Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Vodolazkin’

The Aviator

June 29, 2018

Innokenty Platonov wakes up in what seems to be a hospital bed; he has no memory and no knowledge of where he is. “Was I in an accident?” he asks the doctor: “One might say that.” The doctor (an assumption based on a white lab coat), who introduces himself as Geiger, asks him to keep a written record of events, “and write down everything you recall from the past too.” Geiger refuses, however, to tell Innokenty what has led him to this point:

“That…is something you need to recall, otherwise my consciousness will replace yours.”

So begins Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Avaitor, translated by Lisa Hayden. Slowly Innokenty begins to remember his childhood and his home city of St Petersburg. Coachmen whipping horses and a tray of visitors’ cards suggest a time long past. He remembers reading Robinson Crusoe and, when Geiger brings him a copy, further memories resurface:

“With each line, everything that accompanied the book in my time gone by was resurrected: my grandmother’s cough, the clank of a knife that fell in the kitchen and (from the same place) the scent of something fried, and the smoke of my father’s cigarette.”

A gesture, a nurse stroking his hair, reminds of the name Anastasia, and we get our first glimpse of the most important relationship of his previous life. Phrases drift back to him: one, ‘Aviator Platonov’, is the remnant of a childhood game; another, that he is ‘the same age as the century’, reveals the year of his birth, 1900. Soon we discover Vodolazkin’s conceit: born at the beginning of the century, Innokanty has been awoken from the cryogenic sleep he was placed in in the 1930s to the Russia of 1999.

This allows Vodolazkin to write a novel of the century, one which encompasses everything from pre-revolutionary Russia to Glasnost, through the eyes of a single narrator. Twice in the twentieth century Russia saw society radically restructured, but Vodolazkin is less interested in exploring the causes than in examining how they interact with “personal conscience or responsibility.” Innokenty’s isolation (both past and present), like Robinson Crusoe’s, allows an exploration of his ability to retain a sense of self in the face if revolution, totalitarianism and rampant capitalism.

Vodolazkin has expressed elsewhere his scepticism at the conception of history as a series of unstoppable social movements:

“…when we speak of a rise in social tension in society, we tend to forget that this nervous energy is generated by concrete human souls. Of course these souls resonate with each other, but this nervous energy can be turned off only by each specific human being—in himself.” (‘The Age of Concentration’)

The danger of supporting social movements is that they will, eventually, clash with personal morality:

“The Russian Revolution showed that there was no such thing as a truly “common” goal. In that sense revolution resembles a runaway train, where you take your seat and suddenly realize that it’s going in a totally different direction than you expected.” (Interview with Maya Vinokour)

Innokenty is similarly sceptical of revolutionary politics. When his friend, Seva, attempts to involve him, he asks him if he has read The Possessed (also translated as Demons or The Devils), Dostoyevsky’s satirical novel of morally blind revolutionaries. Innokenty will, instead, attempt to stay true to himself, and his love for Anastasia.

If love is a central concern of the novel, justice is another. Innokenty’s preoccupation with justice is seen when, as a child, he breaks the scales from a statue of Themis in an attempt to make them move. This clash of the abstract and the practical is echoed when a neighbour, Zaretsky, informs on Anastasia’s father, who is imprisoned and later killed. Innokenty must decide how to react: instinctively he wishes to kill him, and later, Zaretsky is murdered, Innokenty is arrested. The structure of the novel is such that we, and perhaps Innokenty himself at that point, do not know if he is guilty or not. Under Stalin, however, guilt or innocence are irrelevant anyway:

“I suddenly realised in all clarity that the conception of right and not right had disappeared over several years or so. And of up and down, light and dark, human and beastly. Who would do the weighing, what would they weigh, and who needed that, anyway?”

It is while imprisoned Innokenty is given the choice of being the subject of cryogenic experimentation or dying slowly from the conditions of the camp.

In the novel’s second half, Innokenty is joined by two other narrators, one of whom is Geiger. Vodolazkin is as clear-eyed about the 90s as the 30s as Innokenty becomes a national icon, and the face of frozen food:

“’What helped you endure here for so many decades?’
He takes a packet of frozen vegetables and raises it over his head.
‘This did!’”

The Aviator is a novel which manages to be both fast-paced and philosophical, borrowing from various genres – science fiction, murder mystery – to entertain as it explores questions we must all answer regarding our personal responsibility in whichever society we find ourselves. Its greatest achievement is the character of Innokenty, pieced together memory by memory, finding himself as we find him, exemplifying Vodolazkin’s claim that:

“…personal history is much more important than general history, than world history – that world history is actually only a small piece of individual history.”

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