(this review gives away plot, so you might want to postpone reading it, if you want to read the book first)
“Omon Ra” is my first read by a Russian writer Viktor Pelevin, and saying that I’m already a huge fan is an understatement.
The book caught me by surprise and deeply disturbed me. I was trying to pinpoint the exact feeling it stirred, and what came to my mind were two movies I’d seen: “The Skin I Live in” by Almodovar and “Dogville” by Von Trier. “Omon Ra” caused a similar shiver to run through me. It talks about an inhuman way of penetrating a person’s most private individual self, usurping one’s thoughts and body, appropriating one’s life completely, and disguising the entire endeavor as a patriotic, heroic deed. As we’ve learned time and again from other works of art, there’s always one thing no one can usurp: our imagination.
Omon Krivomazov comes from a dysfunctional family: a mother who died when he was young and a drunkard father. Throughout the story he has flashbacks to his childhood and most of them show his early desires and fantasizing about becoming an astronaut. He spent his whole childhood obsessed with planes, rockets, pilots, flying and – the Moon. He befriends a boy, Michok, who shares the same passion and both of them start attending summer flying camps.
One summer something happens in one such camp that, thinking about it later, makes Omon feel like it “planted a seed” for everything that will happen to him later. He and his friend Michok steal a small model of a rocket pilot from the dining room, and the school principal punishes them by making them crawl over the whole hallway with a pilot hat on, that gets foggy from their sweat and tears. The experience is very degrading, painful and casts a shadow over their mystified ideas about becoming pilots.
Several years later Omon and Michok apply to a flying school, but not even a week goes by and they witness a disturbing sight: they wake up in a room full of other school candidates moaning, tied to their beds, with suspicious red marks on their bed covers where their feet (are? were?) supposed to be. Only Michok and Omon, who passed the exams with flying colors, better than all other candidates, seem to be feeling no pain. They are told that they are the best candidates of the bunch, and are immediately sent to the main Soviet rocket center, to be prepared for something that will make a tremendous change for the world, and especially their motherland. They are getting ready for: a heroic deed. However, the story assumes a surprising tone and direction once the boys realize that the heroic deed involves their death. They are to sacrifice their young lives to a lie that would show the world a greater truth: that the Soviet Union is number one in the sky and beyond, beating their American rivals.
We get a glimpse of what it’s like participating in media wars from the point of view of a naive and idealistic scapegoat. What Omon is supposed to achieve in his heroic deed is to fly to the Moon in an “automatic vehicle”, as his military superiors keep repeating with pride, plant a small radio connected to a Russian flag that would send radio waves to space: USSR, Lenin and peace, and then shoot himself with a gun with one bullet. That way the whole world would see how Russians don’t sacrifice the lives of their people, but design advanced automatic Lunokhods that can plant radios and do all these things automatically. The first time Omon spots the “Lunokhod”, with many antennas, cables, and what-not’s sticking from it, he realizes that nothing attached to the Lunokhod actually functions and “was needed only for the purposes of television, but it created a very powerful impression.”
One of the probably most bizarre moments in the book is a retelling of a story of one notable Russian “soldier” who was known for having a very important role in the military. Since all high officials loved to hunt, but hunting was forbidden due to one official having been killed in a hunt, they appointed this particular soldier to wear an armor and a bear’s skin, and run around in front of the respectable huntsmen, for their recreation. He was shot and hurt many times in areas that were not covered by his armor, but he persisted in healing quickly and returning to his special post, because he was serving his country loyally.
The book strips (Russian) humanity of its humanity and shows the lengths to which “officials”, “presidents”, “the military” – all of those people in charge of us – will go to in order to carry out their special agendas.
Omon Ra is a very special character because of his inner world that’s still pure and idealistic, like a child’s. One of the evil lieutenants had told him that they only needed one pure idealist in order to accomplish their mission and set the world free. Perhaps that is true. At least one pure soul… But in the course of preparing that pure soul for the mission they had in mind, it’s impossible not to defile it.
There’s one sentence in the book that maybe best describes the feelings it evokes: “… the sky perhaps still didn’t realize that it will be soon penetrated by a Soviet rocket’s iron phallus.”