Reviewed by Alex Wenger
Andrey Platonov brings out grand claims in others. Most excellent writers do this, but Platonov perhaps belongs in a special league. His chief translator Robert Chandler, in the introduction to the new Platonov collection Soul announces: "All Russians consider Pushkin their greatest poet; in time, I believe, it will become equally clear that Platonov is their greatest prose writer." The writer Penelope Fitzgerald is on record calling his short story "The Return" one of the "three great works of Russian literature of the millennium." Let us be clear right off: these claims are absurd. Platonov is far too weird to ever worry Count Tolstoy's descendants overmuch, and while most any millennium would be happy to claim a story as beautiful as "The Return," I can quickly think of three stories by Gogol that I prefer. Yet some force must be at work to persuade otherwise intelligent Englishmen to make crazy statements about a writer of whom most educated Westerners have never even heard.
This force will reveal itself no later than ten pages into the title novella of the collection. Soul reads like the kind of Soviet myth that an American student might be forgiven for thinking impossible. We have a tendency to assume that art produced under an oppressive regime will either capitulate into risible official acceptability or take that oppression for its principal subject. Soul avoids this false dualism. Platonov wrote beneath the stainless steel yoke of socialist realism, a demand that all useful art concretely situate itself in history and celebrate the inexorable advance of the proletariat. In the most leanly technical sense, Soul satisfies these criteria. It describes the efforts of a young engineer returning to the Central Asian homeland of his youth and attempting to lift his tribe out of squalor and into communism. Agricultural reform is trumpeted, and a past exploitation of slaves is reviled. But here all resemblance ceases; a novel by Maxim Gorky and Soul have perhaps as much in common as do a Dodge Stratus and a cloud.
While the action of Soul maintains a close adherence to physical existence, there is always a second, symbolic register as suggested by its title. Near the beginning of his adventure, the hero Nazar Chagataev sets off into the desert. He soon encounters a blind man and his child. Nazar takes up the blind man's child, and together they venture deeper into the scrubland. One night while they sleep, an old woman finds them. She fondles their clothes and goods and bodies. She kisses Nazar's neck and begins also to kiss his face. Nazar wakes: "Don't," says Chagataev. "You're my mother." And so she is. Remarkable here is that after this sudden and mystical entry, Nazar's mother plays a relatively quotidian part in the narrative. Her strangeness evaporates—which only furthers the story's strangeness. Soul is a dream allegory, one in which the reader can readily identify symbols without having equal success assessing what they signify. Socialist realism and polemical allegory tell us that which we already know or at least ought to know. This novella functions in the opposite manner. Its symbols are not familiar or easily interpreted, and their effect is to make the world larger and weirder. In a blasted Asian landscape where man crawls on the very lip of survival, we are made aware of a vastness that we do not know, that we fail to know, that we sense it is crucial to know. This sense of crucial knowledge and our inability to access it will instill in the reader a personal tension that might more commonly occur in religious texts.
Just as it overthrows the daylit Soviet expectations of its period, so Soul also ignores the underground themes of that time. Platonov critiques Stalin, but not in the expected way. The police state is not mentioned, much less raged against. The question is rather of the possibilities and limits of revolution. Nazar's tribe, the Dzhan, is utterly ignorant of socialism, and the hero is repeatedly stymied in his attempts to bring them along. But Platonov is not conservative or liberal. The vision of Soul is not of a retreat from revolution but of a deeper, even more fundamentally revolutionized state. This state is polymorphous and supple. It has a host of different communities, and the socialist answer for each people is different, as it must be. Platonov's socialism is made of peoples; it cannot be imposed upon them.
Soul feels sui generis. Like another masterpiece unpublished during the Stalin decades, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, it feels both motherless and childless. One wonders how it ever came into being. The other stories in the collection are less bracing, though all are accomplished.
For further reading, Penguin Classics' Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Chandler, is a fabulous collection. The nineteenth century tales of the first half are deserved classics, but the selections of twentieth century writers, most of them unknown in the West, will be revelations.
Alex Wenger is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia University. He frequently reviews for Words without Borders.
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