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A Book Review . . . Resurrection

November 26, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By JOHN LYON

Vodolazkin, Eugene, The Aviator. London: One World Publications; 2018. Translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Available at Amazon.com.

“Exceptional.” “Amazing.” “Masterful.” “Captivating.” When one reads such summary praise on the dustjacket of a book, one suspects sheer puffery in their placement and disappointment in the anticipated reading. Not so here. The puffery may be inevitable, but at times there is substance to puff about. That is the case here. The adjectives are more accurate than this reader suspected.
The protagonist of this novel is one Innokenty Petrovich Platonov: the innocent (that is, causing no harm) son of Peter, of Plato’s clan…about whose personal name we learn something of significance only near the end of the book. Briefly and blandly put, his story is this: Born in 1900 in St. Petersburg, and educated in an art school there, he is transported as a zek to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea for the alleged murder of a neighbor shortly after the Revolution.
Barely alive due to the work demanded there and the unbelievably degrading treatment, Innokenty takes “the Lazarus option,” that is, he “volunteers” to be quick-frozen with liquid nitrogen as part of Soviet cryonics experiments on the possibility of resuscitating at some later date such thaw-bait. Despite all odds, but not without complications, Innokenty is successfully resuscitated in 1999. Initially not being told who he is or given any indication of his past, Innokenty is slowly guided to remembrance of things past and awareness of things present by Dr. Geiger, the physician supervising his case.
This is accomplished largely by means of writing a “contemporary” journal or day-book in which he records anything that “comes to his mind,” or rather, anything his mind comes to. The day-book knows only a seven-day cycle, is not linear, and consequently temporal sequence is not a characteristic of the writing which the reader can depend on. The reader comes to know Innokenty, the doctor, and other characters and events in Innokenty’s life largely via the journal.
The main characters of the novel are Innokenty, his German-Russian doctor, and two Anastasias: The protagonist’s chastely loved Anastasia Voronin of his youth, and her granddaughter Anastasia, also by a complicated process surnamed Voronin, a young woman in the 1990s. With some irony, Innokenty’s first love, a few years younger than he, is yet alive in her 90s in 1999, and in a nursing home of some decrepitude, herself largely comatose. (Geiger estimates Innokenty’s biological age at about thirty.)
She retains enough consciousness to recognize Innokenty, to announce, deceptively as it turns out, an important detail at a critical point in his life of which the reader is not aware, and to ask for a priest to hear her Confession as she is dying. The second Anastasia completes the role that the first might have been expected to have played in Innokenty’s life.
Three icons are given us whose regular appearance in the novel tie together the designedly inconsistent temporal narration and guide us to a greater sense of character: “the aviator,” Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a statuette of Themis, the Greek incarnation of divine good counsel or justice. The aviator is given us in the title, of course, and in a statement prefacing the work as someone of genuine vision who should be capable of seeing the togetherness of otherwise petty lives.
We find this image again in Innokenty’s reflections at the very end of the story, as the plane on which he is returning from a medical examination in Munich prepares for what appears a disastrous landing. In between these initial and final presentations, the image resonates through an episode with a cousin flying kites on the Gulf of Finland, and in Innokenty’s act of generosity to an idolized Russian aviator just before the latter’s flight in which the plane fails and he crashes.
Robinson Crusoe constantly recurs. His grandmother reads it to him when, as a child, he lies abed before sleeping. He thinks of it when a zek on an island prison camp in the White Sea. Geiger buys a 1906 edition of it for Innokenty when he is at an early stage of remembrance of things past. And, at the end of the novel, on the apparently doomed airplane, he thinks of his childhood home, with his grandmother reading Defoe’s work to him.
Perhaps we are to understand that Innokenty, and all we “innocents,” are castaways on deserted islands and forced to “make do” with no more than our wits and bits and pieces of the past.
The statuette of Themis seems to play the most obvious, though all but once “abstract,” focus for continuity in the novel. It was given Innokenty’s father upon graduation from law school. As a child Innokenty breaks off the pans of justice she holds, thinking they should be allowed to float as she weighs the evidence. The reader discovers near the end of the account that he put Themis to what might be called practical purposes in the execution of a design that he comes to recognize was hardly just.
Then, when the GPU agents come for him in the mean apartment he shares with his mother and the Voronins, Themis is there with no scales for weighing justice. Innokenty reflects that all that remains to her to determine justice is her sword. But in his final vision in the airplane Themis is there, intact, with scales, in his home, where his grandmother is reading him Robinson Crusoe.
Fascinating imaginative-documentary reconstruction is worked throughout the book. How has the author learned what it is like to handsaw wood in minus 40 degree temperature, hardly fed, thinly clad, in bast shoes? To note the calamitous historical irony of the Soviets converting the monastery on Sekirnaya Mountain (Solovetsky) into a congeries of cells in which zeks such as Innokenty are condemned to solitary confinement?
The interplay between past and present in Innokenty’s reconstitution of himself suggests a degree of perception in the author at which the reader marvels. As he is slowly introduced to contemporary society, Innokenty cannot fathom the vulgarity of post-Soviet Russia. Why are the people on talk shows always smiling?, he asks. He queries Geiger as to whether people really do dance the way he sees them on television. When Geiger replies that, in general, they do, Innokenty notes that in his youth the only people he saw cavorting in such a fashion were amateur actors in the theater in Siverskaya (where his family went in summers) who were supposed to be possessed.
When interviewed by the cross-legged, short-skirted TV hostess who wants him to talk about “historical events” he lived through, Innokenty notes with old-fashioned modesty that, with such persons, he tries never to look below the waist. She asks him about the October Coup which he lived through. He replies: It rained; and then he details it. First rain. Then sleet, then wet snow, then snowflakes driven by a wintry wind.
Innokenty’s reflections on human nature are disturbing, though plenarily accurate. Despite his unbearable suffering as a zek, for instance, he notes that authoritarianism is less evil than anarchy, that there is no such thing as undeserved punishment, that the basest emotions only erupt from those who only know external law, and that only tragedy comes from being inspired by happiness. Informed both by his “previous” life and his observation of contemporary society Innokenty asks if there is such a thing as a societal will to die.
Here we enter quite painfully into the miasma of contemporary life.
Visits to the beloved dead in cemeteries used to play an important role in Tsarist Russia, and Vodolazkin describes such visits well. Cemeteries were apparently massively vandalized under the Soviet regime, for they bore the specific numina of the Christian religion. Statues, memorials were destroyed, bodies dug up, bones scattered. Innokenty asks, both reflectively and presciently, what happens to a people when they desecrate their own cemeteries.
We are about to ask that question, one fears. We already viciously and violently desecrate memorials to our own people, past leaders of our nation whose deeds do not pass muster with the more aggressive-assertive of present-day activists. Our soviets may be just around the corner.
Although Innokenty has sworn to kill at least two variously evil persons in the course of the narration, one periodically wonders why he seems increasingly to lack the motive of revenge. Finding out, for example, that the Chekist who was responsible for ordering much of his suffering in the camps is alive, living on a pension, one anticipates a powerfully dramatic scene as a visit to his apartment is scheduled. But the fuse is wet. The Chekist refuses to apologize, and when Innokenty asks him why, he replies simply that he is tired.
So, perhaps, is the reader.
But perhaps the reader should not be. The Chekist’s paternal name is Voronin, and when this is revealed, the reader recalls the other bearers of the patronymic. We are also at the point of the narration at which Nastya (the “second” Anastasia) asks Innokenty what could be higher than justice. “Probably only charity,” he replies. And he becomes quite specific about the matter: It is not that mercy is higher than justice, but only love. “Everything is decided by touching the soul.”
Near the end of the account, Nastya reminds him that their daughter is due to be born about April 13, which is the feast day of St. Anna. That date turns out also to be the memorial of the Prelate Innokenty, “educator of Siberia and America.” “Amazing!” Anastasia II remarks. Indeed.

