Perhaps the most striking literary consequence of perestroika, standing out even amid the late 1980s’ flood of new publications and overturning of established truths, was the rediscovery of Andrei Platonov. Born in 1899—the same year as Nabokov—Platonov had previously been known only as the author of a handful of stories and tales who had, in the early 1930s, attracted the ire of Soviet officialdom, and remained in literary limbo until his death in 1951. But with the appearance, in 1987 and 88, of two major works, Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit) and Chevengur, he rapidly came to be seen as one of Russia’s greatest 20th-century writers. Composed at the turn of the 1930s, neither work had been published in the increasingly hostile literary climate of Stalin’s ussr. Though both came out in the West in the early 1970s—English translations soon followed—it was their reception in Russia that lifted Platonov from minor figure to the status of modernist master. They combine a deep-seated yearning for utopia with troubled awareness of the distance, difficulties and violence that separate it from the present, encapsulating the contradictions of the Soviet experience like few other texts. While Russians’ new-found access to Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and others undoubtedly broadened their cultural horizons, Platonov’s work required a full recalibration of the literary tradition—a process which continued as more texts emerged from the family archive.
Most notable among these have been Schastlivaia Moskva (Happy Moscow), his unfinished novel of the mid-1930s, which first came out in Russian in 1991, and Dzhan—written in 1935, published in various, incomplete forms in the Soviet Union since 1938, and now translated in full as Soul. Both have been elegantly rendered into English by a team led by Robert Chandler, adding to similarly scrupulous work on The Foundation Pit and a selection of stories, gathered under the title The Return in 1999; their version of Chevengur, now under way, will undoubtedly be superior to that published in the us in 1978, and will be eagerly awaited by Anglophone audiences everywhere. It is difficult to imagine translations more attuned to the cadences of the original prose, or more sensitive to the texture of the author’s times.
For Platonov presents more formidable obstacles to the translator than any other Russian writer. Native Russian speakers’ first reaction is generally one of bafflement at the seeming awkwardness of the prose: it is replete with redundancies, ill-suited collocations and syntax-muddling elisions; metaphors are literalized, the abstract and concrete are confused or interwoven. The overall effect approaches that of dream-logic or perhaps even aphasia. But this is not an idiom of damage so much as of raw construction: language itself, Platonov implicitly tells us, is the primary material out of which utopias are built, its ungainliness marking our passage into a transformed sphere of human relations—or else highlighting the points where we are still anchored in its unreconstructed double.
At a syntactic level, Platonov’s prose disrupts the flow of our expectations and assumptions. His words are chosen with immense care, and usually conceal some proposition or pun that forces the reader to return to the sentence and re-read it, without correcting or normalizing its oddities. A relatively simple example: in The Foundation Pit, the proletarian Chiklin punches a peasant in the face
to get him to start living consciously. The peasant staggered, but was careful not to lean over too far in case Chiklin thought he had kulak inclinations himself, and so he moved even closer to him, hoping to pick up some more serious injuries and so win entitlement to a poor peasant’s right to life.
The second distinctive feature of Platonov’s language—which to a certain extent explains its strangeness—is his deployment, deformation and re-combination of the wide variety of discourses, from official slogans to peasant proverbs, that collided during the lexical upheavals of the post-Revolutionary period, as illiterate masses came into contact with new political jargon and Bolshevik bureaucratese. It is this polyphonic, disjointed idiom that separates him from the rest of the Russian literary tradition, and from his contemporaries. Platonov’s prose has none of the terse urgency of Babel, the verbal somersaults of Belyi, or the relentless, punning intelligence of Nabokov. If he can be identified with any particular literary strand, it is the satirical-grotesque of Gogol and Leskov, with whom he shares not only largely rural characters and settings but also the use of skaz—a third-person narrative voice into which the sub-standard locutions and verbal tics of the protagonists often tumble, skewing the perspective from which the reader views the action.
But Platonov takes this strategy still further, to the point where so many varieties of speech are present that there is no longer a main thread, and the narrator stands at an unidentifiable distance from events. (A point well made by Thomas Seifrid in his excellent 1992 monograph on the writer.) In The Seeds of Time, Fredric Jameson spoke of the ‘glaciality of Platonov’s tone’, a ‘dissociation of sensibility so absolute that it sometimes evades our attention altogether like a pane of glass’. Yet at other times, the prose is suffused with tenderness, its occasionally beautiful sentences translating the discomfort and melancholy of the characters into aesthetic satisfaction, at least, for those on the other side of the page.