Out of Russia, a sad, joyful, post-soviet exploration on 'Who am I?'


The Russians are writhing around in real democracy these days, for the first time in all their history. Messy business, that. Messier even than getting out of the colonizing trade, which the naughty old Soviet Union did with zeal and rapaciousness unmatched by the Conquistadors and the English combined, and from which Russia now has almost (don't cry for me, Chechnya) managed to extricate itself.

So evidence pours in that there is a New Russia. Or, if not evidence, at least indications that a fresh national culture can rise from the shards of the steel shackles and straitjackets of centuries of czarist tyranny and socialist totalitarianism.

A major precursor of any new culture must be literature.

Now comes a novel that I take to be a significant element of just that phenomenon. A delight and an assault on the senses, it's a wellspring of hope and a storm cloud of caution. Hope for the indomitability of the human spirit; caution that the damage left by infinite abuses may have permanently crippled the capacity to put that hope to work. It's a beautiful piece of work: deeply sad, sweetly joyful, riotously funny.

The book is "Omon Ra" by Victor Pelevin (Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 154 pages. $21.). Brief, lean, disciplined, it is the story from childhood till professional fulfillment of a Soviet boy and man.

Omon Ra is the central character's name. His father, a habitually drunk and pathetically ambitious police officer, named him Omon from the acronym of the dreaded Soviet special police force. In adolescence, Omon, fascinated with the sky and with space, replaces his quite ordinary surname with the name of the ancient Egyptian sun god.

Truth is deception

He is accepted for cosmonaut education and training. There, it slowly emerges that the ostensibly automated element of the space-flight program is actually a massive fraud, designed to convince the world and Russians themselves that the Soviet Union is vastly more advanced than it actually is.

There is a scene in which the Assistant Political Instructor of the Special Cosmonauts Detachment explains "automation techniques" to Omon. The passage is a reasonably representative glory of the book:

"You know, the fate of humanity is full of tangled knots, things that don't seem to make any sense, bitter realities hard to accept. You have to see things very clearly, very precisely, in order not to make too many mistakes. Nothing in history is like it is in the textbooks. Dialectics led to Marx's teaching, which was intended for an advanced country but won its victory in the most backward one.

"We Communists ... just didn't have the time to defeat the West technologically. But in the battle of ideas you can't stop for a second. The paradox - another piece of dialectics - is that we support the truth with falsehood, because Marxism carries within itself an all-conquering truth, and the goal for which you will give your life is, in a formal sense, a deception. But the more consciously ... you perform your feat of heroism, the greater will be its degree of truth, the greater will be the meaning of your brief and beautiful life!"

So one member of Omon's "automated" moon-rocket team is trained to disconnect the first stage from the rest of the "automated" space vehicle manually and then to fall on his back and kick it away, igniting the second stage. Others have similar ++ sacrificial tasks. Omon Ra powers the "moonwalker" which he commands with scrap bicycle parts - pedaling the seven kilometers of the Lenin Fissure.

The crew cannot possibl survive their mission. By the doctrine of deception they must die anonymously, unknown.

Using humans as inferior, cheaper substitutes for pieces of machinery is, of course, an apt enough metaphor for state socialism - in which the foundational falsehood of devotion to the greater good licenses the politically privileged to render everybody else into dispensable, disposable mechanisms.

Analogies fail

There is an irresistible temptation to strike two parallels: George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." But the models fail.

"Animal Farm," goes with brilliant universality to the core truth of communism, a discrete allegory. Pelevin's book is not an instructive parable, not teleological, not, finally, political at all.

Wolfe's astronaut epic is about physical, palpable truths, however uninspiring to some romantics. "Omon Ra" is, in contrast, a novel in the classic sense of asking "Who am I?" Its parallel title to Wolfe's work would not be, as somebody has suggested, "The Wrong Stuff" but rather something like "No Stuff at All" or maybe "Stuff Stuff," a seamless web of lies.

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