George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His most recent book of poems, Reel (Bloodaxe 2004), received the T.S. Eliot Prize earlier this year. His translation of László Krasznahorkai's novel, War and War (New Directions 2006), received the US PEN Translation Award, 2005, and his translation of the selected poems of Agnes Nemes Nagy, The Night of Akhenaton (Bloodaxe 2004), is shortlisted for this year's Weidenfeld Prize. Below he discusses Andrey Platonov's Soul.
George Szirtes on Soul by Andrey Platonov
Last year I was one of the judges of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. By far the best book offered to us, indeed the only great book, did not win. It was ineligible because the writer was dead. In fact he had died over fifty years ago. The writer was Andrey Platonov and the book was Soul.
Platonov died of TB in 1951, aged 52, having probably caught the disease from his son who had served time in a gulag. His work, though well known in the 1920s, ran into difficulties later and it was only after Stalin's death that selections began to appear. Joseph Brodsky was aware of Platonov's obscurity when he spoke about him in his book of essays, Less Than One. His reputation had not yet recovered in 1984 and it has taken the excellent translations by Robert Chandler and a group of fellow translators, to whom Chandler has given generous credit, to bring him back to something like prominence.
The book is set in Turkmenistan where Platonov himself travelled. Born of a large working class family and trained as a land engineer, Platonov was a believer in the Soviet ideal and had seen famine at first hand. In the story, the central character, Nazar Chagataev, sets out from Moscow to rescue the starving nomadic nation of his own birthplace and bring it safe back to the bosom of the Party. But the land he enters is partly desert, partly vision.
The very beginning of the book introduces us not only to Chagataev, but also to his sense of loss and mission. He is at a party at the Economic Institute:
From time to time the musician's violin died away, like a voice growing faint in the distance. To Chagataev it seemed as if a human being were crying, somewhere beyond the horizon, perhaps in that country nobody knew but where he had once been born and where his mother was now living or else had died.'Or else had died'... 'like everything that's good'. In those two phrases Platonov plots out Chagataev's spiritual journey, one that is haunted by death, vision and notions of goodness. That sense of good things is extended by the description of the young woman to whom Chagataev then gives his heart. 'Her face was like the head of a mare and was covered in large boils that couldn't be covered over.' Chagataev asks her to dance and she teaches him.
'Gyulchatay!' he said out loud.
'What?' asked the woman sitting next to him, a technical specialist.
'It means nothing,' Chagataev explained. 'Gyulchatay is my mother, a mountain flower. People are given their names when they're little like everything that's good.'
Chagataev finds his mother among the dying tribe:
'There are more than 40 people still left,' said Nur-Mohammed. 'That's a lot.'The task of recovering that remnant involves Persian myth, death, resurrection, kindliness and desire. It is as far from socialist realism as it is possible to get and yet is full of vivid, experienced, details of landscape, figures and events, even quite miraculous ones. The language veers between fable, memoir and documentary. It is, in effect, the record of a spiritual experience. Brodsky found Platonov hard to compare with anyone except perhaps Dostoyevsky. Platonov's language, he said, was like a blind alley, a millenarian device. John Berger was more interested in Platonov's understanding of poverty and said that Platonov's sense of it was built of desolation that contained shattered hopes.
The shattered hopes that Berger talks about are multi-dimensional in Platonov. Hope is what the central character carries with him, but the hope is so pure, so fragile and so much under trial that, paradoxically, it can only survive in the desert. Back in Moscow the world is less tolerant of hopes framed in such terms. It is, therefore, hope with failure inscribed in it, all the more so for the historical distance at which we read it, having seen the failure of that hope, yet all the more admirable for its ability to conceive it as hope in the first place. It is a hope, we understand, that is born of desperation, that actually contains its own desperation. It is not pie in the sky when you die.
What is remarkable is not just the quality of the writing, which is crystalline while always dropping away into the material, aching to become vision, but its passionate, dreamlike, kindly utopianism. The only utopianism that is worth anything, says the book without ever stating as much, is that of the suffering, the kindly and the saintly.
The saintly is without a god here, of course. The only possible object of beatitude is the Party, or what the Party may be supposed to stand for. In Soul, it is not a vast paranoid bureaucratic structure but an embodiment, an essence, in which the hero believes because he has seen starvation and miracles.
Soul, like all great works, proceeds out of experience and yearning. The thing yearned for was already lost of course, and Platonov will have known that, hence the intensity of the yearning. The yearning is so intense it glows through the language. Maybe that glow is what we think of as soul.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]