Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Book Two: Vodolazkin’s Soaring Aviator

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) is the first of this year’s Big Book finalists that I read: though I’d sworn I’d wait to read The Aviator when I could get it in print, I happily accepted the final text of the book from Vodolazkin and read a short passage on my reader each evening. It made for particularly nice spring reading. Though I always prefer print reading over electronic, I have to admit that limiting myself to short sections (to avoid the eye and attention strain I seem to get when reading electronically) was a good way to both extend my enjoyment of the novel and to consider, over time, the ways Vodolazkin develops his story and main character, Innokentii Platonov. I’m sure I would have loved a good binge-read, too, but it wouldn’t have done justice to this meditative (I think that’s the word I’m looking for) novel.

I’m afraid this post won’t do the novel much justice, either. That’s not just because I loved The Aviator so much in ways that I can’t explain, other than by saying that some books just seem to go right to the head and/or the heart, a phenomenon I think most of you understand. Nor do I want to gush. Beyond all that, I’m going very light on details in this post because one of the reasons I enjoyed The Aviator so much is that Vodolazkin didn’t tell me much at all about the novel: I began reading with only one bit of background (which spoiled nothing whatsoever but that I won’t mention because I don’t have context) and I had no expectations whatsoever about plot, character, or anything else. If I’d known more, I wouldn’t have gasped, audibly, when I found out what caused Platonov’s rather unique condition.

On an analytical, big-picture level, I was pleased to see how nicely The Aviator dovetails with Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post) and Solovyov and Larionov (brief summary on a previous post), both of which I’ve already translated. What I’d previously called a diptych now feels like a solid triptych. Each book examines—from very different angles—history, events, and time, which has a tendency to spiral in Vodolazkin’s novels. Since I’m translating The Aviator now, it’s easy to remember what details come very early in the book so I don’t spoil anything. Or at least very much. And so, a few things…

The Aviator is written in journal form, beginning with an undated entry by a man who’s quickly identified as Innokentii Petrovich Platonov. He appears to be a hospital patient with amnesia. His doctor, a man named Geiger (whose nose hairs Platonov sees on the third page), suggests the journal as a method for resurrecting his memory. As the days pass, Platonov begins remembering bits of his past and his personal story: he’s fairly quick to remember he’s the same age as his century, which can quickly be identified as the twentieth. And his location quickly sets the book in St. Petersburg, something that feels wholly organic. That’s not just because of mentions of landmarks or of street names that evoke the past, but because there’s a whiff of that old Gogolian feeling (since Gogol’s not mentioned in the novel, perhaps this is ingrained in my thinking? or even somehow idiopathic?) that unusual things can and most likely will happen there. The novel also incorporates Petersburg poet Alexander Blok’s “The Aviator” (here in Russian and here in English).

Vodolazkin works in elements from many genres, including love story and murder mystery, touches of science fiction and history, as well as coming of age, plus the bonus of references to Robinson Crusoe, which I realized I’ve somehow never read (!). There’s a little bit of everything, but all that everything flows together (everything matters here) very, very smoothly, gathering speed as time, history, events, and people, too, in their way, spiral. Of course there’s humor (I can’t imagine Vodolazkin writing without humor) and an almost improbably suspenseful ending. Most of all, though, from the perspective of a translator spiraling through a first draft of The Aviator—each draft and (re)reading of a book and its translation has the feel of spiraling history for me, too—I’m enjoying the book as a portrait of how a person grows and develops, more than once.

Though I have dozens and dozens of electronic notations on my PDF that mark time stamps, telling dreams, bits of history, and curious details about Platonov’s neighbors, not to mention incidences of flying, I’m keeping those to myself, with the hope that you’ll read the book, too, either now in Russian or later, when translations begin coming out. That said, if you’d like more details about The Aviator, visit the Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency’s page about the novel here; the book’s cover art, by Mikhail Shemyakin, also offers insight into what happens in the book.

Up next: Alexander Snegirev’s Vera and Maria Galina’s ever-mysterious Autochthons, both of which force me to look at my own reading habits and book preferences from new angles, and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga that reads along easily.

Disclaimers: The usual. I am translating The Aviator for Oneworld Publications.


  1. Lisa,

    You mention that you translated 'Solovyov and Larionov' - is that yet publically available?

    1. Thank you for asking, Anonymous. Solovyov and Larionov is a wonderful book, too, with some nice sly twists. The short answer is that it is not yet available. It will come out after The Aviator but I don't know the actual planned publication dates for either book. (I'm just focused on my own deadlines at this point!)

  2. I just finished your translation of Laurus (with Kirillov-Belozersk chant playing in the background). It was a truly wonderful book. I anxiously await your other translations of Vodolazkin's books!

  3. Fascinating, Lisa, and thank you for not spoiling the ending (I was making good progress with this book but it's been languishing since I left Russia). I am so glad you're translating this book, as you did a wonderful job on Lavr/Laurus (not just flattery - I've decided to cite Laurus in my academic book-in-progress, so I had to look at the original, and I was again impressed by your translation). Good luck with the Read Russia award!

    1. Thank you so much, Russians Dinosaur for your kind comment about Laurus! I love The Aviator, too, and am thoroughly enjoying translating it. (It's also been lots of fun to see Vodolazkin and see more Laurus translatorsbtoday!)