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As he neared the completion of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol despaired of finding a rational conclusion to his sprawling satire of 19th-century Russia. So he bundled his main character into a speeding horse-drawn carriage and ended the novel in a frantic peroration that took the entire preceding narrative and put it, as it were, on the road: “Art not thou, my Russia, soaring along even like a spirited, never-to-be-outdistanced troika? The road actually smokes under thee, the bridges thunder, everything falls back and is left behind thee!… Whither art though soaring away to, then, Russia? Give me thy answer! But Russia gives none.”
A century-and-a-half later, Gogol’s countryman Victor Pelevin has no better answer to the question—but he has brilliantly updated Gogol’s conceit in a pair of novellas that view Russia as if from the point of view of a surrealist minister of transportation. Omon Ra is a limpid parable of the Soviet space exploration program; The Yellow Arrow figures post-Communist Russia as a train hurtling toward a ruined bridge. If these sound like tiresome exercises in overextended metaphor, on the page they bloom into vibrant life.
The 34-year-old Pelevin has been hailed in his native country as a major new talent, and last year he won the Russian Booker Prize for short fiction. Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow are the first of his works available in this country, and they more than justify the hype. (The only cause for complaint is that they have not been published in one volume, as they were in the U.K. last year. The Yellow Arrow, at 92 pages, feels a bit wispy on its own.)
In Omon Ra, Pelevin deftly domesticates his unwieldy concept so that it addresses both the fate of the world’s largest nation and the interior life of the young hero. “Omon” is Omon Krivomazov, a boy from southern Russia with an all-consuming passion to fly to the moon; “Ra” is the Egyptian god of the sun, whom Omon discovers in an atheist’s handbook. “Probably I liked [Ra] because he had a falcon’s head, and pilots and cosmonauts and all sorts of heroes were often called falcons,” Omon explains. “I decided that if I really was made in a god’s image, then it should be this one.”
In Andrew Bromfield’s superb translation, Pelevin’s prose breathes a sort of cosmic hush, a stylistic approximation of the hero’s preoccupation with the heavens. The details of everyday existence are superfluous in Omon Ra; they seem to be constantly fading from sight, leaving visible only a few heavenly bodies. The moon, the Earth, and the stars rotate in the novella’s silence with the grace of a mobile suspended, as Pelevin puts it, “in brilliant blackness on the invisible threads of fate and trajectory.”
Omon Ra never loses sight of its very mortal protagonist in these galactic ruminations. When Omon joins the space program as a teenager, he learns the secret at the heart of Pelevin’s chilling fable: Moscow is incapable of controlling its rockets from its command center on Earth. All of Russia’s “unmanned” lunar expeditions have in fact been staffed by crews of young men; the expeditions completed, the cosmonauts are deserted on the moon’s surface, martyrs to the secret of their nation’s technological backwardness.
For the rest of the novel, Omon dwells in the terrifying weightlessness of an existence whose function and term have been preordained. The novel culminates with Omon on the moon, trapped in the closed capsule of his pedal-propelled spacemobile. Hunched in the position of a child riding a bicycle, Omon finds his mind slipping into a reverie of youth. In Pelevin’s vivid and strange presentation, Omon’s remembered childhood emerges as its own lunar landscape: “There was a long, bright room full of other children and large plastic cubes scattered haphazardly about the floor; there were the icebound steps of the wooden slide that I plodded up with eager haste; there were the frost-cracked models of young mountaineers made of plaster in the yard.”
Omon Ra is most powerful in its account of youthful perception. One breathtaking scene records Omon’s impressions as he approaches a wall mural at an angle. At first the image seems a swirl of color and motion: “It was only when I came closer that I recognised the interspersed red and white blobs as the face of Lenin, with a jutting beard that looked like a battering ram, and an open mouth; Lenin had no back to his head—there was just his profile, and all the red surface behind it was Lenin. He was like some incorporeal god rippling across the surface of the world which he had created.” The moment serves as an emblem for the powerful progress of Pelevin’s own narrative, which operates by resolving abstraction into sinister design, absorbing even the most shapeless of childhood daydreams into the cruelly definitive political realm.
Pelevin has inscribed Omon Ra to “the heroes of the Soviet cosmos.” The dedication is a weird amalgam of bitterness and nostalgia, at once a satire of Communist propaganda and a lament for the failed dream of the grand Soviet tomorrow. It is also, of course, an elegy for the dream’s victims, the voices silenced by the gently whirring machine.
Where Omon Ra achieves an eerie atmosphere, The Yellow Arrow conjures a raucous one. The book unfolds in a world of rampant crime, black market dealings, and half-wistful, half-fearful discussions of the era before the reforms. The setting is recognizable as post-perestroika Russia—except for the fact that all the action is confined to the narrow compartments of a rushing train named “The Yellow Arrow.”
The denizens of the novella live in perpetual transit, vaguely aware that the Yellow Arrow is heading for a destroyed suspension bridge. The string of cars stretches on forever, disappearing at both horizons, and the train makes no stops. In a hideous detail worthy of Kafka, passengers who die in the night are expelled through the grubby windows in the morning. Pelevin charts his hero, Andrei, as he passes through a stream of gurus, schemers, and smugglers who alternately take advantage of conditions on the train and seek refuge in mystical transcendence. Meanwhile, the dimly visible landscape slides by, “hurtling away into the past.”
While Pelevin’s train is a symbol of an uncertain present-day Russia, it is more profoundly, and more troublingly, a metaphor for the puzzle of consciousness and the implacable forward momentum of human life. In the swaying passageway connecting two cars, Andrei finds a tattered book containing a confession from another passenger: “I am closest of all to happiness…when I turn away from the window and am aware, with the edge of my consciousness, that a moment ago I was not here, there was simply the world outside the window, and something beautiful and incomprehensible, something which there is absolutely no need to comprehend, existed for a few seconds instead of the usual swarm of thoughts, of which one, like a locomotive, pulls all the others after it, absorbs them all and calls itself I.”
When one of the characters describes the sun’s rays as a collection of yellow arrows, the full scope of Pelevin’s metaphor becomes clear: The novella’s ghastly scenario is meant as a symbol of ordinary life. The rattling death trap of the Yellow Arrow inhabits even the most mundane details of existence: air, sunshine, sentience itself. Or, as a graffito Andrei discovers in the train succinctly and hauntingly puts it, “The entire world is a yellow arrow which has pierced you through.” In Pelevin’s sure hand, these philosophical quandaries—the tyranny of identity, the terrible ineluctability of the sensual world—hit with the elemental narrative force of a fairy tale.
Critics have compared Pelevin to Gogol and Bulgakov, and at times he does display the wit of the former and the poetic lunacy of the latter. But Pelevin’s gracefully symmetrical parables are more reminiscent of Nabokov, Borges, and Calvino—masters of intricate, self-devouring narratives. And at his best Pelevin is less clever and more messily ardent than those virtuosos. For all their careful choreography, Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow mark the arrival of a deeply human writer. CP