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17 November 2018

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Book Review

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The Aviator

By Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa Hayden

What if a gulag prisoner born in 1900 went to sleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, in the 1920s, only to wake in 1999? How would his life get woven back together? Who would he be?

When Innokenty Platonov wakes at the novel’s outset, he does not remember who or where he is. His doctor, not wanting to harm the patient’s recovery, knows the truth yet councils a slow re-awakening of memories, of their own accord, and tells Platonov to write down what he remembers in a journal. And so the book takes the form of that journal, jumping back and forth through time to unravel the mysteries of Platonov’s predicament, the murder that landed him in the camps, the longing of his life and loves left behind. And the suspense builds, as we come to discover that his new life may be in danger now, at the very end of the century in which his birth began.

Since this is Vodolazkin, the writing is of course beautiful, and the narrative structure is onion-like, revealing itself carefully and elegantly as the story progresses.

Without spoiling the plot for readers, there are striking parallels to be explored between Platonov’s and Russia’s lost decades, and there is a Bulgakovian vein in the fantastical experiments and absurdities that underlie the plot. There is also even a touch of Dostoyevsky in this powerful novel, whereby Vodolazkin telescopes a century’s horrors and dramas through the lives of a single Leningrad communal apartment’s residents, all the while broaching the greater philosophical questions of existence.

Highly recommended.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2018