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Everyone's gone to the moon
on 1 April 2011
Victor Pelevin's "Omon Ra", written in 1994, tracks the career path of Omon Krivomazov from his childhood as a stargazing child who wants nothing more than to fly in space, through his acceptance into the Soviet space program, his training as a cosmonaut where he is selected to be a standard-bearer of Soviet science and exploration. Omon Ra (as he comes to be called) is chosen to be the first Cosmonaut to be sent to the moon. But the devil is in the details and Omon quickly finds that life and his travel plans are not quite what he may have expected when he joined the space program.
A lot of the pleasure from Omon Ra was from the twists and turns of the plot and the various revelations along the way and it would do harm to reveal more than the bare bones of Omon Ra's journey to the moon. Suffice it to say - the bare outline mentioned about does no justice to a book that is brilliantly subversive, funny, and thoughtful.
I think the most memorable aspect of Omon Ra for me is Pelevin's style. I know that many people, when they think of Russian and Soviet literature think of dark foreboding where despair is the norm and where ones existence is set out in great detail in dense tortured prose whose many threads require all one's concentration to untangle. Pelevin is having none of that and in fact his writing style is fluid, easy to follow and most of all, humorous. To that extent he is more similar to Vladimir Voinovich than to any other Russian/Soviet writer I can think off.
Pelevin's satire and his prose style is what make him, like Voinovich, so subversive. His story does not bang the reader over the head with a hammer (or sickle) to rail against the empty promises and fake myth-building upon which his nation is built. No need for that when making the reader laugh at the lunacy that passes for science and governance. Pelevin is more Swift or Twain than Zola or Dos Passos.
Some may see this book as a parable limited in its application to the USSR. There's certainly something to be said for that idea. The book is, after all, written by a Russian about life in the USSR. I think people reading Omon Ra will come away chuckling at the absurdities of life in a now-extinct regime. However, I think they may also come away thinking that behind the myths any nation creates for itself there may lie an Oz-like man or group screaming "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." More often than not - where there is smoke there is also mirrors.
Omon Ra was a pleasure to read. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig