Innokenty Petrovich Platonov wakes up in a hospital at the beginning of The Aviator, by Eugene Vodolazkin and translated by Lisa Hayden. He has no idea what’s wrong with him or how he got there. In fact, Doctor Geiger has to tell him his name. The strange thing is that Geiger is very reticent to tell Innokenty anything else about who he is. It isn’t until about a third of the way through the book that we all learn exactly how a man who was born in 1900 but is taking medication manufactured in 1997.
After Innokenty wakes up, Geiger insists that he start writing down what he remembers of his life. Geiger says that it will be better for his recovery if Innokenty remembers for himself instead of just being told. So, Innokenty starts to write about summer trips to the Crimea with his family before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. He writes about the love of his life, Anastasia Voronina, and their experiences in collective housing and the new order. He writes about his years in the nascent gulag system in the late 1920s, though he does not dwell on the worst parts of his life. All of his recollections are mixed with his introduction to life at the end of the twentieth century.
As a man out of time and a man who lived through some of the most tumultuous and important years in Russian history, Innokenty is immediately famous. He is also a huge disappointment to interviewers. Instead of telling them about what it was like to be in St. Petersburg in 1917 or as a zek in the gulag, Innokenty prefers to talk about the sounds that one no longer hears or the smells that are gone. Social historians, who chase down those bits of lost history, would love him. Innokenty’s obsessions and fascinations are interesting to read, almost refreshing after reading so many novels set in and around the Revolution that find it necessary to reiterate the same events.
The deeper I got into The Aviator, the more I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon (one of the first books I remember breaking my heart—read it!). Innokenty remarks a couple of times that he identifies more with Belka and Strelka (sent into space by the Soviets) than with any hero. He didn’t plan on surviving what happened to him and never asked to be the object of so much effort and attention. The Aviator, then, mediates on what might happen to a man who loses potential decades of time with people he understood, loved, and hated. In his second act, Innokenty confronts questions about forgiveness, loss, futility, memory, and more. I very much enjoyed accompanying Innokenty on his journey in this deft, thoughtful novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 May 2018.