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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Faded Dreams Not Lost on Posterity




The centenary of Andrei Platonov's birthday came and went this week with none of the fanfare we've become used to in this jubilee-laden year. Perhaps because of his stylistic complexity, perhaps because of the frequent bleakness of his vision, Platonov (1899-1951) has yet to achieve the widespread adoration of his fellow '99-ers, Pushkin and Nabokov.


For the literary world, however, few events in the last decade have rivaled the discovery of Platonov, the "bard of the peasants and workers of the Central Russian steppes" as he is described by his translator, Robert Chandler. With the recent first-time publication in Russian of several of Platonov's most important works, interest has been sparked in a writer who gave an extraordinary and often harrowing testimony of the communist experiment - and who wrote it in a style that has been viewed as the second revolution of the Russian literary language after Pushkin.


Through the efforts of Chandler and his co-translators, some of Platonov's best work is now available in sensitive translations. The centenary year has brought The Return, a collection of short stories published by Harvill, and The Portable Platonov, a sampling of Platonov's work in various genres published by Glas.


"The Return" takes its name from one of Platonov's established masterpieces, written in 1945 as Platonov's stint as a war correspondent came to an end. It tells the story of Alexei Ivanov, a decommissioned army officer, who, returning to his family, falls in love on the train with a girl 15 years his junior called Masha. His "return" is poisoned from the start, and when he does get home, he brings chaos, wringing a semiconfession of infidelity from his wife and taking offense at his elder son, who acts wiser than he. Ivanov prepares to leave ("to Masha, for ever") but as the train pulls out he turns back to see his children running after him, the elder child tripping over himself in a galosh and a felt boot - and thinks again.


In its simplicity and delicate artistry, "The Return" is one of Platonov's most inspiring works; in its clarity and, ultimately, optimism, it is also one of his least representative. Barring the early and rather tedious opening story, "The Motherland of Electricity," the other stories in the collection are shot through with a spirit of deep disillusionment that mirrors Platonov's weakening engagement in the Soviet ideal. If in the early '20s Platonov was a model radical young Communist, working in land reclamation and electrical engineering, by 1927, when he became a professional writer, he had watched over what he saw as a compromised, stillborn Revolution and a people that had lost its sense of purpose, unity and even humanity.


The heroes of many of Platonov's stories are simple men grown old before their time. Whether orphaned, impotent, or simply unloved, they are racked by a sense of incompleteness. Often they are so overwhelmed by social and personal hardship that they have little sense of their own real being and fade into the refuse that surrounds them. This happens literally in "The Rubbish Wind" set in Germany 1934, a story not published until the late '60s but still powerful enough to shock even the most hardened modern sensibilities. In it the main character Albert Lichtenberg defiles a statue of Hitler at a mass rally and ends up thrown in a trash bin. As Lichtenberg sleeps in the trash, he dreams of a woman's caress but wakes to realize the sensation of a rat gnawing a wound on his leg and kills the rat.


"He reached out to the dead rat and began to eat it, wanting to recover from it the meat and blood that over thirty years he had accumulated from the meager income of his poverty. Lichtenberg consumed the animal right down to its fur, and fell asleep with the satisfaction of having recovered his property."


It is in these sudden shifts from affection to wildness and a skewed sensuousness, all described in an even literary register, that Platonov's prose gains a genuinely disturbing force. In the surreal collapsed world that the author saw around him (and here transposed to German soil), optimism and humanity can still be glimpsed but they are most often suppressed or mutated into something violent and raw. Even when love finally conquers, it is in the context of death, as at the end of "The River Potudan," the story of a relationship between an impotent man and his patient wife.


In contrast to the personal, often intimate tone of the stories in "The Return," "The Portable Platonov" gives examples of Platonov's most daring political works, focusing especially on the play "Fourteen Red Huts" and excerpts from the novel "Chevengur," which both record failed attempts at Utopia and the construction of a Communist heaven on Earth.


The epic account of the fantastic city of Chevengur, considered by many Platonov's greatest work, is difficult enough reading in the full version, and English readers will have to wait for Chandler's complete translation to grasp the wider picture. Nevertheless, read as separate short stories, the three excerpted chapters given here offer a taste of the enormous complexity of Platonov's political outlook.


On the one hand, Platonov presents us with what seems like a caricature of Soviet power, in which officials murder all the bourgeois and semi-bourgeois in the town and then try to knock the souls out of their throats. On the other, he invests the novel and the descriptions of the city with a deep moral seriousness and frequent lyric interludes, especially - and characteristically for Platonov - in the descriptions of nature. Irony and earnestness become impossible to tell apart, a confusion aggravated by the density of Platonov's language, which is riddled with Sovietspeak and never wholly translatable. As Josif Brodsky commented, Platonov was using a damaged language; our understanding of it - as people unconstrained by it and reading it in another tongue - is perhaps necessarily partial.


Fortunately, there are less challenging items in the collection, including examples of Platonov's reworking of national fairy tales, which promptly found their way into school textbooks as anonymous skazki. Brutal and moving by turn, they offer microcosms of the world of paradoxes explored in Platonov's longer works.


"The Return," by Andrei Platonov. Trans. by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Angela Livingstone. Harvill. 215 pages. pounds 9.99.


"The Portable Platonov." Trans. by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Glas. 256 pages. 325 rubles. Available at Anglia bookshop.


At 5:30 p.m. Friday a discussion on Platonov in his daughter's company will be held at Anglia, 2/3 Khlebny Pereulok. Tel. 203-5802. Metro: Arbatskaya.