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Eugene Vodolazkin: Авиатор (The Aviator)

Innokenty Petrovich Platonov wakes up in a hospital bed, unsure not only of where he is and why he is there but of who he is. There appears to be one doctor (and only one doctor), Dr. Geiger, and one nurse and only one nurse, Valentina. There do not appear to be any other patients. This is in itself mystifying for Innokenty. He has a fever, which the doctor is worried about, but the doctor refuses to tell him who he is and why he is there. Instead, he asks Innokenty to write down what he remembers.

Gradually, he starts remembering things. He first remembers the Lord’s Prayer. He seems to think that he may have been an aviator. He remembers the Kuokkala district of St. Petersburg, which, since 1948, has been called Repino. Other things come back, such as ration cards and queueing for rations – just after the Revolution. Then he remembers queueing in 1919 and talking to a friend who reminds him that they were both born in 1900.

Geiger finally confirms that he was born in 1900 and that he has been unconscious for a very long time. Geiger tells him about changes, such as space exploration. Then he notices the pills on his table. They have a date on them – 1999. This means that he is ninety-nine years old, yet seems to be only thirty.

Innokenty gradually recalls his life. His father was murdered by drunken sailors. After the Revolution, he and his mother lived in a house that had been subdivided into rooms for various families, with shared facilities. One of the room was occupied by Anastasia Sergeyevna Voronina, five years younger than him, and her father. Another room was occupied by Zaretsky, who worked in the sausage factory, from where he stole his evening meals. Innokenty and Anastasia fall in love and start an affair. Indeed, we have learned this for a while, while Innokenty tries to remember where he met Anastasia.

However, the fly in the ointment is Zaretsky. He denounces Anastasia’s father to the authorities. The father is taken way and, we later learn, shot. Innokenty threatens to kill Zaretsky but Anastasia dissuades him. However, Zaretsky is later found dead, probably killed to get his smuggled sausage (which is missing). A police investigation confirms that this is likely what happened.

Sometime later, however, Innokenty is arrested and we follow his distinctly unpleasant path through the Soviet prison system. He is beaten, tortured, made to work in horrendous conditions, sees much brutal violence against innocent people and barely survives. It is very clear that Innokenty and Vodolazkin are totally opposed to Stalin and his inhumane methods.

We have gradually learned of Innokenty’s early life and clearly, with rose-tinted spectacles, it was an enjoyable life till the Revolution. Geiger asks him for his views on the Revolution. He comments a lot of malice had accumulated in people…An outlet needed be found for that. There is no doubt that for him, with a comfortable, middle-class life, the Revolution was not justified, not least because of what it led to.

The book is called The Aviator and Innokenty was certainly fascinated with flying. A key event was an air show where he met a famous aviator, Frolov, and witnessed his aerobatics and his death. Innokenty himself will fly in a modern plane to and from Geremany. Indeed, there are two literary works that seem important to him. One is Blok’s The Aviator and the other, perhaps equally unsurprisingly, is Robinson Crusoe.

As well as following his early life and the very hard life as a prisoner, we also follow his life in 1999. He soon adapts to computers and the Internet, cars and to television but is not terribly impressed with any of them. He gets involved in modern advertising and Vodolazkin mocks this several times.

Vodolazkin, through both Geiger and Innokenty, is critical of the modern era as well as of the past. Geiger tells Innokenty Dictatorship gave way to chaos. They steal like never before. The person in power abuses alcohol. and Money was devalued last summer.’‘And what can be done now?’ ‘Probably steal less. But that’s impossible in Russia.’ Innokenty himself says the proportional level of evil is approximately identical in all epochs. Evil simply takes on various forms.

This is a superb novel, beautifully told. Innokenty’s name is no accident. He is an innocent at the end of the twentieth century but not an idiot. To use a cliché, he can see the value of things, while other only see the price. He cannot understand why we appreciate some of the things we do (TV, advertising, much of the Internet), all of which are not terribly different in Russia from the Western world.

Vodolazkin tells a very clever story and is not afraid to condemn Leninist Russia, Stalinist Russia and Putin’s Russia and their respective horrors. However, he is not afraid to make digs at both the United States and Germany (Munich. A beautiful city but its heart beats indifferently.)

For me, however, the best part of the novel is Innokenty’s thoughts on the world, on his current world and his past world or, more particularly, his past worlds. He has lots of insights into both, even while he is suffering in the camps or bemused in the modern world. This is a very fine novel and, along with Лавр (Laurus), shows that Vodolazkin is one of Russia’s foremost contemporary novelists.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Izdatelʹstvo AST
First published 2018 in English by OneWorld
Translated by Lisa C Hayden