by eugene vodolazkin
translated by lisa c. hayden
oneworld, 400 pages, $26.99
In one of the greatest memoirs of the Stalin years, Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote, “We have to get over our loss of memory.” Beginning with Gorbachev’s glasnost, and especially after the fall of communism, many tried to do just that. Organizations like Memorial collected documents, recorded recollections, and organized public exhibitions about the Gulag, such as the gigantic “Week of Conscience” in 1988. Today, Russia seems to be slipping back into a sort of semi-oblivion, not exactly denying the terrible past, but doing its best to disregard it.
Eugene Vodolazkin’s new novel The Aviator, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize, finds an interesting way to plead for recollection of the dark spots in Russia’s past and in the lives of each of us. The book’s title is drawn from a conversation the hero holds on an airplane shortly before his death. The passenger in the next seat asks why he keeps writing things down:
“I’m describing things, sensations. People. I write every day now, hoping to save them from oblivion.”
“God’s world is too great to count on success with that.”
“You know, if each person were to describe his own sliver of that world, even if it’s a small piece. . . . Although why, really, is it small? You can always find someone whose field of view is broad enough.”
“Such as an aviator.”
The hero turns out to be the perfect person to save things from oblivion. As Part One of the novel opens, he suffers total amnesia. His doctor, Geiger, has to tell him his name, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov. To help him recover his memory, Geiger asks Platonov to write down whatever scraps of memory occur to him, and so readers encounter a disorderly hodgepodge of incidents from different periods of Platonov’s life. Bit by bit, he recalls that he was born in 1900, lived an idyllic life before the revolution, and fell deeply in love with a woman named Anastasia. He came to loathe a police agent named Zaretsky, who shared a communal apartment with Platonov’s and Anastasia’s families, and denounced Anastasia’s father as a “counterrevolutionary”; learned that Zaretsky had been murdered; was himself arrested both for political reasons and for Zaretsky’s murder; and spent a horrific time in the notorious prison camp on the Solovetsky Islands in Russia’s frozen far north.
Soviet leaders, distressed that Lenin’s body should rot like that of an ordinary person, chose to conduct cryogenic experiments on prisoners. Of the prisoners frozen in this “Lazarus” project, Platonov was the only one to survive thawing. A devout Christian, he wonders if his unique experience has a purpose. “Maybe I really was resurrected in order that all of us grasp once again what happened to us in those terrifying years when I lived.” He becomes obsessed with questions about memory, history, time, and personal identity, as well as fundamental moral problems. These are, of course, the basic themes of classic Russian literature, and so Platonov continually recalls Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and other great writers. His compulsion to write brings to mind the opening sentence of Ivan Bunin’s great novel, The Life of Arseniev: “Such things and deeds as are not written down are covered in darkness and given over to the sepulchre of oblivion, while those that are written down are like unto animate ones.” One defining characteristic of Russian literature is its habit of making incidents significant by creating literature out of them, thereby linking them to earlier works of the canon. Platonov understands his life by drawing parallels with Russian masterpieces.
There is one non-Russian work that also recurs. His grandmother used to read him Robinson Crusoe, and he now identifies with that hero stranded in space as he is in time. As Crusoe desperately tried to rescue as many things as possible from the sinking ship, Platonov struggles to rescue from oblivion facts about the past that people of his new present have lost. “The time that had given birth to him remained somewhere far away. . . . 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 word, something that’s not simple at all.”
Platonov becomes a celebrity—he earns money by advertising frozen foods—and everyone keeps asking him questions about great historical events through which he lived. They expect some analysis in terms of broad social forces, some narrative based on a philosophy of History with a capital H, but Platonov regards such thinking as part of the problem. He arrives at an idea associated with Tolstoy and Chekhov, an idea I like to call “prosaics.” These writers insisted that people err when they think of life only in terms of great events or confuse the most noticeable events with the most important ones. Rather, as Tolstoy famously explained, true life is lived in the most ordinary of moments when the tiniest alterations of consciousness take place. Or as Platonov explains, the essence of life lies in “the most minor of everydayness, things that seem unworthy of attention and are taken for granted by one’s contemporaries. This everydayness goes along with events and then disappears, undescribed by anyone.” In his writing, Platonov tries to save this everydayness from being lost forever.
