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from the January 2013 issue

Andrey Platonov’s “Happy Moscow”

Reviewed by Christopher Tauchen

Love is grasped at but never secured. Each person is exhausted, weary, and alone.

 “I want to live a future life.”

—Moscow Chesnova

It is no surprise that Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow failed to make it past the censors. Like Platonov’s masterpiece, The Foundation Pit, this short novel mentions an unmentionable fact about the massive modernization programs of the 1920s-30s: they were accompanied by a great deal of human suffering. Enthusiastic, hopeful workers lose their way and despair in the novel. Love is grasped at but never secured. Each person is exhausted, weary, and alone. In the end no one seems to have gotten anything for their pains.

One character, Konyagin, seems resigned to this: “After all, I'm not living, life's just something I got caught up in."

Happy Moscow begins much more hopefully. The title character, an orphan who is given the name Moscow Chesnova (after the city and a Russian root meaning “honest”), plays a largely symbolic role—she represents freedom, life, beauty, and the ideal woman and worker. After finishing school Moscow joins an elite parachuting team where she performs aerial stunts and tests experimental gear. An accident occurs during a test, and she falls to the ground in flames. Something has changed in her by the time she recovers. She moves from place to place and changes occupations. She is no longer content.

As the first generation to come of age after the revolution, Moscow and her circle of acquaintances—mostly engineers and scientists—are genuinely hopeful and enthusiastic about their efforts to create a true communism. Bozhko, the Esperantist, stays up all night after work conducting political correspondence with the people of the world. Sambikin, the physician, investigates an unknown substance in the body that is “endowed with a pungent energy of life, even though it [is] found only inside the dead.” And Sartorius, the engineer, works on the development of a simple but reliable set of scales that will save the state money by eliminating waste.

Each of these men falls in love with Moscow at first; she is accommodating but ultimately unable to provide what they really need. “Love,” she says, “cannot be communism. I've thought and thought and I've seen that it just can't. One probably should love—and I will love. But it's like eating food—it's just a necessity, it's not the main life.”

Platonov is a master stylist, and the translators have done a masterful job of rendering his stark prose into English. Here they describe Moscow’s first encounter with Konyagin:

Before her, behind the partition that kept the calm of the institution separate from people, stood a man whose face, long emaciated, was covered by the lines of a life of dreariness and by black traces of weakness and suffering; the clothes on the reservist were as worn as the skin on his face and they kept the man warm only by means of long-enduring filths that had eaten into the decrepitude of the cloth.

Several other previously unpublished works are included in this volume with Happy Moscow: “The Moscow Violin,” a story about a fiddler whose extraordinary violin is made of scrap materials; “Father,” a screenplay about an orphan searching for his parents; the brief ecological tract “On the First Socialist Tragedy”; and “Love for the Motherland,” a tale about a fiddler and a wild sparrow. Each of these related works is worth reading as a complement to the novel or on its own merit—especially the extraordinarily beautiful “Love for the Motherland”—and they all display the kind of deep, raw compassion that is characteristic of Platonov’s fiction.

The optimism that opens Happy Moscow gradually dies away. The enthusiastic youths, working nonstop toward the goal of attaining their “future life,” begin to drift and lose power. They may have been doomed to grow disillusioned from the start. At a banquet given in honor of selected outstanding young workers—where Moscow, Bozhko, and the others come together for the first time—Platonov draws our attention to a similar group of carefully selected young and beautiful things: “The large table had been laid for fifty people. Every half meter there were flowers, looking pensive because of their delayed death and giving off a posthumous fragrance.” Moscow and her generation have also been severed from an essential connection to life, and they come to recognize it. What can you do when nothing is lasting, and everything that seems to be is merely obscuring its inevitable, corporeal end?

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