Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Омон Ра - Viktor Pelevin

After finishing Omon Ra I yet again wonder how much is lost in the translation. Not necessarily from language alone but how emotions can be portrayed via space travel about the USSR's political history to those of us in the West. After reading snippets from two different versions of the Master and Margaritaa classic of Russian literature -- one flows very nicely, whilst one is very mechanical. The humour and character is lost completely... Read on: I'm not entirely convinced this is the case and this is my attempt at saying: translation doesn't matter!
Omon Ra was described as being fairly comical, black humour. I didn't feel this was really the case at all, but may have been present in its mother tongue. Plot development was very shaky at times with characterisation almost inviting me to play on Soviet stereotypes. If the blurb wasn't as informative as it was, I would be clueless about where this book was going. Anyone else thinks blurbs spoil books far too much thesedays?
A standard childhood upbringing in which certain parts really shine with the use of sentimental objects and friendship scenes, but nothing in the prose or writing ability that really stands out as flowery or elaborate. It's innocent when it needs to be, as well as profound, but does it completely subjectively. As far as ideas go this is a book about space travel and cosmonauts used as a device to show the absurdity of Soviet policies, crushed dreams, and deceiving the vulnerable. It takes you from a guy's childhood up to a really weird rocket launch where everyone's doomed but doing it for the motherland! And that's about it, or is it? The rocket may be travelling to the dark side of the moon, but you soon find out we, the readers, are travelling towards the same destination. It's extremely surreal; it's Kafka in space!
So what was Pelevin saying, and what wasn't he? You may as well read the last few pages, and be blown away with the crew to find out! I have a feeling the original version is even more of a gem.
Shattered dreams, childhood abuse, comical, satire, black humour... That's all that was quoted on the blurb. I don't think I'd mention any of them, because they just weren't emphasised enough throughout vital sections to fall into any cliched category.
It's a very strange book that seems to lack an identity because of this. A large chunk of it for example is the main character listening in on a radio call from the past, that is totally irrelevant... A transmission from another world. Expeditions from before our protagonists time. Is Russian to English dialogue really difficult to construct with the same feeling, because I felt an extreme mysterious aura. I don't know what was trying to be portrayed with that radio recording -- I'm not an expert on Russian history but it certainly hit home.
Getting the reader to read 20 or so pages of random, meaningless dialogue is quite tedious, isn't it though? Well, I suppose it won an award, as it did have some fairly good parts. I don't even think the main character was described. Or anyone, for that matter. Is that a bad thing, or does it emphasise the lack of individuality of the people?
I think I know what the book stands as. Perhaps the main character out there in a rocket in the middle of space does portray more than what the overall book gives you... I loved the phone calls he receives from his doomed colleagues and drunken higher-ups. I love his last thoughts before he does what needs to be done. Those glimpses of absurd reality really shine through the surreal and rusty plot and provide us with a strong sense of humanity within the pages.
The craters in this book aren't on the moon but in the plot, or translation itself. I think the issue here lies either with language faults, or with the author translating his thoughts to paper, or anything concrete enough to warrant an overall good novel. To conclude, it's a book that is trying to get satirical, trying to make that big comparison, not knowing whether it's strictly political, social, or sci-fi, and really isn't constructed in a way to engross any of those audiences. That would explain why it was involved in an independent genre award.
It seems I'm not the only one who thinks the translation is bad, but it's definitely work a look regardless. Who can sum up a whole political regime in a couple hundred pages in a space travel novel, especially when a Western audience who aren't experts on the history are your readers? It's surreal, it's dark, it's witty, and I think that the dodgy plot only helps to enhance this bizarre space programme. A well deserved place on the bookshelf, but perhaps its original form has more to offer..

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