Andrei Platonov – “Soul” (New York Review Books)
I must admit that I have a soft spot for between-the-wars Eastern European writers, a predilection that stems from finding a copy of Jaroslav Hašek’s ‘The Good Soldier Svejk‘ on my father’s bedside table thirty years ago and falling in love with its chaotic ‘otherness.’
However, my recent obsession with gaining mastery over the Latin classics had been diverting my literary gaze until late last year when I tackled Vassily Grossman’s superb ‘Life and Fate,’ which led me to scour my shelves for other unread gems from the same milieu.
This was how I came to read Andrei Platonov’s ‘Soul,’ a collection of stories published by New York Review Books which to my shame had lain disregarded in my cabinet for at least three years after buying it on the recommendation of a friend.
I say shame, because this small collection is as breathtaking and thought provoking as the aforementioned and currently in vogue ‘Life and Fate‘ by Grossman.
Platonov, an early supporter of the Russian Revolution later at odds with the Soviet authorities, died in the 1950′s, his writings largely unpublished until the political thaw of the late 80′s for the usual political reasons: only now is his renown beginning to extend to the West, although I know of only two works thus far published in English, this collection, and the novel ‘The Foundation Pit‘.
I was perhaps a little sceptical of the glowing testimonials on the book’s jacket proclaiming Platonov one of the greats of Russian literature, but after having read ‘Soul‘ I can only say that they are right – Platonov is a writer of extraordinary genius.
This collection consists of eight stories, beginning with the one hundred and fifty page novella which lends its name to the tome.
I had no idea what to expect, having deliberately avoided the introduction with its inevitable spoilers, and at first this story of a graduate returning to his homeland in Soviet Central Asia seemed fairly routine.
It wasn’t long, however, before the ‘otherness’ clicked in, and I found myself immersed in a surreal, fantastical and sometimes disturbing journey that took me far beyond the bounds of my own world.
Without giving too much away, this strangely sad but ultimately uplifting story concerns the quest of the young protagonist to find his tribe out in the wilds of the steppe and save them from oblivion under the auspices of the Party.
When he finally catches up with their remnant, they seem to be already dead, having lost their souls.
Platonov’s style is refreshingly simple, avoiding the lexical complexities of such contemporaries as Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, but nonetheless deep, as the translator’s notes reveal : there is much going on here beneath the surface that is difficult for the modern Westerner to appreciate.
What fills the work with a disquieting sense of unreality is the nature in which characters act without regard to the practicalities of the real world in a way which is both childlike and magical.
The subsequent stories in this collection were, with one exception (The Third Son), equally stunning, all suffused with similar magic and an emotional depth lying partially hidden beneath a rather bleak industrial exterior.
Platonov’s father was a railway engineer, which must account for the trains never being far away in each of these tales, often the actual centre of the piece, with this mechanical framework being juxtaposed with the inner emotions of the characters.
I hope in time that more of the oeuvre of Platonov is made available to English-speakers, such is his quality.
Meanwhile, ‘Soul‘ comes highly recommended.