Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

The straight face that Victor Pelevin wears at the start of Omon Ra—which begins like a coming-of-age novel about an impoverished Soviet boy who dreams, with his best friend Mitiok, of flying to the moon—quickly breaks into a maniacal grin. Enrolled at a military flight school, Omon and Mitiok are subjected to a lecture that satirizes Soviet bureaucracy, patriotism, and machismo all at once.

“At a recent closed session of the political instructors of the armed forces, the times we are living in were defined as a Pre-War Period!”

The colonel paused, waiting for a response, but clearly the audience hadn’t understood a thing—at least Mitiok and I hadn’t.

“Let me explain,” he went on, even more quietly. “The meeting was on July 15, right? So up until July 15 we were living in a Post-War Period, but since then—a whole month already—we’ve been living in a Pre-War Period. Is that clear or not?”

For a few seconds there was silence in the hall.

“I’m not saying this to scare you,” the lieutenant-colonel went on, in a normal voice now, “but we have to remember the responsibility we bear on our shoulders, don’t we? And make no mistake about it, by the time you get your diplomas and your ranks, you’ll be Real Men with a great big capital M, the kind that exist only in the land of the Soviets.”

The lieutenant-colonel sat down, straightened his tie, and touched the edge of a glass to his lips—his hands were shaking and I thought I could hear the faintest echo of his teeth rattling against the glass.

The story plunges into deeper realms of black humor and absurdity. Omon and Mitiok are spirited away to a secret KGB school for cosmonauts that is buried underground, beneath Moscow’s Red Square. As they advance through the program they descend deeper into the earth, farther away from their celestial destination. Their final exam is a traditional Russian folk dance that each cadet must perform alone, flawlessly. And then Pelevin springs his central conceit. Since it’s difficult to build a rocket that can be operated remotely, and even more difficult to return a rocket to earth, the USSR is launching “unmanned” rockets that are, in fact, manned by suicidal cosmonauts who never come home. Omon and Mitiok are being trained to fly to the moon and die there.

Although critics compare him lazily to Nabokov, what’s best about Pelevin is all the ways he differs from the grave Russian novelists of renown. He writes lightly, agilely, never wallowing in his art. The cosmonauts, KGB agents, werewolves, shapeshifters, and femme fatales who populate his fiction are thrilling to behold, like the stars of an action-movie franchise. But the very forces that allow them to exist—Russian culture, corrupt politics, human foolishness—are the targets of Pelevin’s satire. Pelevin has his cake and eats it, too. In Omon Ra he sends Henry Kissinger on a bear hunt in the Siberian woods—for diplomatic purposes—and shows him gleefully stabbing his prey to death, even though Kissinger knows the “bear” is a Russian peasant in a bear costume, hired to enliven the occasion. It’s sick, bleak, and cathartically hilarious.

Toward the end Omon Ra freefalls into a plot twist so cynical it would make Nixon blush. But Pelevin sees things differently. The most wicked Russian writer since Gogol, he’s anything but a misanthrope. Even in the dark pit of his comedy he finds a reason to be optimistic about humanity, suggesting that we can be more honest by being more absurd. In what is both a vicious barb and a sincere plea, Omon Ra is dedicated to “the Heroes of the Soviet Cosmos.”

– Brian Hurley

Omon Ra is translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

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