OMON RA by Victor Pelevin

reviewed by Fin Keegan

AS RUSSIA SLIDES further into chaos and dissolution (what internal strife does not achieve sheer loss of heart and conscience seems likely to) and her miserable people wage war on their neighbours and themselves, there is little to give observers hope for the Russia of the third millenium, a nation whose glories, though usually tainted by expansionism and xenophobia, are now long past and well beyond repeating, even in benevolant forms. Russia’s population is falling, her regrets accumulating and, with persistant anti-semitism, a parlous economy and a sense of having been duped by History, she increasingly resembles inter-war Germany. One of the few things to cheer about is the rude health of her literature, since in Russia books are still important, though never approaching the state-sponsored print runs of bygone days or the intense devotion of samizdatliterature. And among young writers none is more accomplished or admired than Victor Pelevin, whose failure to win the Little Booker in 1999 was greeted with outrage by the Russian reading public.

Victor Pelevin


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For lovers of the Russian tradition in fiction Pelevin’ work bears welcome echoes of past glories. But satire is one thing: one picks up Omon Ra (1992, trans. 1994), expecting, such is the hoo-hah, to be entertained. And Pelevin, possessed of a prodigious imagination, delivers–though satirizing the lately deceased Communist Utopia is surely akin to shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. But what one is not prepared for is a satirist of such evident compassion, a faculty which makes Victor Pelevin indubiatibly Russian–for his literary countrymen, foreign policy notwithstanding, have always demonstrated soul, i.e. an emotional imagination all their own.
Omon Ra treats, not of Russia, but of the Soviet Union, that creaking hulk of empire that the Russian people, never ones to do anything by half, projected themselves onto, an ogre puffing about the globe in an overcoat twice as large as itself, its head stuffed with notions of world domination and the subjection of History itelf. The story is told through the eyes of Omon Krivomazov, a young Soviet obsessed with space exploration, a dream which leads him first to “Rocket Camp” and later, his willingness to sacrifice his life for the country declared to his superiors, onto a secret KGB space-training school. The boy’s progress along these ever-narrowing paths takes place in a phantasmagorical atmosphere of sinister goings-on and weird superiors, a mixture skilfully and hilariously administered by Pelevin. Gradually it becomes clear that the powers that be have chosen Omon solely for his stated willingness to die for the space program. This understood he is inculcated into the mysteries of rocketry in the Land of the Soviets: their remote lunar lander, or “moonwalker”, for example, conceals a cosmonaut peddling a bicycle and pulling levers to simulate the activites of onboard computers. Of course such a contraption has no way of returning from the moon once it is deposited there and so Omon slowly comes to term with the death sentence that his dream of freedom has been transformed into.

Pelevin’s bent is towards SF and so it is no surprise that he should be drawn towards the Soviet space program, an enterprise which turned out to have as much substance as the East German swimming team, and furnished the dying empire with its last citizen: a Mir cosmonaut who came back to earth to find his passport invalid and his party card making him a veritable outlaw.
Born in 1962, Pelevin has grown up in the successive phases of stagnation, perestroika, and the nerve-jangling dissolution of both the Eastern Bloc and the USSR itself; his adulthood to date has been bookended by the equally insane interventions in Afghanistan and Chechyna (as I write Moscow is pounding the Chechen nation, man, woman and child, back into the Stone Age, one of the old Union’s great southern cities looks like Hiroshima after the bomb, and young Russian conscripts stand accused of massacring civilians). David Edgar, writing in a recent London Review of Books remarked that “often when something petrifies, it [assumes] its most perfect form”. In the case of the pre-modern Comedy of Manners, he contends, that perfect form was reached in The Importance of Being Earnest; in the case of the Russian Sense of Humour that final expression may well be the work of Victor Pelevin.

Fin Keegan

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