Andrei Platonov and The Soul of The World

Andrei Platonov once said, “From our ugliness will grow the soul of the world.” He was right. He knew the hardships of life better than anyone else…

Yes, this world is ugly. Almost 1 billion people are illiterate. More than 800 million people don’t have access to clean water or a reliable food supply. Approximately 13% of the world lack access to electricity. Plastic choking the oceans. Global warming. Shootings at the schools. Promises to electrify the world, promises to clean the air, go green, and travel to the Moon, Mars, Pluto… while millions of people in 2022 still don’t have access to clean water, food, books, or electricity. 

Our world is a grave.
A beautiful grave.
Or maybe
A 22nd-century modern crypt,
full of deformed bones
and fantastically distorted minds,
fed daily by fake strokes of happiness. 

Andrei Platonov has been called the Father of Russian Grotesque, whose creative path was fanned by a misunderstanding of his fellow writers and persecution by the Soviet authorities. 

Stalin called him a “talented bastard.”
Fellow writers called him “extremist.”
Brodsky looked on him as the equal of Joyce, Kafka, and Proust. 

 THE STYLE: After a lifetime of persecution, Andrei Platonov has emerged as one of the greatest writers of this century, an artist of profound genius, integrity, and clarity of vision. His language and style are so distinctive that for a long time, his work defied translation.

Why? Andrei Platonov built the text in a rather unusual way; so far, he has no analogs in the vast world of literature. The biggest peculiarity was the so-called “removal technique” – removing the reader from the state of automatic perception/reading. For example, Andrei Platonov used a lot of syntactically incorrect constructions: where it was possible to use a specific word, he often used a generalized one.

  • “Prushevsky examined the empty area of ​​​​nearby nature”;
  • The old tree grew… amid bright weather”;
  • “Voshchev opened the door to space.”

 Due to these (and some other) seemingly simple techniques, any text of Platonov became not only memorable, but oddly enjoyable, all while being a difficult read. In short, Andrei Platonov was a poet, and almost every line of his work posed problems for the translator.

One of the special effects that Platonov achieved by using his unique language was the effect of irony. The irony never left the pages of his work, even when it described absolutely horrifying things.

I think the reader either loves Platonov’s amazingly intentional tongue-tied style or won’t appreciate it at all (because one phrase can sometimes be interpreted in ten different ways). The author often plays with meanings, parodying the newspaper vocabulary of his days, and confuses the readers and critics. I guess, the ideal reader of Andrei Platonov should have a comprehensive knowledge of Stalin’s Russia (familiar with the speeches of Stalin, articles from Pravda, written by Bertrand Russell and Lunacharsky). 

 But even now, in 2022, Platonov’s words still sound as modern and witty as ever. Check out the following quotes:

  1. Busy remaking the world, man forgot to remake himself.
  2. People themselves would grind one another down and tear one another to pieces, and the best would fall dead in the struggle while the worst would turn into animals.
  3. A man has to fill his soul with something important, and if there is nothing, then the heart greedily chews its own blood.
  4. Do you know how much thinking and feeling I’ve done? It’s terrible. And nothing’s come of it.
  5. Don’t worry; nothing will happen if you die – thousands of billions of souls have endured death already, and no one has returned to complain about it.
  6. All love is born from the feeling of need and longing. If a person does not need or yearn for anything, he’ll never love another person.
  7. “It would be better if I were born a mosquito: his fate is so fleeting,” he thought to himself.
  8. Indifference, he felt, could be scarier than fear. Indifference evaporates the soul of a man like slow fire does to the water: and when one day he’ll wake up – there will be only a dry place instead of his heart.
  9. At night, after his wife and son had gone to sleep, Semyon Ivanovich would stand there, above Matryona Filippovna’s face, and observe how entirely helplessly she was, how pathetically her face had clenched in miserable exhaustion, while her eyes were closed like kind eyes, as if, while she lay unconscious, some ancient angel were resting in her. If all of humanity were lying still and sleeping, it would be impossible to judge its real character from its face, and one could be deceived.
  10. The most dangerous thing in a man is not his sexual organ – he is always monotonous and meek. The most dangerous thing in a man is his thought. The thought is like a prostitute, or even worse: she always shows up where she is not needed and often is given only to those who pay her nothing or pay too little. 

 BIO: Andrei Klimentov worked under several pen names, the most famous being the variant “Andrei Platonov.” That last name was inspired by his father’s first name – Platon Firsovich.

Andrei Platonov had ten siblings: he was the eldest and did his best to help his parents in their upbringing. He began work at the age of 14 as a mechanic. During the Civil War, he was sent as a journalist, attached to the Red Army, where he witnessed the dark reality of military conflicts. Later on, shocked by the famine of 1921, he abandoned literature for work in land reclamation and left the Communist Party. After problems with the security organizations, he returned to the idea of writing. Between 1927 and 1932, Andrei Platonov wrote his most fiercely satirical works (most of them were first published only in 1980). All of his books were savagely criticized; that’s why he couldn’t publish them and decided to continue his work as an engineer and land reclamation expert.

Platonov’s son was arrested for “anti-soviet agitation” in 1938 (at the age of 15!) and sent to camps. He was released in 1941, only to die two years later of tuberculosis.

From 1946 until 1951, Andrei Platonov was unable to publish his work because Stalin banned all his novels and short stories.

Andrei Platonov died in 1951 from tuberculosis which he contracted from his son ten years earlier. 

In this century the best Russian prose has been written by poets and Platonov, but he is an exception… Platonov speaks of a nation which in a sense has become a victim of its own language; or, more precisely, he speaks of this language itself which turns out to be capable of generating a fictive world and then falling into grammatical dependence on it. Joseph Brodsky

The following passage is from the beginning of Chevengur:

Zakhar Pavlovich had known one man, a fisherman from Lake Mutevo, who used to ask many people about death and whose curiosity had filled him with ‘toska’… He would show the eyes of dead fish to Zakhar Pavlovich and say to him: “Look – true wisdom! A fish stands somewhere between life and death, that’s why it’s mute and why it stares without expression. Even a calf thinks, but a fish doesn’t – it knows everything already.” … A year afterwards, unable to bear it any longer, the fisherman had thrown himself into the lake from a boat, having tied his legs together with a rope so as not to start swimming inadvertently. Secretly he did not believe in death at all. What he really wanted was to have a look and see what was there: it might be a great deal more interesting than life in a village or on the shore of the lake; he saw death as another province, located somewhere under the sky, as if at the bottom of cool water, and this province attracted him. 

VOCABULARY: One of the most notoriously untranslatable Russian words is ‘toska’ (you see it untranslated in the text) – at its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom. 

MORE INFO/links: 

 Platonov’s Weeping Cow

Andrei Platonov: Russia’s greatest 20th-century prose stylist?

 A More Interesting Grief: On Andrey Platonov

The Portable Platonov, compiled, translated and introduced by Robert Chandler 

Discovering Platonov

Andrei Platonov with family 1936

Photo from gorky. media

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