What History Cannot Teach Us: A Conversation with Eugene Vodolazkin and Lisa Hayden

ARE WE LIVING THROUGH a crucial moment in history, and if so, how would we know? Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator explores this question through the experiences of Innokenty Platonov, who emerges from nearly a century of cryogenic slumber in post-Soviet 1999. Born into the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, Platonov survives the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, only to be swept up in the arrests attending Stalin’s consolidation of power in the late 1920s. Interned on the literal gulag archipelago of Solovki, he is given a choice between death and “voluntary” participation in an immortality experiment involving medical-grade full-body freezing. Having selected the latter, he spends the rest of Soviet history in anabiosis. When he finally awakens, he must confront not only the vicissitudes of life in post-Soviet Russia, but also his own status as an overnight celebrity — a piece of living history in an eclectic and mnemonically oversaturated time. For a less contemplative author, this sensational premise might have produced little more than cheap comedy: behold the Russian Rip Van Winkle in his first encounter with toothpaste ads and grunge music! Instead, Vodolazkin channels the serene spirituality of a medieval chronicler, distilling his thrill-packed tale into a meditation on the nature of personal and historical memory. Speaking with Eugene “Zhenya” Vodolazkin and his longtime translator, Lisa Hayden, I kept returning to questions of perspective and scale: What counts as “history,” and what is the best vantage point for viewing it? Does an aviator observing a landscape from above necessarily see more than a beetle scaling a single blade of grass?

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MAYA VINOKOUR: Zhenya, I wanted to ask about why The Aviator is set during the post-Soviet 1990s. Not just as an abstract moment, but as the era of television, of advertising, of these shadowy oligarchs in the process of amassing their huge wealth. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?

EUGENE VODOLAZKIN: There were a few reasons for it. The first and possibly most important one is that 1999 — which comes, chronologically, at the end of the novel — is exactly a century from when the story begins. It’s true that I was tempted to describe our current times, but in that case my protagonist would have “slept” too long. The critical thing was that his lover, Anastasiya, would then be too old. It might seem funny to talk about reality with respect to this particular novel, but still, something from reality had to be present in it. And that’s why I chose the 1990s. I’ve been asked many times if I wanted to avoid the present day for political or social reasons, but those played no role in my decision. In fact, the novel I am finishing now is set in the present, more or less — the latest year in it is 2015, if I remember correctly.

In addition to time and memory, another of The Aviator‘s key themes is justice, embodied in the recurring image of a broken statuette of Themis. Why was that figure so important to you?

EV: One of the novel’s key ideas is that mercy can be more important than justice. The detail of the statuette appears early on in the book and then again, from time to time, until the very end. For me, it was a way to think through the idea of justice, which is so strong in many minds right now. Justice is not so bad if we consider it in the abstract, but it never really stays that way. I know situations where justice was more terrible than any punishment. Life is — and I am the first to say this, of course — life is difficult. Life is not linear. And if a person believes justice is the most important thing, there’s no way out. You block off all exits that way. That is, I would say, the problem with any general idea. Because even the best general idea doesn’t admit individual cases. Justice without love is not always moral. And so my message is: Always deal with concrete persons and concrete things.

So in a way, Themis seems to relate to your personal philosophy. Can you talk a little more about that?

EV: I would describe my philosophy as a “Christian personalism.” I didn’t invent this term — it belongs to the Welsh archbishop Rowan Williams, whose works I very much enjoy, and who has written a lot about this concept. Incidentally, Rowan Williams gave Lisa and me a very precious gift: two years ago, they asked him what he considered the best book of the year, and he named the English translation of my 2012 novel Laurus. So to me, Williams is someone who really understands the notion of “personalism.” I think that the person, the individual, is the alpha and omega of both public and private independence.

Is there a relationship between personal independence — which we could also call human dignity — and personal responsibility? And how does that relationship interact with your personal philosophy as you’ve just described it?

EV: You know, there are two poles of human behavior. On the one hand, there is individualism, the most extreme form of personalism; on the other, we have something we might call “sociality.” But truth seldom lies on the extremes of a spectrum; in my personal experience, it’s always somewhere in the middle. Maybe that’s why I like the Middle Ages so much! When people ask about my political views, I normally say, “I have none.” This is not a joke or an exaggeration. I try to deal with concrete cases and concrete people, although this doesn’t make me antisocial. I know it sounds like a paradox, but let’s agree that life is difficult and complicated, and some situations can be described only through paradox. So, I’m an individual, a “personalist,” but I’m not antisocial. I participate in the life of my country, of my people, but on a personal basis. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like demonstrations. I don’t like general declarations. The Russian Revolution showed that there was no such thing as a truly “common” goal. In that sense revolution resembles a runaway train, where you take your seat and suddenly realize that it’s going in a totally different direction than you expected.

