughts travel, I feel ill. I know that your ideas might be inaccessible to a simple officer of Her Majesty, but all the same I don’t consider myself a total ignoramus. I also studied at Oxford…”

With a quick gesture, the captain pulled up the sleeve of his frock coat and showed Darwin the tattoo: three blurry blue crowns and an open book with the familiar saying. Darwin’s expression softened.

“I studied at Cambridge,” he said, “but that’s not the point. I’m thinking about existence. To exist is wonderful, isn’t it? But only battle can make you feel that joy – the merciless, brutal battle for the right to breathe in the air, look at the sea and those seagulls. Do you understand what I mean?”

He raised his eyes to the captain. The captain thoughtfully nodded his head like someone who doesn’t yet understand the meaning of the words that flew at him but studiously remembers them so he can make sense of their meaning later, repeating them to himself many times in solitude. Their eyes met, and Darwin raised his arm to drop it on the captain’s shoulder. Suddenly the eyes of the captain seemed to drain of color – admiring attention switched to almost physical fear. Darwin smiled and dropped his arm. He had often sensed a wall separating him from other people, the busy inhabitants of everyday life, among whom it was so difficult to live when one belonged to eternity and history.

So as not to embarrass the captain, Darwin glanced over at the long rows of cages on the stern. Dozens of enormous apes stared out of their cages at him without emotion. Some held their front paws outside the wattle cages, some sat cross-legged like Turks on the floor, and others moved about languidly.

Thrusting his hand into his pocket, Darwin felt something wet and sticky. He pulled out a mushy banana. Several reddish-black bits of fur were stuck on to it. He tossed the banana overboard and turned to the captain.

“In a couple of hours, let in some new ones,” he said. “I think two more and then that’s it for today. But now…”

“Some champagne?” asked the captain, recovering.

“Thank you,” Darwin said. “Thank you, but I need to work. And to be honest, I have a terrible headache.”