Robert Chandler on Andrey Platonovich Platonov

"I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for. They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett . . . They are summits in the literary landscape of our century . . . What's more, they don't lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century."

—Joseph Brodsky

The son of a railway worker who also gilded the cupolas of local churches, Andrey Platonov was born at the turn of a century—on September 1, 1899—and between town and country, on the edge of the central Russian city of Voronezh. This seems fitting; in his mature work Platonov seems to delight in eliding every conceivable boundary—between animal and human, between the animate and the inanimate, between souls and machines, between life and death. He was almost certainly an atheist, yet his work is full of religious symbolism and imbued with deep religious feeling. He was a passionate supporter of the 1917 Revolution and remained sympathetic to the dream that gave birth to it, yet few people have written more searingly of its catastrophic consequences.

Platonov's relationship with the official Soviet literary world was no less complex. Some of his works were published and immediately subjected to fierce criticism; others were accepted for publication yet published only thirty or forty years after his death. Platonov was never himself arrested but, in 1938, his fifteen-year-old son, Platon, was sent to the Gulag—probably in order to put pressure on Platonov himself; Platon was released in late 1940, only to die three years later of the tuberculosis he had caught in the camps. During the Second World War Platonov worked as a correspondent for Red Star (the newspaper of the Red Army) and was able to publish several volumes of stories, but in 1946 he was again subjected to vicious criticism. After this, he could no longer publish work of his own.

Taken as a whole, Platonov's work has a remarkable coherence. The same images and themes appear again and again, but always in different contexts and with a different emotional colouring. The general tone of Chevengur (1927-28) and The Foundation Pit (1929-30) is despairing. At the end of Chevengur the hero, Sasha Dvanov, drowns himself—following, almost literally, in the footsteps of his father, who drowned himself in the same lake. Platonov's subsequent work can, for the main part, be seen as a patient, determined search for a way out of this closed circle. At least from the mid-1930s, there is an increasing hopefulness in almost every story he wrote.

One of Platonov's most characteristic images, always connected in one way or another to the theme of revolution and utopia, is that of the train or locomotive. In 1922, in a letter to his wife, Platonov described an experience from the time of the Civil War: 'Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ' The sentence the young Platonov remembers is from Karl Marx: 'Revolutions are the locomotives of history.' By 1927, however, Platonov had grown disenchanted—a disenchantment symbolized in Chevengur by the catastrophic collision between two trains that takes up most of the chapter published in this issue of Asymptote. The thematic coherence of Platonov's work is nowhere more beautifully apparent than in the parallels between this chapter and the conclusion of Platonov's last published story, 'The Return' (1946). Like Sasha Dvanov, though in very different circumstances, the story's hero, Captain Ivanov, gets out of a moving train—a train he had hoped would transport him from his hometown to a new and better life with a young woman he barely knows but with whom he has had a brief affair. The train has just left the station and is still going slowly. Moved by the distant sight of two children falling over as they run towards the railway line (they are his own children, but they are some way away and he is slow to recognize them), he chooses to return to his loving but fallible wife (her name, Lyuba, means 'love') rather than abandon her and his children for a romantic illusion:

Ivanov closed his eyes, not wanting to see and feel the pain of the exhausted children now lying on the ground, and then felt a kind of heat in his chest, as if the heart imprisoned and pining within him had been beating long and in vain all his life and had only now beaten its way to freedom, filling his entire being with warmth and awe. He suddenly recognized everything he had ever known before, but much more precisely and more truthfully. Previously, he had sensed the life of others through a barrier of pride and self-interest, but now, all of a sudden, he had touched another life with his naked heart.
This desire to open oneself to 'another life'—and here we have reproduced the surely intentional ambiguity of the original—is central to Platonov's work. Chevengur was at one time subtitled 'A Journey with an Open Heart' and it is this openness—the extraordinary freshness of Platonov's perceptions—that makes the novel so exhilarating to read, for all the despair embodied in the story-line.

During the fifty-two years of his life Platonov lived through two world wars, the Russian Civil War, the horrors of Collectivization and the Terror Famine, and the Great Purges. His tenacity and courage were remarkable. It is unlikely that he intended it as such, but the following paragraph about a plane tree, written in 1934, now seems to be a description of Platonov himself: 'Zarrin-Tadzh sat on one of the plane tree's roots . . . and noticed that stones were growing high on the trunk. During its spring floods the river must have flung mountain stones at the very heart of the plane, but the tree had consumed these vast stones into its body, encircled them with patient bark, made them something it could live with, endured them into its own self, and gone on growing further, meekly lifting up as it grew taller what should have destroyed it.'

It is worth adding that when I read these last lines at a poetry reading, having clearly stated that they were from a prose story, at least five people thanked me for reading such a beautiful poem. Like a great many of the finest twentieth-century Russian prose-writers—Andrey Bely, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Varlam Shalamov, Nadezhda Teffi, amongst others—Platonov began his writing career as a poet. Though he abandoned verse, his imagination remained as bold, and his use of language as creative, as that of any Russian writer since Pushkin.

Click here to read Andrey Platonovich Platonov's Chevengur, co-translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson, also from this issue.