The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin

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Translated by Lisa Hayden

Reviewed by Karen Langley

You awake in a hospital bed. You have no memory of who you are or how you came to be there, apart from a name – Innokenty Petrovich Platonov. Gradually your memory begins to come back in random fragments here and there so that you (and the reader) start to build up a picture of your past – the man you were, your life and loves, and the terrible tragedies. This can be something of a standard fictional trope, but The Aviator takes that premise and turns it into something really special in Vodolazkin’s marvellous novel. The author is a Kievan who works in the department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House, as well as being an expert in medieval Russian history and folklore. He also lives in St. Petersburg, the setting for much of this novel, and all of these strands of his experience inform the narrative.

The first half of the book is narrated by Innokenty, who has indeed awoken in a hospital bed with a fragmented memory and an attentive doctor, one Geiger (apparently of German origin). Geiger encourages his patient to write down a daily record of what happens in the hospital, his impressions of what is going on around him and whatever memories occur during the day. As Innokenty gradually regains his strength, fragments of his past start to recur and the reader learns about Innokenty as the man himself does, so every new page is a revelation. It soon becomes clear that something strange is happening here: Innokenty knows he was born ‘with the century’ so is quite capable of working out his age. He seems a young man; yet the medication by the side of his bed is dated in the late 1990s….  So how can this be possible? And what is the truth about Innokenty and his past?

The time that had given birth to him remained somewhere far away; maybe it was even gone forever. He is in a different time now, with his previous experience and previous habits, and he needs either to forget them or recreate an entire lost world, something that’s not simple at all.

As we (and our narrator) continue to explore what he can recall of his past, we come to accept the scientific events which have led to his survival into this future. Encounters with people and places from his past trigger more memories and lead unexpectedly to love. However, this relationship is not likely to be a straightforward one.

Part two of the book comes as a bit of a shock, because up until then we have seen the modern world filtered through Innokenty’s perceptions. However, the narrative now becomes split between Geiger, Innokenty and his love, Nastya. The three different voices widen our viewpoint and gradually reveal the disjuncture between the outlooks of Geiger, Nastya and Innokenty. The three different characters are clearly defined, each with their own particular outlook on life and not all with the same aim. However, events will conspire to focus them on one particular aspect of Innokenty’s story; and his prognosis is not necessarily a good one.

I’m being deliberately oblique in discussing the plot of this immersive novel, because it’s really best read knowing as little as possible about what’s to come. It’s a powerfully-written work, multifaceted and multi-layered, building in a crime story, a poignant look at the history of Russia over the 20th century and of course the love element. The Aviator is laden with symbolism: starting with Innokenty’s name, through the thread running through the book of Innokenty’s childhood love of the Robinson Crusoe story, which stays with him through his life, to Geiger’s name (which in German can mean a violinist or fiddler) to the title of the book itself – for what else is flight but the ultimate symbol of freedom?

I turned on the landing and cast a glance at the lighted rectangle of the door. Behind the escort guards’ backs I saw my loved ones for what turned out to be the last time. Even now I see them with photographic precision. I know they saw me the same way when I turned. They photographed me for a lifetime: the flash of their grief illuminated me. The two photographs will merge into one after my death.

The Crusoe motif, in particular, recurs frequently, as Innokenty really is a stranger in a strange land. His beloved St. Petersburg is a mixture of the familiar and the changed, and some of his reactions to progress reminded me of another recent novel about a man from history who comes back to life. Look Who’s Back rather audaciously resurrected Hitler to take a dark look at Germany’s relationship with its past, and many of portrayals in The Aviator of the incredible brashness, corruption and commercialism of the modern world recall the earlier book. However here there is little humour, only tragedy, and Vodolazkin does not refrain from showing the horrors of living under Soviet rule, including the gut-churning events that took place in labour camps. I did feel that perhaps The Aviator was slightly less realistic in its portrayal of pre-Revolutionary society but this could have been deliberately intended, to give Innokenty something of a gilded childhood.

What remained was a warm September day that strode into my room through an open window. An open window in autumn is such a rarity. The quivering of a palm on a carved (roses and lilies) stand. A slanted ray of sun that alit on the desk. In focus: a stack of books. A light, thin coating of dust unnoticeable without the sun. A ladybug on a history book.

This marvellous novel draws on much Russian literature of the past, with nods to Pushkin, Blok, Gogol and of course Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – but then, how could a novel set in St. Petersburg with guilt and crime at its heart do otherwise? It’s hard not to contemplate the reason for Innokenty’s return to life, seeing it as a resurrection of sorts and wondering why he was brought back. In some ways, he seems to be there to bear witness, and there is an eagerness in the modern Russian society Vodolazkin portrays to hear from a survivor. Nevertheless, as the story progressed, I found myself wondering whether Innokenty’s purpose was more as a kind of expiation, as if he was necessary to absolve Russia from the crimes of its past.

I was also mightily impressed with Vodolazkin’s writing; this was one of those books where the characters are alive and living alongside you, so that the ending of it is almost like a bereavement. As the author gradually revealed the tapestry that made up Innokenty’s life, I became more and more invested in him, Nastya and Geiger, wanting to find out what would happen to them but also not wanting the book to end. And cleverly, the narrative structure of part two comes to resemble changes taking place in Innokenty as the three characters race against time to record Innokenty’s past, even if they haven’t lived through it.

The Aviator is a masterly, complex, yet incredibly readable novel. It’s a book that demands more than one reading; its depth, its lyrical prose, and the story at its heart will haunt you and I’m sure that a return visit will bring out many more resonances. In his portrait of a man out of time, Vodolazkin has managed to explore the history of 20th century Russia, the enduring nature of the bonds of love, the bizarre state of the modern world, guilt and culpability – well, basically, life, the universe and everything…

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds Russia eternally fascinating.

Eugene Vodolazkin, The Aviator (Oneworld, 2018). 9781786072719, 385pp, hardback.

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