Friday, June 2, 2017

Platonov's Soul

In the translator's introduction to Andrei Platonov's novella, Soul, Robert Chandler makes the bold claim that Platonov will one day become known as Russia's greatest prose stylist, the analog to Pushkin's role in the world of Russian poetry.  The claim is bold but I read Chandler's introduction only after I had completed the work itself and come to the same conclusion.  In the past couple of years, I have encountered several of Platonov's works almost haphazardly, but each time my appreciation for the Soviet author has deepened immeasurably.  Only several weeks ago I read several of Platonov's plays.  This time I was left wondering why Platonov hadn't received more credit as a forerunner to many of the twentieth century's many other brilliant European modernists.  The plays were funny, sardonic, and strangely futuristic.  They also seemed to capture the essential absurdity of Soviet ideology and language while somehow indicting the whole of modern European civilization.

Even so, I left the plays thinking that perhaps Platonov was a wonderfully talented niche writer who, sadly, hadn't been productive enough, or free enough, to really make his mark in modern letters.  I had read the Foundation Pit and been deeply impressed by the author's intentionally elliptical style, which somehow reminded me of Joseph Conrad, who always wanted to tell you something about the limits of language.  But again, I thought the work was perhaps too short to justify any grandiloquent claims on the author's behalf.  Platonov could have been a major writer, I thought, if only he had lived in a society that recognized and encouraged his talent, or if only he had a more human subject matter than Soviet bureaucratic violence.  I suppose deep down I thought that socialist realism had killed genius in Soviet Russia, or that the scale of violence in Russia permitted no truly humane literary treatments of Soviet life.

At any rate, with all this in mind, Platonov's Soul came as a shock to me.  The short novel is a depiction of a lonely Soviet hero in search of his mother, his wandering Central Asian nation, and meaning itself.  The work is overwhelming tragic.  In fact, I think I have never read a sadder book.  Soul does have something to say about Soviet life.  It mentions Stalin from time to time, and always juxtaposes Moscow's modernity with the almost neolithic life of his wandering kind fold in Central Asia.  In a sense, the book could perhaps be seen as replicating a kind of postcolonial logic, with Communist Russians representing progress, and his protagonist's "nation" of misfit individuals from desperate ethnicities representing a primitive past.  However, Platonov's empathy for his protagonist and all of his characters is almost supernatural.  Someone once said that Tolstoy was such a brilliant novelist because he had so much empathy he could basically cry for the fate of a horse he encountered.

The quote applies to Tolstoy but also points to why Platonov was also a truly brilliant novelist.  Platonov not only affords us the opportunity of understanding his desperately poor and downtrodden characters, he does this by forcing us over and over again to get to know and feel the sad plight of all living things, including many dozens of animals.  I thought of the Tolstoy quote many times as Platonov forced me to think deeply, and feel deeply, about a long series of animals in the desolate landscape, including birds of prey, dogs, and sheep.  In fact, it's almost impossible not to cry when Platonov describes the inner life of a camel his protagonist encounters.  The author's extended interest in animals is no accidental literary device.  The point of the repeated exercise in uncanny empathy must be that he intends all of his readers to understand life at his deepest, most primordial, almost animalistic level:  we live, we suffer, and we die.  Soul is a deep meditation on the nature of suffering, but somehow it isn't really merely tragic.  In fact, I would say that Platonov wants us to suffer so much with his characters that we somehow come through with him to the other side, and see that joy is somehow the other side of tragedy, that life itself is too profound to be treated in any simple or one-dimensional way.

The translator tells us that Platonov was full of ironies or dichotomies, and that his secularism was strangely religious.  This seems to be an apt description of his project in Soul, to make us look at ordinary life through the eye of a Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.  There is no sharp distinction between life and death Platonov seems to say, or even between different people, or perhaps between people and animals.  We exist.  We are connected.  Platonov's says the same thing in almost a hundred different but equally profoundly novel ways, but his description of people who are essentially dead already ultimately makes the point that there really isn't all that much difference between being dead and being alive:  even in a Soviet Russia--or perhaps especially in a Soviet Russia--everything is, and remains, Soul.

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