WHY PLATONOV HAS been relatively unknown in the West for so long is puzzling. In Russia, after years of suppression, he is at last accorded his rightful place as one of the great twentieth-century writers.
Born in 1899, Andrei Platonov grew up in a poor family and worked on the railway before studying electrical engineering and becoming a journalist and an agricultural engineer. He worked mainly in land reclamation, which brought him into close contact with the peasants and with the cruel changes introduced by the collectivisation of agriculture. From 1926 he dedicated himself to writing. He was persecuted by the reigning critics despite his communist faith, and he experienced poverty and suffering. His greatest works stayed unpublished in his desk; his young son was arrested and consequently died of tuberculosis. He himself died all too young, in 1951, of the same illness.
The short novel Dzhan, here translated as Soul, is the product of journeys Platonov made to Soviet Turkmenistan in 1934 and 1935. Reading the book through in a single sitting, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. Dzhan is one of the finest pieces of twentiethcentury narrative prose, and this translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson is surely one of the finest fiction translations. It has a sustained, almost magical musicality, and succeeds in conveying a continuous sadness without sentimentality.
It is the story of an attempt by a rather humble young man from Soviet Central Asia, Nazar Chagataev, to rescue his tiny ‘nation’ from starvation and extinction. Assigned to this astonishing task on his graduation as an economist in Moscow, Nazar renounces personal happiness and makes the long journey back to his homeland. There the lost ‘nation’ – a gathering of runaways, orphans and cast-out slaves which has adopted the name ‘Dzhan’ (Persian for ‘soul’) – has left its settlement in ‘the hell of the whole world’ and is roaming the desert trying, and not trying, to survive.
As in his other major works (especially the novel Chevengur and the novella The Foundation Pit), Platonov is concerned with the lowest levels of destitution at which human beings can exist. Repeatedly he draws attention to the borderline between being alive and being dead, conscious and unconscious, articulate and silent; between ‘remembering’ to live and ‘forgetting’ to do so. Su@an, whom Nazar meets at the beginning of his search for the Dzhan people, is so starved that ‘his face looked like the empty slun of a dead, dried-up snake’; Nazar’s mother is bent to the ground and almost insane; one man is so tired he pretends to have died. ‘We just can’t get the hang of living,’ this man says. ‘We’ve been trying every day.’
Closeness to death is used to especially powerful effect in the chapter where Nazar allows his body to be attacked by huge vulture-like birds (‘eagles’), which tear out pieces of his flesh:
he . . . tried to lift himself up so he could aim better, and all the exhausted bones of his skeleton began to creak, just like the bones of the Dzhan nation. He heard this, and he began to pity his body and his bones; his mother had once gathered them together for him from the poverty of her flesh . . . He felt as if he belonged to others, as if he were the last possession of those who have no possessions, about to be squandered to no purpose, and he was seized by the greatest, most vital fury of his life.. .
He had invited the vultures’ attack so that his people could eat them and drink their blood; drinking blood straight from the body of a newly slaughtered animal is a motif of the story, a shocking sign of that desire to stay alive which Platonov is always exploring.
‘Merciless and tender’ is how, in another work (Juvenile Sea), Platonov describes ‘the essence of life’, and these words could be used of much in the present work. The last chapters, though, are less paradoxical; these describe the vicissitudes of the Dzhan’s slow and difficult return to settled living, then Nazar’s own return to the city and to the personal life he left behind.
The translation is mainly by three people: Robert Chandler, a professional translator of Russian; Elizabeth Chandler, an experienced commentator on Platonov; and the Russian Platonov-expert Olga Meerson, author of a brilliant book analysing the author’s style. It is a pure and faithful translation, not shy of rendering the original’s haunting tautologies (‘space was spacious and tedlous’; ‘the empty places of emptiness’); its strange sequences (‘the mother was surprised that Nazar was still alive, but not surprised that he had come back’); its unexpected laconicisms (the camel which becomes raw food for humans had ‘seemed a member of humanity’). Descriptions are precise and moving, as in the original; the sorrowful-hopeful rhythms of Platonov’s sentences are well preserved; and the translators make interesting decisions about gender (‘he’ for the camel, ‘she’ for the tortoise and for the soul). I would have translated parts of the dialogue differently (‘nam ne zhlvetsia’ is not as relaxed or slangy as ‘we just can’t get the hang of living’, quoted above), but the speech is generally rendered with immense tact.
The introduction gives helpful information about the geography and culture, especially the music, of the Soviet Asian lands, and places Soul in its time. It was written in mid-Stalinism, and Stalin is often mentioned as the moving force behind Nazar’s assigned project, typically described as ‘the kind father of all orphaned people on earth’. The first editions in Russia – published in the 1960s and 1970s, when Russians had become critical of Stalin – had all references to him removed. These are restored in the authoritative edition from which this translation was made, so we have a complex image of the mood of the 1930s: on the one hand the hope, which Platonov himself never abandoned, that communism would lift humanity out of every kind of deathliness; on the other, what the introduction calls the ‘anti-Stalinist thrust’ of the story: Nazar learns, for instance, that he cannotforce people to set up an ideal community.