“I keep trying to draw you out on historical topics,” one journalist complains, “and you keep talking about sounds and smells.” Platonov rejects the suggestion that it was the beatings in the labor camp that formed him. “It was other things entirely,” he explains. “A grasshopper’s chirping in Siverskaya [where he spent his childhood], for example. The smell of a samovar that’s boiled.”
What really makes a moment, a person, a life, and a historical period what they are is not the “events,” like Waterloo, but what Platonov calls “the non-events,” like the aroma of printer’s ink emanating from a favorite book or the “glassy ringing of garlands in a draft of air.” By focusing again and again on sounds and smells, Platonov echoes the way Russia’s greatest chronicler of nature, Ivan Turgenev, conveyed the uniqueness of each natural scene and each passing moment. Platonov’s descriptions of the country dacha he lived in as a boy, of the streets of his beloved St. Petersburg, and of the horrific moonscape of the Solovetsky hell contain some of the book’s best passages. He strains to capture the olfactory and the auditory by the visual and the verbal. To be sure, Platonov, and the author who created him, do not measure up to Turgenev, but even their attempts are moving.
After recovering his memory, Platonov finds and marries Anastasia’s granddaughter Nastya (a nickname of Anastasia), who gives birth to their daughter. Part Two of the novel reverses Platonov’s experience of Part One as bit by bit, his brain cells die off—some aftereffect of freezing and thawing—and so he begins to lose memory as he earlier gained it. Now he writes obsessively so that his daughter, whom he will never see, might know something particular about him, the non-events and tiny alterations that make him unique.
Even as his brain deteriorates, he keeps recalling bits of his past life. At last he realizes that he is in fact guilty of a horrible crime and so, in a sense, his punishment in the Gulag was deserved. This realization brings the book’s political and religious themes into focus.
Russians discussing the horrors of communism usually stress the many millions of victims and the unjust suffering of the Russian people. But Russians were also the perpetrators. When Gorbachev was still in power, I recall one wise Russian observing: We will know we have matured morally when we stop talking not only about what was done to us but also about what we did. Solzhenitsyn agreed: Why were Russians not subjected to Nuremberg trials, so that, like the Germans, we could come to terms with our terrible crimes? Platonov expresses much the same thought when he asserts that Stalin “was expressing a societal will.” He sees this all the more clearly because he recognizes that he is himself a murderer. In The Brothers Karamazov, undoubtedly the world’s greatest Christian novel, the holy Father Zosima repeats that “everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything.” In much the same spirit, Platonov, who was born in 1900 and reborn in 1999, understands that he is personally responsible for the whole twentieth century.
Recalling how atheism became “a fashion” among the early twentieth-century intelligentsia, Platonov describes an “emancipated woman,” dressed in the exactly appropriate clothing for a young radical, offering herself to him in order to demonstrate her progressive credentials. When she notices he wears a cross, she wonders how anyone could believe in God “in an epoch of aeroplanes.” He replies: “Did aeroplanes really abolish death?”
From Dostoevsky to the present, Russians have defined themselves in contradistinction to Germans, which is evidently why Vodolazkin makes the doctor, Geiger, an ethnic German, and why, near the novel’s end, Platonov goes to Munich for a medical consultation. Germans are boringly honest, while flamboyant Russians, Platonov maintains, cannot help stealing. Germans are practical, Russians spiritual, and so Geiger believes in rules while “in Russian life . . . exception is the rule.” The greatest “exception” is the supernatural. When the Munich doctor sadly asserts that he can promise no miracles, Platonov replies, “But it’s miracles I came for.” “Miracles, that’s in Russia,” the doctor answers. “There you live by the laws of the miracle, but we attempt to live in conformity with reality. It’s unclear, however, which is better.” A true Russian, and the new Lazarus, Platonov knows which is better.
The Aviator is a story of repentance, most obviously for Platonov himself, but by implication for Russians generally. Sensing his own guilt, Platonov comes to understand Christian love and forgiveness. “When you describe a person in a genuine way,” he reflects, “you cannot help but love him. Even the very worst person becomes your composition: you accept him into yourself and begin feeling responsible for him and his sins.” Everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything.
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.