Friday, April 5, 2013

Andrei Platonov: The Good Stalinist

As a fan of Soviet literature one of my great frustrations is the lack of good writing from a pro-Stalin perspective. There is no shortage of books about the evils of Stalin and the system he created- Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Bulgakov all spring to mind- but what about those writers who actually believed in his vision for the USSR?  

After all, even today many Russians view Stalin with a mixture of awe and terror, or simply awe. As for me, I think he was a vile individual, yet I would still like to know what it feels like to believe in that living god. Of course many authors in the 30s and 40s wrote books praising Stalin but they were mostly if not all rotten: monotonous, simplistic, shallow and dishonest. 

For a while I subscribed to an extraordinary little magazine, the “Thin Journal” that provided summaries of these books, on the grounds that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to read them. Of course it wasn’t very popular and the magazine ceased to exist around issue # 11. Today even the website is gone, which is a pity as it contained some very fine, profoundly obscure information.

Even so, it was rare that I read one of those summaries and wanted to read the whole book. The question remains then- is there a great author, broadly pro-Stalin, who can convey to the reader honestly what it was like to be alive in that most terrible of epochs? In fact the answer is yes, and his name is Andrei Platonov- a devout communist with the unfortunate habit of telling the truth.

I first encountered his writing in his extraordinary novel The Foundation Pit, set during the period of collectivization. It is a mind-bendingly bleak work, filled with infinite suffering, profound compassion and written in luminous prose that is at once alien but suffused with human feeling. Reading it you would think Platonov loathed the regime, but he didn’t:  he wanted to believe in the glorious future but could not deny the suffering he witnessed.

Next I read Soul, an account of a lost tribe on the verge of death in the wastes of Turkmenistan. In this book turtles have souls and a mythological Stalin shimmers like some remote beacon in the distance, providing hope to the lost. This faith seems pathetic to us now, but this is not a problem for the narrative- it only adds extra poignancy to the despairing undercurrent in Platonov’s weak hope.

Just before Christmas I read Happy Moscow, an unfinished novel from the 1930s, set in the soviet capital just as the city was assuming its modern form. As with all of Platonov’s novels the prose is weirdly alienating but also intimate, and the book teems with tropes from the “Golden Age of Stalinism” if you will permit me to use such a phrase. Moscow Chestnova, the titular heroine is a beautiful girl who becomes a parachutist; she goes to work in the metro but loses a leg; then she moves in with a bizarre, shiftless character who has more or less given up on life.

Other men fall in love with Moscow. One of them is an Esperanto enthusiast while another is carrying out research into immortality and believes he may have located the soul in the lower intestine.  As with Platonov’s other works, this may sound surreal but in fact finding a scientific route to immortality was taken very seriously in Russia at the time- Maxim Gorky was a major patron of an experimental institute seeking to abolish death. Lurking in the background is the inspirational figure but sketchy figure of Stalin- remote, vague, an idea rather than a person. As is usual with Platonov everybody suffers horribly.

Of course, while Platonov considered himself a communist many of his peers were repelled by the honesty in his work, and most of his books were not published until long after his death. According to his English translator Robert Chandler, however, critics increasingly view him as Russia’s greatest prose writer of the 20th century.

I’m not keen on aesthetic ratings systems but I do agree that Platonov is an exceptional writer. This was confirmed for me not just by Happy Moscow but by an unexpected encounter with his retellings of old folk yarns in the new Penguin anthology Russian Magic Tales. These were the very last things he wrote, when he could no longer get his original stories past the censor: kid’s stuff, you might think.

In fact, here his gift is at least as evident as it is in his novels. With the exception of Pushkin’s folk tales, most of the other yarns in the book are fairly straightforward retellings. Platonov however enters deep into the world of folktale and myth, and while still operating within strict confines, reanimates them with the same poignant, sad wisdom as his novels. At his hands, these hoary old chestnuts become new and strange and startling again- and that, surely, is the mark of a genius.