Viktor Pelevin and the Evolution of Anti-Utopian Literature in the Post-Soviet Era

Lisa Ryoko Wakamiya, University of California, Los Angeles

Viktor Pelevin’s Omon Ra has been described as both a satire on the Soviet space program and a novel concerned primarily with metaphysical and eternal concepts. These interpretations suggest that Omon Ra intends either to assert a corrective view of Soviet history and propaganda, or eschew all didactic modes in favor of “pure art.” Like most meta-utopian works, Pelevin’s novel is taxonomically ambiguous; it is designed (to use Gary Saul Morson’s terms) to “resonate between opposing genres and interpretations” and yield different meanings according to the interpretive conventions applied by the reader. In my presentation I will demonstrate that Omon Ra features several of the narrative structures traditionally associated with anti-utopian novels, but rewrites the conventions that typically determine their context and function to generate a metatextual commentary on the evolution of didactic prose in the post-Soviet era.

Though there is little consensus among scholars as to what constitutes an anti-utopian novel, studies of exemplary texts (Zamjatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, among others) have revealed a number of shared narrative structures. Pelevin’s novel follows these shared patterns, in part to motivate readings based on conventional anti-utopian attitudes. However, the protagonist’s apathy and a general lack of the utopian imperative for social change do not allow the novel to be read as an exposure of the empty myths of Soviet technological achievement. The narrative not only refrains from moral judgment, but leaves the social contradictions raised by its conventional anti-utopian structures unsolved and ambivalent.

The notion of the “simulacrum” that informs contemporary Russian conceptualism and has been explicated by Mikhail Epstein in his discussion of the origins of Russian postmodernism will provide the basis for my reading of Pelevin’s deviations from traditional anti-utopian models. In the “society of deficit” of contemporary Russian society that Epstein describes, “names and labels demonstrate their own emptiness and lack of meaning” so that “in comparison with a name that ‘ideally’ signifies a certain quality of an object, the object itself turns out to be on the decline.” The semantic interplay with differences between idea and reality that distinguishes conceptual art becomes the basis for Pelevin’s portrayal of a protagonist and space program that are identified primarily by their methods for resolving the discrepancies between their goals and achievements.

By stimulating the reader to actively seek resolution in the growth of the protagonist and the development of his solipsistic world view, Pelevin metatextually redefines the relationship of the reader to the anti-utopian text. That a similar strategy is employed in the metaparabolic Žizn′ nasekomyx suggests that Pelevin’s novels represent a new direction in the development of the tradition of didactic literature, one as provisional and doubtful of moral absolutes as the era in which their author lives and writes.