College Quarterly
Fall 1996 - Volume 4 Number 1
Reviews The Porcupine
Julian Barnes
New York: Random House, 1992

Omon Ra
Victor Pelevin
translated by Andrew Bromfield
New York: Straus & Giroux, 1996

Reviewed by Michael R. Whealen

How, one wonders, will historians in the twenty-first century look back on events that took place in the former U.S.S.R. during the past decade? Although what passes for "futurology" is notoriously inexact, the two works of fiction under review here hazard two very different answers to this question, and they do so concisely and entertainingly.

Julian Barnes' The Porcupine will undoubtedly appeal to those who have the temerity to insist either (a) that communism in the former Soviet Union was not at all what Marx meant or intended, or (b) that the great experiment simply was not given a chance. The novel is set in the early 1990s in a thinly-disguised former Soviet bloc Eastern European nation that has become an independent "socialist democracy." The central action concerns the trial of Stoyo Petkanov, the former Communist Party Leader. Petkanov, a good Marxist-Leninist (some may consider that an oxymoron but Barnes, I suspect, does not), has been deposed and is facing charges of having committed "crimes against the people." Prosecutor General Peter Solinsky - a thorough Gorbachev man - has the task of coming up with some evidence to substantiate what is already a foregone conclusion as far as the new government is concerned, to wit that Petkanov is guilty as charged. Unfortunately for Prosecutor General Solinsky, Petkanov has lived his life and conducted his affairs in an exemplary socialist fashion. In frustration, Solinsky is driven to manufacture some purely circumstantial "evidence" which he uses to suggest that the former Party Leader had his own daughter executed (she was his Minister of Culture) for not toeing the party line. As Barnes tells the story, Petkanov is convicted yet retains his honor, while Solinsky's personal life and integrity are destroyed by his shameless careerism, his toadying to the media and the new regime, and above all his moral turpitude.

Barnes is justly famous for the richness of his interior monologues. The eloquence and solidity of his definition of communism emerges from the depth of the Party Leader's ruminations throughout the novel. As Barnes presents it, reformers such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin are actually counter-revolutionaries, and their betrayal is not just one of the former Soviet peoples, but something of world-historical scope.

Those who, in contrast, think that the whole project of communism is philosophically bankrupt and politically criminal will be delighted with Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra. Pelevin is one of the leading Russian novelists of the post-glasnost era, and his novel is a brilliant, hilarious and totally condemnatory indictment of Soviet communism. Taking his title from a combination of a term used to describe the former Soviet Special Forces and the Egyptian sun-god Ra, the central character Omon Ra is a model pre-glasnost Soviet youth who has dreamed since childhood of becoming a cosmonaut. He enrolls in the Soviet space program only to discover, much to his horror, that his first trip into space will also be his last for, while the Soviets claim to carry out their space flights with unmanned rockets, they in fact lack the requisite technology to do so. Thus, for example, each stage of a four-stage rocket destined for the moon is manned by a cosmonaut who must, at the appropriate time, push certain buttons and pull certain levers that detach the stage and thrust the cosmonaut into the oblivion of outer space. Cosmonaut Ra's job is to drive an ostensibly unmanned vehicle across the lunar landscape and to place a device on the moon's surface that will forever project the words of Lenin into the universe. The denouement is dazzling and - without giving it away - the book ends with a twist that constitutes a scathing condemnation of planned economies and the hypostatization of technology.

Omon Ra is replete with darkly humorous little vignettes that speak volumes about the nature of Soviet political culture. In a typical scene, we find Ra spending a summer at a rocket camp for Soviet youngsters. In the lunchroom there are crude scale models of space capsules suspended from the ceiling and Ra commits the - for a communist unforgivable - sin of appropriating one of these cheap models for himself. When this bourgeois transgression is uncovered, Omon is punished by being forced to crawl on his hands and knees across the gymnasium floor in front of his teachers and fellow students. For some added sadism, he is made to wear an unwieldy Soviet gas mask on his journey. It has the effect of "forcing [his] lips to stretch into a kind of kiss, apparently addressed to everything around [him]." How appropriate. Not only is he obliged to undergo a humiliating ritual for a minor offense, but he is compelled - by technology, no less - to give the appearance of actually enjoying his humiliation. It would be difficult to find a better metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of Society collectivism.

Both of these novels are more multifaceted and ambiguous in their portrayal of Soviet communism than I have suggested here. While Barnes' attack on the moral failure of the "new Russian order" would surely warm the heart of the most unregenerate apparatchnik, the former Party Leader is conspicuously silent when it comes to the mass murders committed under Lenin and Stalin. Similarly, Pelevin's contemporary Russian scene is peopled by the casualties of glasnost - the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed. Both novels are, however, masterfully crafted and engaging works that - as good fiction often can - teach us more about contemporary sociopolitical realities than a library on "nonfiction" could.


Michael Whealen is a Toronto-based writer and educator.

Reviews

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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology