Authors: Victor Pelevin
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #sci-fi, #Dystopian
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
of the Soviet Cosmos
Omon is not a particularly common name, and perhaps not the best there is. It was my father’s idea. He worked in the police all his life and wanted me to be a policeman too.
“Listen to me, Ommy,” he used to say to me when he’d been drinking, “if you join the police, with a name like that… then if you join the Party …”
Although my father had occasionally shot at people, he wasn’t really vicious by nature; in his heart he was a cheerful and sympathetic man. He loved me a lot, and hoped that life would at least grant me the achievements it had denied him. What he really wanted was to get hold of a plot of land somewhere near Moscow and start growing beetroot and cucumbers on it—not so that he could sell them at the market or eat them (though that too), but so that he could strip to the waist, slice into the earth with his spade, and watch the red worms and the other underground life wriggling about, so that he could cart barrowloads of dung from one end of the holiday village to the other, stopping at other people’s gates to swap a few jokes. When he realised he would never get any of this, he began to hope that at least one of the Krivomazov brothers would lead a long and happy life (my elder brother, Ovir, whom my father had
wanted to make into a diplomat, died of meningitis at the age of eleven, and all I remember about him is that he had a long oblong birthmark on his forehead).
My father’s plans on my behalf failed to inspire me with any real confidence—after all, he himself was a Party man, and he had a perfectly good Russian name, Matvei, but all he had earned for his efforts was a miserly pension and a lonely, drunken old age.
I don’t remember my mother too well. The only memory I have is of my drunken father in his uniform trying to pull his pistol out of its holster while she clutched at his arm, her hair all messed up, and shouted: “Matvei, come to your senses!”
She died when I was still very young, and I was raised by an aunt and went to see my father on weekends. He usually had a red and puffy look, and the medal he was so proud of hung crooked on his soiled pyjama jacket. There was a bad smell in his room, and hanging on the wall was a reproduction of Michelangelo’s fresco
The Creation of Adam
, with Adam lying on his back and a bearded God floating above him stretching out his mighty hand to touch the frail human one. This picture had a strangely profound effect on my father; it clearly reminded him of something from the past. I usually sat on the floor of his room and played with a toy train set, while he snored on the fold-down divan. Sometimes he would wake up and peer at me for a while through screwed-up eyes; then he would hang over the edge of the divan, propping himself against the floor, and stretch out a large veinous hand that I was supposed to shake.
“So what’s your surname?”
“Krivomazov,” I would reply, faking a shy smile, and he would pat me on the head and feed me sweets; he ran through the whole routine so mechanically that it didn’t even disgust me.
There’s almost nothing I can say about my aunt—she was quite indifferent to me and made sure that I spent most of my free time in various summer camps for Young Pioneers, and extended day-school groups.
Everything I remember from my childhood is linked in one way or another with a dream of the sky. Of course, all this wasn’t the very beginning of my life: before this there was a long, bright room full of other children and large plastic cubes scattered haphazardly about the floor; there were the icebound steps of the wooden slide that I plodded up with eager haste; there were the frost-cracked models of young mountaineers made of painted plaster in the yard; and lots more besides. But I can’t really say that it was I who saw all this; in early childhood (as, perhaps, after death), a person extends in all directions at the same time, so we can say he still doesn’t exist yet—the personality comes into being later, when an attachment to some particular direction appears.
I lived not far from the Cosmos cinema. Our district was dominated by a metal rocket standing on a tapering column of solid titanium smoke, like some huge scimitar thrust into the ground. But funnily enough, it wasn’t this rocket that marked the beginning of my personality, it was the wooden aeroplane in the small children’s playground beside my block. It wasn’t exactly an aeroplane, more a toy house with two windows, and during some repair work someone had nailed on a pair of
wings and a tail made from the boards of a fence that had been pulled down, then covered the whole thing with green paint and decorated it with a few large reddish stars. There was room inside for two or three people, and there was a small attic with a little triangular window that looked out onto the wall of the military enlistment office: by unwritten agreement of the entire yard, this attic was regarded as the pilot’s cabin, and when the plane was shot down, those who were sitting in the body of the fuselage jumped first, and only afterwards, when the earth was already roaring up towards the windows, could the pilot follow them—if, of course, he had time. I always tried to be the pilot, and I could actually see the sky and the clouds and the earth floating by below, where the brick wall of the military enlistment office should have been, with the whiskery violets and dusty cacti peering forlornly out of its windows.
