A brief note about a strange little space odyssey I read this week. Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin is apparently something of a modern classic of Russian literature which I'd never heard of till stumbling across it while looking for something else in the bookshop the other day.
Set in the decaying Soviet Union of the 1970s Omon Ra is a brief novel about a stargazing young man - Omon Krivomazov - who seeks to escape the dysfunctional dreariness of his terrestrial life by joining the Soviet space program. He symbolises his aspirations by giving himself the secret surname 'Ra', alluding to the Egyptian Sun god, part human, part falcon.
His improbable hopes of becoming a Russian hero of space exploration in the mould of Yuri Gagarin are unexpectedly realised when he is selected to join a team of cosmonauts undertaking the first Soviet moon mission.
Those dreams swiftly mutate into nightmare when, in the first of the book's dark twists, the team members, locked in a high-security military base, are told that the space agency doesn't have the technology to engineer a return journey: it will be a one-way mission: each member of the team will be required to sacrifice their life after carrying out their role. Supposedly automated tasks such as rocket separation and space vehicle course correction will have to be carried out manually, leaving the cosmonaut responsible for them literally floating in space. Omon's task will be to drive the 'Lunokhod' space buggy along a valley on the dark side of the moon to a spot where he will place and activate a radio beacon. He will then shoot himself before his oxygen runs out. The mission will of course be broadcast for propaganda purposes, but the outside world will know nothing of the cosmonauts: the official line is that it will be an unmanned flight that will demonstrate the superiority of Russian over American technology.
A rather grim tale, then. But it is told with the pitch black humour one might expect from a writer who had lived through the last years of the Soviet regime: the book was published in 1992, just a year or so after the final collapse of the autocracy. The novel satirises the absurd pretensions common to all clapped out dictatorships: the desperate desire to be seen to be keeping up with more prosperous nations, whatever the human cost. In the 1970s it was the Soviet Union, today of course there are others.
On another level it's a study about the desire we all have, to some degree or other, to transcend the bounds of earthly life. The young Omon's ambitions come into focus on seeing a photo of a spacewalker at a military exhibition:
The glass of his helmet was black, and the only bright spot on it was a triangular highlight, but I knew he could see me. He could have been dead for centuries. His arms were stretched out confidently towards the stars, and his legs were so obviously not in need of any support that I realised once and for ever that only weightlessness could give man genuine freedom… I realised that peace and freedom were unattainable on earth, my spirit aspired aloft, and everything that my chosen path required ceased to conflict with my conscience, because my conscience was calling me out into space and was not much interested in what was happening on earth.
When he actually finds himself in space however - or believes himself to be - he is so encumbered by the physical difficulty of the tasks he has to undertake that he barely has energy for high flown abstractions: the limitations of the human condition are just as apparent above the clouds as here on the ground.
A bizarre, bleak, funny book.