The Aviator Image

As my title for this review might suggest to the reader, it has occurred to this reviewer that “Resurrection” might be a more appropriate title for Vodolazkin’s book than the one he has chosen. Innokenty is obviously resurrected, but perhaps more important Anastasia has been resurrected: She whose name means “resurrection” has been given a second “stasis,” resurrected, not necessarily in herself but in her granddaughter. The Orthodox Church has been resurrected in Russia, in the meaningful form one sees it in the novel. The Russian state has been resurrected, though in 1999 Geiger calls it essentially a kleptocracy run by an alcoholic.
And Innokenty, a “Lazarus,” meaning in its etymology “one whom God has helped,” reflects on just why Lazarus was resurrected. Was it perhaps because Lazarus could only understand something after he was dead, and he was resurrected for that understanding? There are definite suggestions that such is the case with Innokenty, who starts to realize through his suffering in the hell of the Gulag the nature of the unjust actions he has done or contemplated doing, and, brought back to life, understands and repents.
Yet who is a reviewer to suggest to an author what the title of his book should be? Perhaps the tenuousness of the “aviator” image is more appropriate after all. As Innokenty’s airplane descends to probable though not certain disaster he is writing of his childhood for the benefit of his soon-to-be-born daughter by the second Anastasia.
Vodolazkin dedicates this work: “to my daughter.”

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