I really loved films about airmen, and one of these films provided the most powerful experience of my childhood. On a cosmically dark December evening, I switched on my aunt’s television and there on the screen was an aeroplane swaying its wings, with an ace of spades on its side and a cross on its fuselage. I leaned down towards the screen, and immediately it was filled with a close-up of the cabin section. Behind the thick panes of glass a subhuman face smiled in goggles like a mountain skier’s and a helmet with gleaming ebonite earpieces. The pilot raised an open hand clad in a glove with a long black sleeve and waved to me. Then the screen was filled with an inside view of another plane: two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting at identical
control columns and peering through the metal-framed Plexiglas, following the convolutions of the enemy fighter flying close beside them.
“M-109,” said one flier to the other, “they’ll bring us down.” The other, with a handsome emaciated face, nodded.
“I don’t hold it against you,” he said, clearly continuing an interrupted conversation. “But just remember: this thing between you and Varya had better be for life … To the grave!”
At that point I stopped taking in the action on the screen. I was struck by the sudden thought, or not even a thought, merely its faintly registered shadow—as though the actual thought had floated past close to my head, only catching it with its edge—that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.
This vague realisation struck me so hard that I watched the rest of the film without paying proper attention, getting involved in the television reality only when the screen was filled with smoke trails or a row of enemy planes standing on the ground hurtling up towards me. That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really
matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see … From that time on, as I wandered along some wintertime street, I often imagined that I was flying in a plane over snow-covered fields; as I turned a corner, I inclined my head, and the world obediently tilted right or left.
All the same, the person that I could with real certainty call myself took shape only later, and gradually. I think the first glimpse of my true personality was the moment when I realised I could aspire beyond the thin blue film of the sky into the black abyss of space. It happened the same winter, one evening when I was strolling around the Exhibition of Economic Achievements in another corner of Moscow. I was walking along a dark and empty snow-covered alley; suddenly on my left I heard this droning, like a huge telephone ringing. I turned—and saw him.
Sitting there in empty space, leaning back as though in an armchair, he was slowly drifting forwards, and the tubes behind him were straightening out at the same slow pace. 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—which, incidentally, is why all my life I’ve only been bored by all those Western radio voices and those books by various Solzhenitsyns. In my heart, of course, I loathed a state whose silent menace obliged every group of people who came together, even if only
for a few seconds, to imitate zealously the vilest and bawdiest individual among them; but since 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.
What I saw in front of me was simply a spotlit mosaic on the wall of an exhibition pavilion, a picture of a cosmonaut in open space, but it told me more in an instant than the dozens of books I’d read before that day. I stood there looking at it, until suddenly I felt someone looking at me.
Glancing round, I saw behind my back a rather strange-looking boy my own age—he was wearing a leather helmet with gleaming ebonite earphones, and there were plastic swimming goggles dangling round his neck. He was a little taller than I and probably a few months older. As he entered the area illuminated by the spotlight, he raised an open hand in a black glove, stretched his lips into a cold smile, and for an instant there stood before me the flier from the cabin of that fighter plane marked with the ace of spades.
He was called Mitiok. It turned out that we lived close to each other, although we went to different schools. Mitiok had his doubts about many things, but he knew one thing for certain. He knew that first he would become a pilot, and then he would fly to the moon.
There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general
outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved
in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own
life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the
way I wanted it to turn out: I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form.
Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes
of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment
which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.
To be brief, the summer after seventh grade was hot and dusty. All I
remember of the first half of it are long bicycle rides on one of the highways outside
Moscow. I attached a special rattle to the rear of my bike, a Sport semi-racer; it
consisted of a piece of thick paper folded over several times and fastened to the frame
with a clothes peg—as I rode along, the paper struck against the spokes and made a
quick, quiet whirring noise, like the sound of an aero-engine. Time and again as I
hurtled down a tarmac incline, I became a fighter plane closing in on its target, and by
no means always a Soviet one. But I wasn’t to blame for that; it was just that
at the beginning of summer I’d heard someone sing a stupid
song which included the words “Swift as a bullet my Phantom roars into the clear
blue sky.” I must confess that for all the song’s stupidity, which I
realised perfectly well, I was moved to the depths of my soul. What other words can I
remember? “I see a smoke trail in the sky … My Texas home is far away
…” And there was a father, and a mother, and someone called Mary, a very
real person, because she was actually named in the song.