Archive for KGB

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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Omon Ra is a short, melancholic story of disillusionment set in Soviet Russia. The protagonist and title character, Omon, starts as a stargazing boy who dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. The book follows him through his childhood and early career as he comes into closer contact with the deception and heartlessness which underlies the Soviet regime and poisons his ambitions.

Omon’s family life is almost nonexistent; he has a drunken father and an indifferent aunt. His one friend, Mitiok, also dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. Though Mitiok is more reckless than Omon, their shared dream creates a strong bond which continues as they attend the same flight school and become part of the same secret space program.

The setup is simple and familiar: a boy from a rural background who dreams of something bigger, something grander. Pelevin never truly transcends the obviousness of Omon’s character, but he partially redeems it through insightful, heartfelt prose and incisive satire.

Pelevin has a talent for depicting the greyness of Soviet life, the drab living conditions and lack of vivacity. Omon recounts one of his childhood memories:

I suddenly felt disgusted to think that I was sitting in this lousy little closet that smelt like a garbage dump, disgusted by the fact that I’d just drunk cheap port from a dirty glass, that the entire immense country in which I lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets where there was a smell of garbage and people had just been drinking cheap port, and most important of all—it was painful to think that these very same stinking little closets were the settings for those multi-colored arrays of lights that made me catch my breath in the evenings…

The mundanity of Omon’s childhood justifies his desire for escape, not from his hometown or from his country but from Earth itself. He thinks that true freedom can only be found in space, where he’ll be unbound from the restrictions and expectations of his country.

But his yearning is founded on romantic naiveté. Omon gets his first hint of what’s to come at a space camp, where his friend Mitiok disassembles a model spaceship to discover that there’s a door on the outside but not a matching one on the inside. This is a pivotal moment, though Omon might not realize it at the time. The flawed model broaches the possibility that space travel might be a restricting and not at all liberating experience.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that to the Soviet regime, cosmonauts are merely tools, sacrificial lambs offered up to the state’s glory. Some of them may be presented to the public as heroes worthy of veneration, heroes whom the public can live vicariously through. But when Omon finally reaches the realization of his dream, when the KGB offers him a role on a moon flight, he learns that it’s to be a suicide mission, and that his role up until his death is to consist of drudgery and enslavement.

There’s tragedy here; Omon cannot escape the dehumanization of Soviet society even in space. His dream is perverted, turned inside out so that his greatest desire becomes his downfall. His disillusionment isn’t with the Soviet state, which he never really liked, but with his ambition and the possibilities of space travel. Having defined himself based on his desire to become a cosmonaut, he slides into an identity crisis when his career betrays him.

Though Often heartbreaking, Omon Ra isn’t monotonic; there’s comedy in Omon’s mission. The idea behind it is that to impress the public, the Soviets need to send an unmanned rover to the moon. But they can’t send an unmanned rover, so they staff the space flight with cosmonauts never to be publically acknowledged, never to return to Earth. Omon’s role is to pilot the rover across the moon’s surface by riding a rigged bicycle.

The juxtaposition of the far-flung technological ambition of space flight with the crude mechanisms behind it is funny in that painful way characteristic of incisive satire. Pelevin is highly critical of the Soviet state, which is depicted as manipulative and aloof, spending time and money deceiving people instead of improving their living conditions.

One of Omon’s superiors, Urchagin, delivers a speech in which he says that in the service of a supreme truth, like Marxism, it’s okay to commit a series of untruths. It’s a rationalization which Omon doesn’t accept; he only agrees to the mission out of a sense of nihilistic fatalism and the knowledge that he doesn’t really have a choice.

Omon Ra casually refers to other deceptions committed by the Soviets; it’s implied that they never had any real atomic bombs. Pelevin isn’t making claims of real conspiracy; he’s using exaggeration to illustrate his nation’s tendency towards false grandiosity. He’s showing that the image of the state projected abroad and to its citizens is a lie. Beneath the real Soviet Union’s expansive nuclear program and cosmic ambitions is a society marked by oppression, inefficiency, and poverty.

Even during the book’s most absurd moments, it never loses its sense of humanity. Omon isn’t an original or detailed character, but his emotions are real. His initial hopes and his crushing disappointments ground the book in reality. The most effective satires mix exaggeration and comedy with an examination of how the object satirized affects people on a human level.

Pelevin probably wants Omon to be somewhat archetypal, to stand in for a Soviet populace unable to achieve its ambitions in a restrictive system, but his characterization still comes across as somewhat lazy. At some revelations, Pelevin should have probed more deeply into Omon’s psyche.

Omon Ra is successful in its portrayal of a morally bankrupt state and its tragic effect on the individual. It’s funny in its exaggerated depiction of Soviet absurdities and contradictions. Its philosophical reflections and poetic descriptions create a contemplative atmosphere which mixes surprisingly well with its fast paced story. The characterization, both of the protagonist and the secondary characters, could have been better, but Omon Ra’s positives outweigh its negatives.