by Sarah Hudspith
On 13 December 1994, the young Russian writer Victor Pelevin came to speak to staff and students at Bristol University's Russian department. At 32, Pelevin is at the forefront of a new generation of Russian writers emerging in response to the ever-changing conditions of life in the former Soviet Union. After glasnost, a new literary era opened, presenting fresh opportunities for the emergence of a younger generation of Russian writers. For a while, however, only writers of the older generation were productive and as audiences took advantage of the growing availability of Western popular fiction, fears grew that a literary recession had set in. Pelevin , along with contemporaries like Alexei Slapovsky and Nina Sadur, show that this situation is beginning to change. In 1993 Pelevin was awarded the newly established Russian "Little Booker" Prize for his collection of short stories, The Blue Lantern, and has been hailed as "one of the most exciting of Russia's young writers" (The Daily Telegraph).
After reading a short extract from his latest book, Omon Ra, which has just been published in English translation, Pelevin answered questions from the Russian department staff and students. He named his literary heroes as Chekhov, Bulgakov and Platonov, and expressed a dislike for many modern Russian writers, criticising them for trying too hard to follow the Post-Modernist genre. He claimed to have no moral or political aims in his writing but said that he did have some kind of philosophy and definitely some principles. In response to a comment that some writers, for example Rushdie, believe that they have no responsibility for what they write, he said, "Man is responsible for everything he does, for his thoughts and dreams, but the responsibility is to oneself, not to an outside force. The Russian writer Tyutchev once said, "An uttered thought is a lie." When writing you make a statement and you have to abide by it , even if your situation changes." When asked why he wrote, he replied that this was like asking a military doctor why he should treat wounded soldiers only to see them killed later in battle. "The doctor says, because I'm a doctor," Pelevin replied. "I write because I'm a writer. A writer doesn't really know why he writes." This provoked the question that he might be reacting against the idea that the Soviet writer should be a moral prophet and he replied by stressing the importance of the creative element in the writing process.
The writer Victor Pelevin
The discussion moved to the current literary situation in Russia and Pelevin talked about how perestroika led to changes in people's tastes and in what they could obtain. Remarking on the ever-expanding literary pluralism in his country, he said, "When perestroika started, no one thought of the consequences. Writers played a big role in perestroika and now nobody buys their books: the tastes of the mass audience are different from what they expected. Publishing houses aim to make money and cheap detective novels are bigger sellers than books like for example, The Collector by John Fowles."
Questions about Russian current affairs were raised and when asked to comment on the crisis in Chechnya, Pelevin said, "I think it is awful. We don't need a war there. The Chechens are very brave and are ready to die for their cause. They will gain independence sooner or later, so it is better if it comes sooner." Next he was asked who he thought would be the next President and he replied with a smile, "Maybe we won't have a President, maybe we will have a next General Secretary or even a next Tsar!" Then he added more seriously that if the conflict in Chechnya failed, Yeltsin would have to resign; he favoured the liberal Yulinsky as his successor.
Once the discussion had drawn to a close, the audience was able to buy copies of Omon Ra, which Pelevin was happy to sign.
The Russian Booker Prize Judge for 1993, Geoffrey Hosking, described Victor Pelevin as writing "socio-metaphysical fantasy" and as having an "exotic and inventive imagination." Omon Ra is a fantastic novel interwoven with strands of magical realism and the grotesque. The eponymous hero takes his name from the Russian word meaning "special police forces" and adds to it that of the Egyptian sun god. Set in the days of the Space Race, when the Americans were sending manned missions to the moon, Omon Ra tells the story of a fervent young man with an obsessive ambition to become a cosmonaut. This ambition takes him to the KGB secret space training school, where he learns that he is to be part of a suicide mission to the moon, so that the West may not discover that the USSR has neither the money to send disposable automated craft, nor the technology to recover manned vessels. This sets the tone for sinister manipulations of individuals by the State and the book is spattered with macabre incidents, such as the amputation of the cadets' legs so that they may become true Soviet heroes like the amputee Maresiev who still fought the Nazis, or the mysterious disappearance of Omon's friend Mitiok after an examination known as the "reincarnation check". Pelevin works these episodes seamlessly into his narrative so that they appear chillingly normal and at the same time writes with moving simplicity and inspirational perception on the value of human life in the face of inevitable death, on the passion for living that the beauty of the earth and the heavens can evoke, and on the true meaning - not the Soviet meaning - of brotherhood and love for one's country.
Secondary characters are painted in with lightning brush strokes. Particularly memorable is the ambiguous Colonel Urchagin; blind and wheelchair-bound, he is part James Bond-style evil genius, part wise old uncle who imparts hidden truths to Omon. As Omon speeds towards the moon and shares in the last moments of the other cosmonauts who sacrifice their lives at earlier stages of the mission, the most banal moments of life, such as a cycle ride outside Moscow or listening to Pink Floyd, take on an ever more intense and precious quality. Pelevin leaves us an impression of real humanity and purity of spirit which transcends the Soviet setting and has universal significance, and which endures beyond the novel's dramatic and desolate conclusion.
Published in the same volume as Omon Ra is the allegorical novella The Yellow Arrow. This is the name of a train hurtling towards an unknown destination, while the passengers go about their daily lives, working and relaxing , never dreaming that it is possible to get off or that anything apart from the Abominable Snowman may exist outside the train. The same elements found in Omon Ra are present here: the absurdity of the situation, the sinister unexplained happenings, the powerful sense of humanity. Stronger, though, is the existentialist comment on the futility of life, and the Yellow Arrow passengers seem to bury themselves in their individual mundane existences, ignoring the inexorable forces that sweep them to a bleak fate. However, Pelevin ends on a still small note of optimism, as the train's movement is suddenly suspended to let the hero descend and hear for the first time the modest but supremely beautiful sounds of nature.
Omon Ra with The Yellow Arrow is published by Harbord Publishing