The great literary scholar Sergei Averintsev once said that it’s very dangerous when people begin to sing in unison, like in a choir — even if they’re singing good-sounding words. He said, words can change, but the habit of singing together will remain. For example, in Stalinism, what we had was a kind of total choir, in the sense of “totalitarianism.” And the only way to avoid disaster was to preserve your own personal voice. Some historical periods make this very difficult; but even so, you can sometimes do something that seems inessential, but is nonetheless important. My mentor and teacher, the medievalist and memoirist Dmitry Likhachev, was alive in the 1930s, when there was this terrible custom of voting for the death of those the state deemed “enemies of the people.” And it was very dangerous not to vote for that death, that is, not to affirm this existing decision that had already been made somewhere at the highest level. And Likhachev, who understood all this, and was not enough of a kamikaze to vote “no,” would try to find out in advance about such meetings, and then he’d get a doctor’s note to avoid going at all. Not one single time did he vote for the death of a human being. And those are the types of things that, for me, lie in the area of personal conscience or responsibility.

When I began reading The Aviator, the only thing I knew about it was what I had read on the book jacket. But when I got to the parts about Solovki, I immediately thought of Likhachev, who was arrested in 1928 and spent five years there and then wrote about it in his memoir. And The Aviator is full of all kinds of other intertexts, too. Some, like Blok, Pushkin, or Chekhov, are mentioned directly, but others are somewhat more obscure. What was the role of these intertexts for you, Zhenya? And Lisa, how do you render these intertexts legible to an Anglophone public?

LISA HAYDEN: It was clear to me that Likhachev was an intertext for Zhenya, because he knew him, but I had Solzhenitsyn more in mind for the American or British reader, because the connection of Solzhenitsyn and Solovki is pretty familiar to people. But my first goal was just to translate the book into something that reads well; that’s always the first thing I think about. That’s not to say that I don’t try to make the references work — I do. Blok was the biggest priority for me because the novel includes stanzas taken directly from his poems. As for Likhachev, it’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to him — I knew he was there — but his name didn’t come up. Short of writing an introduction or a separate scholarly piece to go with the book, there’s not much you can do. But it’s always a struggle, because you really want it to come out. Toward the end of The Aviator, there is a line about (and I’ll way oversimplify it!) the poet Anna Akhmatova’s house in St. Petersburg. The proofreader and the copyeditor — who are fantastic — said, “Shouldn’t we say whose this is?” But I wasn’t going to put that in there, because it wasn’t part of the text and a gloss would have been both too complicated and too obvious. To me, an explanation would have been going too far, particularly because it’s what’s in Zhenya’s text that’s most important.

In a way, this discussion relates to the issue of personal responsibility. Russians and Americans have different sets of cultural references, so it becomes a question for the translator — how much explanation do you give?

LH: I like to slip those things into the acknowledgments when I can. It’s nice to provide some sort of a clue to things, but not necessarily in the text itself. Every now and then, you have a text where maybe the narrator is a little bit officious or something. I recently worked on a text where the narrator liked to explain things, and there was some little thing where the copyeditor said, “Well, what about this?” And I said, “This is a case where it feels natural to add some little tiny bit.” For me, it’s very individual. How much can the text support? How much weight can you pile on it?

EV: I’d like to invoke the scholar Yuri Lotman, who wrote about cultural codes within texts. Any text of reasonable quality, I’d say, contains not just one code, but several. And I believe in my translator 100 percent. If he or she thinks that something won’t be clear to the reader, that overloading the text will doom it in a given cultural context, I trust them. In English, I was lucky twice: first, that the English language is so rich and has seemingly unbounded possibilities. And second, I was lucky to have Lisa. And these two strokes of luck created the rare situation where the translation is 99.9 percent representative of the original.

It seems to me that we are talking about two modes here, which are expressed in the quotation that opens the book. You can either reconstitute reality from little bits and pieces — the way Innokenty tries to do with his own writing — or you take it all in from the bird’s-eye view. And it seems to me that both modes are necessary in the task of translation: you have to look at things from above, but also swoop in and examine the details from time to time.

LH: You have to have both elements. What makes Zhenya’s books eminently translatable is that they have such a solid internal logic. Everything fits together and works together very well. As a translator, I can capture that. There is something almost metaphysical about it — somehow I can relate to what he writes, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what his characters are saying. And once I’ve captured that in my head, and I hope on the page too, that’s when I start going for those granular details. I think the translator’s responsibility is also to create a certain internal logic; otherwise, the translation doesn’t hold up. But I don’t know that it’s possible to create a translation with its own internal logic if the original doesn’t have it.

