Lindsay's Reviews > The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur

The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin
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Dec 29, 08

bookshelves: fiction, myths-and-legends, russian, 2007, cyberpunk, absurdism-surrealism, read-for-fun, read-postcollege, really-quick-reads, stories-about-other-stories
Recommended for: geeks
Read in December, 2008, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** In the myth of Theseus, the king of Crete, Minos, commands his captive invetor, Daedalus, to build a maze so intricate that nobody could escape from it without help. In this maze he places the Minotaur, a man-bull hybrid who eats people. (The minotaur is also, I think, the king's wife's son. By a bull. Yep, we're definitely in a Greek myth here). Every year, Minos demands tribute from lesser kings (Theseus's father Aegeus among them) in the form of a shipload of treasure and seven youths and seven maidens, chosen by lot, to go into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur. One year, Theseus volunteers to take the place of one of the youths, meets Minos's daughter Ariadne, who falls in love with him and agrees to help him by giving him a ball of string he can use to thread his way through the maze. He succeeds in killing the Minotaur and escaping the maze, but his father believes he has died and kills himself even as Theseus is on his way back.

Very few of these details are conserved in Victor Pelevin's hilarious, thought-provoking and ultimately baffling retelling of the story. We meet eight characters: Ariadne, and seven pseudonymous strangers who find themselves in different hotel rooms sitting at computers. They are all confused as to where they are and how they got there, and find their chat (over some kind of in-house intranet) is being filtered to prevent the exchange of concrete, real-world facts (names, places of origin, addresses, etc.) and also swear words. The form of the novel is the online dialogue between these eight characters, replying to the single message posted on the sole online forum they can access (as I mentioned, they're not on the Internet, but an intranet): I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with anyone who tries to find me - who said this and about what?

Ariadne, who posted the message, acts as a sort of guide through the "labyrinth" that seems to be both physical (the hotel) and psychological. The characters explore their literal and figurative environments in different ways: a know-it-all type named "Monstradamus" uses his academic knowledge to parse the hidden symbolic and etymological meanings of the few clues that are present; "Romeo" and "Isolde" jointly decide to leave their rooms and try to find each other, periodically reporting to the group what they find; "Nutscracker" uses his background as a computer programmer to try to understand what he comes to believe is the virtual reality they've entered; "Sartrik" gets drunk and disparages everyone else's suggestions; Ariadne, who seems to be a lucid dreamer, dreams about meeting a dwarf who explains the labyrinth and the Minotaur to her; and "UGLI 666" sees religious symbolism in everything around her, and decides that her imprisonment is a penance for her sins, which she must endure before finally meeting God.

Nobody gets very far in their attempt to make sense of the maze and identify Theseus and the Minotaur. (Monstradamus, interestingly enough, is named as both). Ariadne dreams of a "helmet of horror," which her diminutive guide tells her represents the Minotaur's mind: a machine that generates past, present and future from the immediate past. (The "stream of impressions", which come from both outside the helmet of horror and within its "horns of plenty", is diffracted through the "separator labyrinth" and changed into "bubbles of hope," which are enriched by memories stored in the horns of plenty --- Monstradamus is the first to discover that this process does not actually transform anything, since the stream of impressions and the contents of the horns of plenty are all memories --- past --- so logically nothing would seem able to enter the helmet of horror at all). Much time is spent discussing and speculating on the nature of the helmet of horror, and the implication of Ariadne's dream that they are all trapped inside a virtual reality, perhaps all wearing helmets of horror that filter and shape their perceptions.

I did not really understand the ending, except in the most abstract sense. What happens is that each character hears a loud knocking on their doors, and the doors are broken down and a stranger enters their rooms, his speech appearing on their screens under the name of "Theseus." He believes them all to be minotaurs, and they all shout "MOO!" at him. (Several times near the end, the characters all speak a nonsensical phrase in unison; it seemed to me like something was taking possession of them all when it happened, since it did not flow out of their conversation and clearly perturbed them). My understanding, at the end, was that the story started over again, with the characters now assigning themselves the role of Minotaurs (as opposed to Athenian youths and maidens). Thus the story is not a story, but a single arc of a(n endlessly recursive) circle.

Other reviewers have said that this book is not worth the effort it takes to understand what the heck is going on in it. I don't agree --- for all its inscrutability, the story reads amazingly quickly. (I finished it in maybe two or three hours). It reads quickly, the ideas flow well enough, and the dialogue (except for the occasional trippy descriptive passage --- lay off the acid, okay Ariadne? --- or random outburst) is laugh-out-loud funny.

Pelevin's introduction, "Mythcellaneous," a discussion of what myth is, and of the modern mythology of progress (in a self-consciously nonlinear narrative; I C wut u did there, Pelevin!) is also worth reading; it's lucid, interesting and witty in a more subdued way than the wacky, sometimes-profane dialogue.

Skip it if you hate authors who play tricks on their readers and characters; if you like a challenge, or even don't mind one, check it out. It's like "Neuromancer" meets "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
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Tiia Porkka I love this book. In my understanding, (nearly?) all of Pelevin's works are satires about the USSR. Which would make this one a lot more heartbreaking.


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