Review: Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

“…but since I realised that peace and freedom were unattainable on earth, my spirit aspired aloft, and everything that my chosen path required ceased to conflict with my conscience, because my conscience was calling me out into space, and was not much interested in what was happening on earth.”
~Victor Pelevin, Omon Ra

Plot summary

“Victor Pelevin’s novel Omon Ra has been widely praised for its poetry and its wickedness, a novel in line with the great works of Gogol and Bulgakov: ‘full of the ridiculous and the sublime,’ says The Observer [London].

Omon is chosen to be trained in the Soviet space program the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. However, he enrolls only to encounter the terrifying absurdity of Soviet protocol and its backward technology: a bicycle-powered moonwalker; the outrageous Colonel Urgachin (‘a kind of Sovier [sic!] Dr. Strangelove’—The New York Times); and a one-way assignment to the moon. The New Yorker proclaimed: ‘Omon’s adventure is like a rocket firing off its various stages—each incident is more jolting and propulsively absurd than the one before.’” More on Goodreads

On Victor Pelevin

“Victor Olegovich Pelevin is a Russian fiction writer. His books usually carry the outward conventions of the science fiction genre, but are used to construct involved, multi-layered postmodernist texts, fusing together elements of pop culture and esoteric philosophies. Some critics relate his prose to the New Sincerity and New Realism literary movements.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Absurd measures to reach the Moon
  • Systemic satire
  • Individual’s adventures in a space program

Victor Pelevin is a recent acquaintance of mine, but a very pleasant surprise. I have been reading lots of Russian and Soviet literature in the past few years, and Omon Ra (Омон Ра) was among the gems of novels read in 2016.

Mir control panel. Foreground is an "egg timer" used to time burns in the earlier days of the Soviet space program. Photo: Bruce La Fetra (CC BY 2.0)
Mir control panel. Foreground is an “egg timer” used to time burns in the earlier days of the Soviet space program. Photo: Bruce La Fetra (CC BY 2.0)

Pelevin writes peculiar books: The Life of Insects and The Helmet of Horror left the reader in a puzzled state with more questions than what the books were able to answer, but Pelevin‘s charm is in the unique approach to literature. Omon Ra is such a hilariously absurd tale of the Soviet space program that one cannot but laugh and enjoy the ride.

Omon Ra is also a tale of one young man’s efforts to find meaning in life and make something out of himself. Somehow the novel reminds me of A Ticket to the Stars (1961) by Vasily Aksyonov, a coming-of-age tale portraying two brothers. Both novels treat the characters with tenderness – youth is a phase of life that needs time for each and everyone to come to terms with the surrounding reality and circumstances.

There is innocence of youth in the portrayal of the main protagonist, the Moscow-born Omon Krivomazov, who dreams of becoming a cosmonaut when he grows up. When he does come of age, he enters the training program for future cosmonauts but he doesn’t really know what he’s buying into. It is precisely at this point that things take a turn for the absurd.

One of the most peculiar scenes in the novel is when Henry A. Kissinger goes bear-hunting with Leonid I. Brezhnev. Wait and see, you have no idea what’s coming up in that scene. I could almost bet that you did not anticipate the scope and length of what is happening in that particular scene 🙂 At least I could not stop laughing or crying at the same time.

“Satire, like caricature, works by deforming a world and through that deformation producing a shock of recognition. Mr. Pelevin in this sense does not so much ridicule Soviet life as expose its chief characteristics via a ruthless lampooning of the Soviet Union’s proudest accomplishment, its space program. At times, Mr. Pelevin, despite his satirical intent, is swept into something close to rhapsody by the very grandeur of his subject.” (Bernstein 1996)

I’ve been recommending Omon Ra to so many, now I just wish I’d hear back from all those people and find out what they thought about the novel. So don’t be a stranger and speak up!

And additionally, recommend your favorite Russian/Soviet classics/satires, I look forward to hearing back from you. Take care!

More information
– Richard Bernstein: For Soviet Space Efforts, a Satirist’s Send-Down, published in The New York Times on 12 June 1996, link retrieved on 10 December 2016
– Tom Ferrell: The Moon Is Red, published in The New York Times on 30 June 1996, link retrieved on 10 December 2016
– Brian Hurley: Review on Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, published in the Fiction Advocate on 1 July 2012, link retrieved on 10 December 2016
– Leo Kropywiansky: Victor Pelevin, published in BOMB — Artists in Conversation, Spring 2002 edition, link retrieved on 10 December 2016
– Interview with Viktor Pelevin: ‘I never was a hero’, published in the Guardian on 30 April 2000, link retrieved on 2 January 2017

Other novels and stories by Pelevin
  • The Blue Lantern: And Other Stories (1991)
  • The Life of Insects (1993)
  • Buddha’s Little Finger (1996)
  • A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia: And Other Stories (1998)
  • The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (2004)
  • The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (2005)
  • The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (2011)
  • S. N. U. F. F. (2011)

“No one’s ever ready to be a hero—there’s no way to prepare for it. Of course, you can practise till you’re really good at running up to the gunport and have the knack of falling neatly across it on your chest—we teach all of that. But you can’t teach anyone the actual inner act of heroism, it can only be performed. The more you wanted to live before, the better for the act of heroic sacrifice.”
~Victor Pelevin, Omon Ra


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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