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Victor Pelevin: Омон Ра (Omon Ra)

Omon Krivomazov has been wittily named by his father, as Omon is the name of a special police squad. His brother has an even worse name – Ovir, named after the Soviet office that dealt with exit visas. This appears to be something of a running joke because, later on, we will met a character whose name is the acronym of Party Committee for Agriculture of the Dzerzhinsky Region. Omon’s mother died when he was young and Ovir when he was a child. He was brought up by a less than enthusiastic aunt, only seeing his father at weekends, a father who gradually slipped into alcoholism. Ever since he was young when he had played on a playground model plane, he had wanted first to be a pilot and then a cosmonaut. The later dream came about when he saw a huge mosaic of a cosmonaut. He became friends with Mityok, whose ambition was to fly to the moon. The two boys were sent off to a rocket camp, which only consolidated their desire.

Both boys applied to the Maresyev Academy at Zaraisk. They went together to the Academy and successfully passed their exams. Both were admitted to the cosmonaut programme. After a brief hazing ceremony (they were strapped to their beds and wheeled around in them), they then found out what this implied. Maresyev, after whom the Academy was named, was a Soviet hero. He had been shot down by the Germans and managed to crawl eighteen days to get back to Soviet lines. Both his legs had to be amputated below the knee. Despite this, he had prosthetic legs fitted and resumed his career as a pilot, attacking the Germans. The first thing the boys discover is that it is a tradition to amputate the feet of cadets to show Soviet heroism. The Soviets were keen on getting to the Moon as the US had already landed there. The proposal was to send an unmanned spaceship to the far side of the Moon (the Americans operated on the near side) and have an unmanned lunar rover drive along the Lenin fault to explore it. The only problem was that Soviet technology was not advanced enough to send a rocket to the moon, to operate an unmanned rover and to return a man from the moon. As a result, each stage of the rocket was operated by a man (who would then die) and the rover would be operated by a man, who had no way of returning to Earth. When Omon and Mityok are told of this, they are less than enthusiastic. Indeed, Omon tries to withdraw but that is not an option.

So the two go through the training which is, at best, crude. The officer teaching Omon about the science of the Moon spends his time reciting poetry about the Moon, taking famous Russian poems and replacing key references with references to the Moon. Other training is equally irrelevant. Omon, while reading an encyclopedia of atheism, reads about the Egyptian God, Ra, and decides to add that name to his. The training centre seems to be under Red Square – there is a Russian legend (which may be true) that under the Red Square there is a labyrinth of tunnels and other facilities – and, indeed, towards the end, they are taken up to the Square at night, when it is deserted. Pelevin manages to throw in a few humorous episodes, including one involving Henry Kissinger and a bear!

When the time comes, the lack of sophistication becomes apparent. The pod Omon has to use, which contains his rover, has some Chinese canned food and a can opener. He has no oxygen, but he does have a warm coat (no space suit), a fur hat and cotton tampons to stuff in his ears. Of course, he also has a gun to kill himself. During the flight he keeps in touch by radio not only with the mission control and his fellow crew members but they also get piped in the standard Soviet entertainment programme. Finally, there are just Omon and one other crew member. They talk about Pink Floyd.

Obviously, this book is a fairly straightforward satire on all things Soviet, particularly aimed at the Soviet space programme, which Pelevin shows to be way behind the US space programme. and managed in a thoroughly amateur manner but one which the Soviets feel has to succeed or, at least be seen to succeed, to keep up with the US. It is certainly witty and an enjoyable tale, and adds to the many satires on the Soviet system which, after all, is a fairly easy target.

First published 1992 by Tekst
First published 1996 in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux