33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug

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The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

4 Responses to “33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin”

  1. Grab the Lapels August 23, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

    I’m so glad that the #20BooksofSummer challenge got you to read all these books you keep passing over that you bought with great interest. This summer I tried to clear out my ARCs and the Anne series (which is getting to be tiresome at times). 20 books over the summer is a LOT if you have any longer books, but I think 10 books per season could be doable. It helps to have dates established, though, so you don’t catch yourself going into a reading slump. Pick a list, choose some dates (even the published calendar dates for the seasons), stick with them–that seems to be the ticket! Are you going to finish all 10 books by Sept. 5?

    • An Anthology of Clouds August 23, 2016 at 8:20 pm #

      Thanks! The Twitter correction is all thanks to you.

      I am not going to get all 10 read by Sept 5 because I’m traveling in Europe till Sept 4 and I foolishly didn’t bring the last two books with me. I’m also about to run out of books and I am in such an obscure Bulgarian beach town that there is no English book store. But I’ll finish the challenge in the first few weeks of Sept, for sure.

      I really can’t wait for you to be done with Green Gables and move on to the lesbian gym teacher. I had forgotten about how Gilbert was so glad Anne wasn’t fat, and how depressed that made me as a weight-obsessed pre-teen reader. BLAH.

      I think I will try again for “20 Books of Fall” with another random chunk of my bookshelf. 20 will probably be too many, but I read a lot, and pretty fast…..

      • Grab the Lapels August 23, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

        Fluke is the last book on my list. My husband read it recently and laughed constantly. I have enjoyed other Christopher Moore books, so I’ll looking forward to it. I actually read and reviewed the lesbian gym teacher book ages ago, but I’m saving the review. My husband and I choose a book from which I read aloud each night, and we finished Bobby Blanchard. There are two more lesbian career girl books! :D

  2. Grab the Lapels August 23, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    Also, I just clicked the share via Twitter button, and you’ve got it all squared away with the correct Twitter account! Nice job!

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