EV: I think that good translation doesn’t just come down to having a linguistic gift. It takes a special characteristic that I would describe as humility of the highest order. A writer isn’t unlike an actor; we might say that the writer is an actor who must play each of the roles he or she describes. And the same applies to translators. A good translator is interested not in their own presentation, but in “playing” the author in all his or her particular style and complexity. It’s not interesting for someone to come to the theater and to play him or herself, day after day. What’s interesting is to be a lion today and a mouse tomorrow. So I would say that translation is not just an intellectual process. Maybe it is a philosophy in its own right.

Why write a novel about memory? Why is this topic interesting to you today?

EV: Memory … What do we have except memory? Nothing. Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people. And that is why the book of books, the Bible, is a historical text. It is memory. As it happens, I am a historian — formerly a philologist, but my whole life I’ve studied the Middle Ages, and my academic writing is more about history and the philosophy of history than about linguistic problems. But history as such is not as important as we sometimes think. There’s Cicero’s famous aphorism: “History is the teacher of life.” But we shouldn’t take these words too seriously. History doesn’t actually repeat. I mean, it does in some sense, but if you want to build a modern democracy, you quickly understand that ancient Greek democracy has nothing to do with what you want, except in name. Because every historical event is a great complex of different circumstances, intentions, and so on and so forth. And to bring all of these together for a second time is impossible. And that’s why knowledge of history will not save us, cannot teach us what to do in the future. You can’t draw political conclusions from history, except in some extremely limited sense.

So it’s not the case that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it?

EV: Well, it’s not that history doesn’t teach us anything at all. But you have to identify the specific sphere of its influence. And for me, that would be the personal sphere. If we want to draw historical lessons, we must understand that they are moral rather than political. For society as a whole, it doesn’t make sense to study examples, because each person has his or her own agenda, in the same way that every battle has its own general. There are so many directions, so many vectors, that it is impossible to regulate this process. Which brings me back to our previous topic: if you want to help your society, develop yourself. Don’t develop the Volk, the people in general. Don’t deal in thousands and millions; deal with your own self. This point is crucial for The Aviator. One of the book’s main ideas is that personal history is much more important than general history, than world history — that world history is actually only a small piece of individual history. Whereas all these utopian ideas, like communism, all these ideas that put pressure on individuality — they are not organic, not vital. They have no right to exist. And The Aviator is precisely a text about an attempt at emancipation of personal history from world history.

This might be less a medieval message than an Enlightenment-era one. I’m thinking of Voltaire’s Candide: “tend to your own garden.”

EV: I would say that both eras share this idea, to some extent. Like any literary text, The Aviator is full of exaggeration, but if we take it seriously, we might say that such “unhistorical” things as a dacha in the woods, early morning sunlight in the pine trees, and so on, are more important than revolutions and wars. Of course, revolutions and wars also play an important role, but they’re like storms that make the roof fall in. They do create influence, but it’s not an influence of the best quality.

If you had one thing that you wanted the reader to come away with from the novel, what would it be?

LH: I hope the voices from the second half of the book feel distinct enough that people can tell them apart — that’s my technical wish. Thematically … I think it’s the little things that we’ve been talking about. Part of why I feel so close to what Zhenya writes is that I share so much of his philosophy about little things being so meaningful. While I was actively translating this book, I was always talking to people about this. People would ask, “What’s it about?” And it’s hard to explain what The Aviator is about without giving the whole story away, so I would always come back to the importance of little things: the smells, the sounds of cars, things like that. I’d say, “Do you realize that things used to sound different?” Because people tend to look at life as a continuum, not really thinking about the things that are gone. And so my wish would be for people to think about what those little things felt like.

EV: I agree with Lisa. I might describe the book to prospective readers like this: “Take care of the personal in your own self.” Not in a selfish way, but in a higher sense. If everyone took care of his or her own person, we’d live in a much better society. And even though I don’t believe in social ideals, this is utopian. But I do think that the only good way to make life and society better is to improve yourself. I would also add that there are a lot of different voices in The Aviator, which are quite individual but, at the end of the novel, unite in a kind of anonymity. They lose their names, dates, and so on. And that is my model of social life. Each person has his or her own voice, but they all end up blending together into a whole.

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Maya Vinokour is a writer, editor, and translator based in New York City. She is the co-translator and co-editor (with Ainsley Morse and Maria Vassileva) of Linor Goralik’s Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview (Columbia University Press, 2017).

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