Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fly Me to the Moon (Please?): Pelevin’s Omon Ra

Saying that Omon Ra is my favorite Viktor Pelevin novel isn’t exactly the start of a rave review—I’ve never been a Pelevin fan—but I enjoyed Omon Ra enough that I’m not being snarky or damning with faint praise. Omon Ra, a book about one man’s experience with the space program, didn’t convert me into a Pelevin devotee but it did hold my interest for 190 pages of large print. And it did give me a few good laughs. Even better, Omon Ra’s structure is linear and simple, and it lacks the wacky implosions of books like Home Zapiens and Numbers.

Omon Ra chronicles the space adventures of its title character, one Omon Krivomazov, whose policeman father names him for the special forces unit of Russian law and order; Omon’s older brother (deceased from meningitis) was named Ovir, after the group that keeps track of visas and residency registrations. Omon, however, dreams of the freedom of outer space instead of earthly controls: as a child, he lives near the Kosmos movie theater and enjoys films about pilots. He even pretends to be one in the play cottage outside his building, and he makes friends with another boy who wants to fly.

Omon’s glorification of the space program has an almost spiritual feel to it: Omon thinks weightlessness must be the only true freedom and he sees no peace and freedom on earth. Meaning Omon and his friend go to flight school, where (of course!) propaganda and the religion of politics become important aspects of their lives and mission. A lieutenant-colonel speaks to the new cadets, telling them, in Andrew Bromfield’s translation, “…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 Soviets.” Lenin appears, too, with two “major works on the moon—‘The Moon and Rebellion’ and ‘Advice from an Outsider’.”

Truth is stranger than fiction: 1970 Soviet lunar rover.
Since we’re in the land of Lenin and Soviets—as depicted by Pelevin, who loves to twist what’s already far, far askew—the space program isn’t quite what we might expect. ***Unless we already know the book’s secret! I will now commence including details that might spoil Omon Ra’s plot… That said, I knew the book’s secret but didn’t feel especially sorry I did.*** When Omon and several others begin their training for a moon mission, they’re stationed in an underground compound and told they’ll make the ultimate sacrifice. Just as odd: Omon’s lunar rover is a low-tech piece of equipment with a bicycle frame and “spy-hole lenses” that “distorted everything so badly there was no way I could tell what was outside the thin steel wall of the hull.”

The fact that Omon lives to tell his story means something goes wrong—well, right—and Omon, the guy whose lunar rover isn’t so different from the bike he rode as a kid, doesn’t make it to the moon. But that doesn’t mean he’s cheated out on a journey: he still has a flight of sorts, complete with a supply of тушёнка (canned meat) and radio conversations with his flight colleagues, who apparently die in the early stages of the expedition.

The reason Omon Ra worked for me is that Pelevin manages to combine risky satirical material—shooting down the space program as a propagandistic fake that keeps people underground, in the dark, away from that weightless freedom—with the solid structure I mentioned earlier. Even if some of the book’s motifs, such as certain central Moscow locations, felt a little heavy-handed, Pelevin shows decent self-control with his material, even as he draws in the Tunguska event—how could it not get a mention?—and fake hunting trips for VIPs. And, yes, even Pink Floyd.

Level for Non-Native Speakers of Russian: 2.0 or 2.5/5. The language in Omon Ra wasn’t as difficult as the inherent absurdities and oddities, some of which felt a little inconsistent.

Up Next: That list of translations, which I will have to finish for next week: yesterday I started Dmitrii Bykov’s Ostromov, a big, long book with small print that will take weeks. It hooks in nicely with some of my other Petersburg reading. (Bely’s Petersburg has been set aside, at least for the duration of the semester… it just doesn’t mix with the rather hurried pace of life right now…)

Disclosures: I always enjoy speaking with translator Andrew Bromfield and publisher New Directions.

Photo credit: NASA via Wikipedia. This photo looked eerily similar to what I imagined as I read Omon Ra.


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