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Lost & Found: Francine Prose on Andrei Platonov
In today’s Lost & Found from our vaults, Francine Prose gives us one more thing to be thankful for: the otherworldly work of master storyteller Andrei Platonov. Prose’s take on The Fierce and Beautiful World first appeared in our 2006 International Issue.
I spent the first part of last summer reading The Fierce and Beautiful World, a collection of stories by the Soviet writer Andrei Platonov, who lived from 1899 to 1951. Then I spent the rest of the summer telling everyone I knew to drop what they were doing immediately and read Platonov right now. When I mentioned this to my friend, the writer Deborah Eisenberg, she said she’d not only read the stories and found them dazzlingly beautiful and mysterious, but they’d also provided her with the only occasion in her teaching career to write something on the blackboard. At one point, in her graduate reading class at the University of Virginia, she’d written all the names of the writers they’d studied so far on one side of the board, and then she’d written Platonov’s name, all by itself, on the other side.
Her saying that encouraged me, not only because it’s always heartening to find support for an exalted opinion, but also because her putting Platonov so literally in a category of his own helped me understand why I was having so little luck making converts to my cult of Platonov. I kept explaining that his work was unlike anything I’d ever read, but I was finding it hard to articulate exactly what the differences were. I found myself quoting Tatyana Tolstaya’s introduction to the present volume (the book has been reissued in the marvelous New York Review Books Classics series of heroic rescues from literary oblivion), in which she writes, “Platonov writes as though no one before him had ever written anything, as if he were the first person to take pen to paper…At times it seems that Platonov’s work was written by a creature from outer space forced to live among us.”
The alien planet from which Platonov arrives is Russia under Stalin’s clenched fist, but that information gives only the faintest hint of the profoundly strange universe that Platonov creates, one in which the normal laws of causality, plausibility, human motivation, and behavior—to say nothing of the conventions of fiction—are not only suspended, but seem to have never existed. His work is philosophical and literary (readers of Russian, among them Joseph Brodsky, have noted that Platonov’s use of the language is as singular and creative as his approach to narrative), yet at the same time something about its sheer weirdness reminds you of so-called outsider art. Each time you predict a plot turn, the story veers off in another direction, and you may need to read it several times to make sure its characters have actually done what you think. Pointed satire blends seamlessly with dreamlike fantasy, and the most surreal events are grounded by reminders that they are inspired by the idealism and shadowed by dismal realities of the communist system. The theme to which Platonov keeps returning is the question of how to find happiness, how much we must sacrifice to make others happy, yet we finish the stories utterly perplexed about what happiness means—to Platonov, to his characters, and, for that matter, to us.
By now you may be sensibly wondering what these stories are about. I suppose that plot summary helps, but not all that much. The longest and perhaps greatest story is “Dzhan,” a word that means “soul, or dear life,” and is used here as the name of a mythical tribe of Central Asian nomads who call themselves by this word because they “don’t have anything but their souls, and the dear life their mother gave them when they were born.” We meet the story’s hero, Nazar Chagatayev, as he is graduating from the Moscow Institute of Economics. He encounters a fellow wallflower at the graduation dance, they go home together but don’t have sex, and get married. His new wife, Vera, is pregnant wit the child of a man who has recently died; later she introduces Nazar to an eerily beautiful girl, her daughter. Though he loves Vera (still platonically) and is strongly drawn to her daughter, Nazar is glad to get his work order. His mission—his vocation, in the deepest sense—is to return to the Central Asia where he was born, and where his mother cut him loose to try and survive on his own. There, he imagines, he will find a way to make his people happy.
Nazar gets off the train and walks for a week, and somehow (in all that expanse of desert) finds his tribe, and his mother. Happiness? The Dzhan people are so poor, hungry terrorized, and generally broken-down, that their idea of a future is to lie on the ground till they expire from cold and starvation, or alternately to wander aimlessly around until they drop dead, one by one. Nazar’s efforts to help them are stymied by an extraordinary character, Nur-Mohammed, the district-government commissioner, who would actually like to see the Dzhan people eliminated, if for no other reason than to have more of the world for himself. The tribe sets out across the desert, they find a flock of wild sheep, and kill and eat some. An eagle is shot and eaten, Nazar is attacked by a vengeful family of eagles, and he kills them. All of this takes many pages, and every sentence is riveting. Added to the mix is a young girl, Aidim, whom both Nazar and Nur-Mohammed see (in different ways) as both a love object and the hope of the future.
The other stories are equally strange, and almost equally amazing. I cannot urge you strongly enough to drop whatever you are doing immediately and read Platonov right now. It’s not just that Platonov seems to come from his own, gorgeous, astonishing planet, but also that he makes it possible for us to return there with him. It’s the most rewarding and affordable form of space travel that I know.
Francine Prose is the author of over 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, including Goldengrove, Blue Angel, Reading Like a Writer, and Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. Her most recent novel is My New American Life (Harper, 2011).