In Eugene Vodolazkin's novel Laurus—translated artfully into English by Lisa Hayden and released to much critical acclaim in the anglophone literary world in 2016—the artist depicts a still-enchanted Medieval Christian world but with an acute awareness of the imminent changes to come. There are glimpses ahead through time and a prophecy of the coming "end of the world" in 1492 is proclaimed. On the cusp of modernity, the events taking place in the novel are precariously situated, giving a sense of instability as their world truly is about to end.
In Vodolazkin's The Aviator, again translated by the gifted Lisa Hayden, the world has ended. The story is set precisely in the span of the 20th century, the modern century par excellence, as the main character (Innokenty Platonov) is born in 1900 and the primary unfolding of events takes place in 1999. Through Innokenty's memories of his early life during the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution, where modernity came to its full fruition in Russia, the happenings there are still reverberating into the present, through the medium of memory. As a society, but also in Innokenty's personal life.
Innokenty awakes in a hospital bed having apparently lost his memory at the start of the novel. As it is slowly regained and he becomes conscious of the details of his own life (beginning at the beginning), so does the reader. Eventually he recalls his experiences in the camps under the Bolsheviks. These sections are horrifying and, in their harrowing nature, reminiscent of various episodes described in Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The enchanted world of Laurus' holy fools is definitely nowhere to be found here.
Vodolazkin seeks to find the Christian reading of events nevertheless. But where can they be found in the darkness of a world which turned its back on God, resulting in such horrors? Vodolazkin's consistent answer is that truth and beauty can still be encountered, despite massive social and political turmoil, in the smallest things—in the details. Not "events", understood as large epochal and sociological happenings, but in the subtleties of place and feeling, and of personal connection.
Because Innokenty is committed to this ideal of the small things, and has a faith in the power of the written word to enshrine and preserve reality, he undertakes describing his own life. Originally this was a task given by his doctor for therapy, to aid the resuscitation of memory, but for Innokenty it became the means of life itself. He eventually enlists his doctor and his wife in the task as well, and their descriptions of small, seemingly meaningless scenes become the way the reader sees a world that passes most modern people by. This is what Innokenty is afraid of more than anything; not even the horrors of politics per se—in a passage which reminded me of Kanye West's recent comments about slavery, he sees the Russian revolution as a form of collective suicide and also as essentially inevitable—but that the modern obsession with macro-scale "events", with politics and ideology, causes people to lose touch with the substance of life which comes to us in serendipitous and intangible moments of grace. And they still occur even within the modern world, with all its attendant degradation and disintegration.
In this understanding of things, and Vodolazkin's broader Christian outlook, the book often brought to mind the work of Terrence Malick. Where Vodolazkin didactically describes the utility of detail and the little things, of the natural world or human interaction, of the memory of peeling paint on your grandmother's porch deck or a dusty stack of books in your father's den, Malick depicts them. Malick's attention to the natural world, and to the power of detail which in some sense supersedes the dictates of narrative in its import, is a feature in common with The Aviator. Vodolazkin's descriptions of detail, through the descriptions of his characters who are writing, if they have any drawback, it's that they share a common risk with Malick's, namely that they can drift into a sort of sentimentality at times. But mainly they don't veer too far in that direction and the effect is as intended.
If the small things and the intimacy of human relations, especially family, are where life resides, those things in turn are experienced through memory, which as has already been alluded to is a prominent theme in the novel. Memory and its connection to time.
In one passage remembering and describing the tranquility of a time at a dacha (a kind of vacation home) with his family as a child, Innokenty draws all of the themes of memory, time, and detail together:
I want no new events: let whatever exists be, is that really not enough?... Paradise is the absence of time. If time stops there will be no more events. Nonevents will remain. The pine trees will remain, brown and gnarled below, smooth and amber at the top. The gooseberries by the fence will not go anywhere, either. The squeak of the gate, a child's muffled cry at the next dacha, the first pounding of rain on the veranda roof ... all the things that changes in government and the fall of empires do not wipe out. Whatever happens outside history is timeless, liberated.
This aversion to politics, and its juxtaposition with the small-things-that-ultimately-matter, is another running theme. Though Innokenty insists he is apolitical, or even anti-political, it's clear that being apolitical can't but be interpreted by a world awash in a storm of politics as itself an act of political rebellion. Indeed, to the modern mind, the claim of being apolitical is itself reactionary, a way to disguise the imperial violence of your own worldview and assumptions. And while Innokenty does reveal himself to have reactionary tendencies—taking jabs at an 'emancipated woman' atheist acting as if aeroplanes (i.e. modern technology) had banished death; burning revolutionary pamphlets circa 1917; citing Dostoevsky's The Possessed to a budding socialist—he also realizes he's from a world that, in 1999, no longer exists, and that he has no program for bringing it back. He would no doubt agree with the Nicholas Gomez Davila aphorism that "man matures when he stops believing that politics solves his problems."
This is a sympathetic disposition generally, but can be taken too far. Vodolazkin, through Innokenty, comes close to going too far in his elevation of the individual as the sine qua non of humanity, and by seeing as the primary folly of the 20th century groups trampling roughshod over the individual. This analysis doesn't take into account the way in which the rise of individualism is itself part of a modern dialectic that in turn gives rise to collective despotism. Marx, for instance, was acutely concerned with the welfare of the individual and liberating him from the "tyranny" of the patriarchal family structure, bosses, and monarchs. Clearly the individual is no panacea, and from an ideological point of view, this is a blindspot for the novel.
This is counterbalanced by what is an appropriate emphasis on Christian themes of repentance and mercy trumping justice. Vodolazkin's Orthodoxy shines through when Innokenty asks to be brought St. Andrew of Crete's Canon of Repentance while in the hospital bed, and dwells on the phrase 'whence shall I begin to weep over the deeds of my cursed life?' And later when he contemplates the dictum revealed to St. Silouan the Athonite: 'keep thy mind in hell and despair not.' Here and in his interactions with others the proper emphasis on the personal, rather than the individual, prevails.
The recurring image of a statuette of Themis serves to expound on the theme of justice being lesser than mercy and love. A powerful desire for justice, if not properly checked and counterbalanced, is what fuels revolutions and social disruption. It can also bring personal ruin. It's apparent the way such a concern fueled many 20th century atrocities, and how in the name of "social justice" today, many more perversions and subversions continue to be pushed. A reveal late in the book shows why Innokenty is personally convicted as to the evils a thirst for justice can lead to, if neglecting to leave the matter ultimately in God's hands.
The narrative of the novel itself is engrossing, with some surprising turns that I won't go into here. Vodolazkin unmasks some of the pretensions of the contemporary world—its scientism and technological tyranny, its spiritual degradation—by filtering experience of it through the eyes of a character who just wakes up there. This device of a man out of time, waking up in a future world he doesn't recognize, has become almost cliche, but is deftly used here to illuminate the ways memory—both historical and personal—can either serve to chain us to the past or open us to eternity.