Russians in the Snow: Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield, Faber, 1996 (original version first published in 1992)

This is my first acquaintance with Victor Pelevin, but I will certainly be reading more by him. From all I hear, he seems to be a somewhat enigmatic character, a writer who stays firmly out of the limelight, yet has won numerous literary prizes for his esoteric, multi-layered work, which nevertheless often mimics genre fiction. He has translated Castaneda’s work and has admitted to a fascination with Buddhism, travelling often to China, Japan and Nepal, but he is not a self-publicising hipster.

He appears to live according to his beliefs and has made much of his older work freely available on the internet. He is incredibly prolific, publishing a book a year on average (maybe because he shuns interviews and public appearances). Under the mantle of science-fiction or fantasy, he is often highly critical and political – not just of the Soviet system, but perhaps of any ideological construct, which he perceives as an illusion, a sop to the masses. He is often compared to Bulgakov, but I detect a much greater similarity (at least in this novel) to the Strugatsky Brothers.

What I find most revealing in the scant biographical detail available about him is that he studied mechanical engineering, which might explain the link to his main protagonist Omon in his debut novel Omon Ra. The young man has always dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut, one of the ultimate aspirations for a boy growing up under the Soviet system, with Yuri Gagarin constantly being presented as a role model. A poor provincial boy, with an indifferent, practically non-existent family, the dream of space travel provides an escape from the drabness of everyday Soviet existence.

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 the entire immense country in which I lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets… and most important of all – it was painful to think that these very same stinking little closets were the settings for those multi-coloured arrays of lights that made me catch my breath in the evenings when I happened to look out of some window set high above the twilit capital. And it all seemed particularly painful in comparison with the beautiful American flying machine in the magazine.

He befriends Mitiok, another ‘outsider’ at his school, who has the same dream as him, and they both join the gruelling training regime of the space cadet academy in Zaraisk. And this is where the disillusionment starts.

The character seems predestined to be made a fool of, with a name like Omon Krivomazov (a pun: Omon is an acronym for a branch of the secret police service, the surname bears similarities to Karamazov, which means ‘black face’, and krivo and maz are Russian words for ‘crooked/wrong’ and ‘unguent/smear’). Sure enough, Omon and Mitiok soon discover that the Soviet space programme is based on lies and deceit, that the cosmonauts are simply disposable and interchangeable tools for the glorification of the Soviet empire, to cover up the lack of advanced computing or technological power.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the narrator digs into layer after layer of deception, some of it hilariously farcical, yet with an undercurrent of tragedy too. There are some utterly surreal moments, not all of them related to space flight. The scene of Henry Kissinger going to hunt bears (although the hunting of wild animals was forbidden by law) is unforgettable. Absurd (and untrue) though that story is, it is very close to a lot of the patently obvious and ridiculous deceptions that happen all over the world in the attempt to appease political tyrants.

I don’t think it would be too much of a reach to say that this novel is also very much about the collapse of certainties, the disappearance of a society that – flawed though it was – provided some sort of values that people could cling to. You long for freedom all your life, and then when freedom comes, it proves to be too much of an unruly beast. You start craving the rules and order you knew before, some commonly accepted values system.

… all my life I’ve been journeying towards the moment when I would soar up over the crowds of what the slogans called the workers and the peasants, the soldiers and the intelligentsia, and now here I am hanging in brilliant blackness on the invisible threads of fate and trajectory – and now I see that becoming a heavenly body is not much different from serving a life sentence in a prison carriage that travels round and round a circular railway line without ever stopping.

A short but powerful novel, which is both a satire of the Soviet society, but also reveals the anxieties and fears of the 1990s in the newly ‘free’ Russian society.