Review: Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Omon Ra by the author Victor Pelevin is a 1992 short novel from the Russian independent publishing house Tekct Publishers (Издательство Текст). Translated in 1994 by British editor Andrew Bromfield (the edition reviewed here), this unique book discovered in the un-categorized section of the local booksale mixes historical global perception with the fictional absurdity of military sciences dictated by a political climate that we can only hope is purely satirical.

It was not surprising to find Omon Ra among other works without genre categorization. Capable of fitting in with fiction, historical fiction, science fiction and alternate history, the case could be made that the book could as easily be found in the sections of cultural literature and satire. With such a diverse range of focus, this is the type of book capable of reaching a much broader audience.

The perception of translated works is always going to include a misdirection of insight since the reader is at the translator’s mercy. Given the varying range of meanings across the numerous cultures around the world, even an attempt at a word-for-word translation requires a certain amount of paraphrasing. In a sense, we are often reading the words of a translator who is merely expressing the “idea” of the original author.

Omon Ra is an in-depth look into the social and moral growth of a young Russian boy as he pursues his dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. Visions of space exploration and the heroic accolades that come with it appear to be globally similar. The promise of possibilities follows the same classic wonders as those in Heinlein’s youth inspired Rocket Ship Galileo and Have Space Suit – Will Travel. But the parallels end there.

Once Omon enrolls in the military academy, the splendor quickly turns to the bizarre. Honoring the heroism of famed World War II Soviet fighter ace Alexey Petrovich Maresyev who lost both of his legs following injuries suffered from being shot down over Staraya Russa, many of the cadets are drugged and have their legs amputated in a sign of Soviet heroism. Though Omon and his best friend Mitiok are spared these treacherous initiation trials and keep their feet intact, they are still overwhelmed by the realization that the public perception of the Russian space program has been a delusional ruse, all in an attempt to instill a sense of patriotic heroism at home and an artificial competitive edge abroad.

Beyond the absurdity, the image of the Russian world around young Omon is both vividly enthralling and emotionally enticing. Granted it is unknown if these elements are truly coming from the author Pelevin or simply interpreted by the translator Bromfield, but all of the senses come into play as the reader is shown the world via words.

Mirroring the falsification of success displayed in Peter Hyams’ government conspiracy classic Capricorn One, Omon Ra becomes a sad statement about public perception, political power, and the blind loyalty one feels when the truth is revealed. From the cardboard simulators to the illogically conceived cover-ups, this book could be a blueprint for the the conspiracy theorists handbook.

At a light 154 pages in length, Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin is a quick read (though you may find yourself re-reading many passages after asking yourself, “Wait, what just happened?”). Whether you are a fan of historical fiction or one who simply appreciates a good mixture of satirical prose and modern science, this novel is likely to find a permanent spot on your book shelf.

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