Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#15 - JRL 7209
The Observer (UK)
June 1, 2003
book review
Deep, complex misery - even for a Russian
Andrey Platonov's bleak vision of the central Asian desert, Soul, has been brought back to life by Robert Chandler's team of translators
By David Isaacson

By Andrey Platonov
translated by Robert Chandler et al
Harvill Press 11.99, pp61

At the end of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the angelic Alyosha implores his young friends to embrace life. So in Soul, by the great Russian novelist Andrey Platonov (1899-1951), the saintly Nazar Chagataev tries to persuade people that life is worthwhile. It is not always an easy case to make.

As a young boy Nazar is abandoned in the central Asian desert by Gyulchatay, his Turkman mother. Years later, in Moscow, he marries a pregnant stranger, Vera, in order to give her unborn child a father and showers her teenage daughter, Ksenya, in gifts and money. Then he is sent back to the desert to bring the nomadic Dzhan nation into the Communist fold. Roaming the wilderness, Chagataev is joined by various characters so desperate they slake their thirst on sand and appease their hunger with blades of grass.

Chagataev's mission to lead the Dzhan out of 'the hell of the entire world' to redemption in the promised land casts him as a latter-day Moses. His selfless purpose and compassion invoke a Christian paradigm. Indeed he speaks with simple messianic authority: 'It's me that's come. Here I am.' But where the revelatory fables of the Bible represent the voice of a higher authority, Platonov's humanist aesthetic is, as might be expected of a writer who at least tried to court the prevailing socialism, purely horizontal.

It is not his Panglossian desire 'to build a happy world of bliss in his homeland' that characterises Chagataev's humanity so much as the reflection: 'what else, in any case, was there to do in life?' His existential empathy extends to all creatures. When the hermit Sufyan kills and eats a camel that has been following them, Chagataev 'found it hard to feed on the sad animal; to him it too had seemed a member of humanity.'

Eventually, on his return to Moscow, he stumbles on salvation in the form of his stepdaughter's innocent, unconditional love. Like Alyosha and the boy Kolya at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, the final image is of Chagataev holding hands with the girl Ksenya.

Platonov was regarded by Stalin as 'scum' and his heavyweight novels The Foundation Pit and Chevengur were not published until the demise of the Soviet Union. Maybe Uncle Joe considered the misery and despair that run so deep, even by Russian standards, in Platonov to be exclusively his domain. In Soul, even the camel 'did not know how he was meant to cry'. Even the devil, or the Persian legend of Ahriman, whom he describes as 'unfortunate', engages Platonov's sympathy.

Allusions to Sufi and Zoroastrian myths and the significance of the characters' names are explained in the introduction and notes by a team of translators and editors that certainly earned its corn.

Platonov's vision is revealed in the subtlest nuances. For instance, when Gyulchatay sends the child Nazar on his way, she gives him a thin reed cane 'in the place of an older friend'. The inference of the adjective is that the boy never had so much as a reed cane, let alone a human being, for company before now. In the utter desolation of the desert, spiritual succour can be found in a reed cane.

Dzhan means soul, which is all the tribe has. In a world 'beyond suffering', where life is 'of no advantage' to either man or beast, Chagataev realises that souls need to be filled by the will to live. And it is here, in the bleakest of metaphysical landscapes, that he hears the sound of his own soul. Rarely does literature come this close to being music.

Top   Next