contemporary russian lit

Thoughts on Omon Ra

I’ve been on a bit of a Pelevin binge lately. P.— Library expanded its Russian literature shelves, finally making Helmet of Horror, Generation P, Buddha’s Little Finger and others available in both the original Russian and English translation. To commemorate this marvellous  occasion, I went back and reread some of my favorite Victor Pelevin novels. Last week I read The Life of Insects, and this week it’s Omon Ra.

Pelevin combines withering post-Soviet cynicism with humor and a mysticism that – almost uniquely – is never gratuitous or smug. Where Kakfa drapes the sinister in intellectual pomp and circumstance, Pelevin unpredictably shocks you again and again, even as his characters clown and bicker for your pleasure in the shadow of the paranoid Soviet state. But despite the nihilism, an inexplicable redemption seems possible in Pelevin’s work; his characters often escape doom at the end and wander off stunned into a new world without any idea of where they’re going to go. I’ll stop short of saying that it’s “a deep expression of the situation in contemporary Russia” as others suggest, but I will say that I find it immensely appealing.

Omon Ra is the story of a boy who grows up always wanting to fly and, as the saying goes, should have been more careful what he wished for: he and a friend are accepted as cosmonauts in what turns out to be an outlandish, buffoonish, hilarious, nightmarish version of the Soviet space program. The training program is shocking (to both protagonist Omon and the reader), and Omon’s trip to the moon, and its aftermath, are unforgettable.

The imagery here is brilliant. From Omon’s father lying drunk on a couch under a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; to the use of an unsteerable, virtually blinded bicycle-powered moon rover as a metaphor for existence, Pelevin scores mental TKO’s from the first pages to the last. From the absurdity of preparing for walking into a lunar vacuum by stuffing lubricated tampons into one’s ears and nostrils; to the haunting image of humans as stars that twinkle in empty space, seen by each other, but separated by unbridgeable interstellar distances, Pelevin never lets the reader quite recover equilibrium. The first page is intriguing. The last paragraph of Omon Ra may be one of the most precise literary expression of existentialism ever written.

Now that I’ve gushed said all that, I’m off to read Шлем ужаса.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. Pub. 1998 by New Directions. Paperback, 154 pages. ISBN13: 9780811213646

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Omon Ra

  1. Brilliant. I just want to give an advice: many foreign readers of Pelevin are tempted to regard his works as a grotesque mirror of contemporary Russia. Please, don’t do that. This idea will lead you nowhere. In my opinion his message is more universal. I regard him as an astute critic of post-modernism. However as most crtics he doesn’t provide ready-made solutions. It’s up to you to find your own way out of this maze.

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    • Perhaps I should’ve clarified:
      I’ll stop short of saying that it’s “a deep expression of the situation in contemporary Russia” as others suggest, but I will say that I find it immensely appealing.
      I meant for “It” in the second part of that sentence to refer to Pelevin’s overall style, not the idea that Pelevin’s writing was a grotesque mirror of modern Russia. I hated when Kashin tried to do it. I hate it when other reviewers and commentators say that about Pelevin or other contemporary Russian writers. I just hate the meme. I agree with what you’re saying (most of the Pelevin novels I’ve read could be exported to any non-Russia setting and still be just as thought-provoking), but my grammar was a bit muddled in that particular sentence.

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