A man’s name is Incomplete; his sex: doubtful. A bear labors as a blacksmith, his hammer never stopping because socialist fervor runs deeper than humanity. A surgeon finds the precise location of the soul: just between where digestion ends, and the formation of excrement begins. People see with the eyes of their heads; beards grow from exhaustion; fowl can be pro-Kulak; the body of a chicken is made dead for morning breakfast; and good communists live thanks to birth, and die of life.
Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) spawned many an incongruous image and incomprehensible sentence in his time. The above are just a few examples. Compared by some scholars to James Joyce, he was critiqued by Stalin himself (a literary scholar in his own right) for the “double Dutch” of his linguistic style. Yet he avoided prosecution – almost a miracle in the 1930s – despite what is seen as his political ambivalence and his distortion, even annihilation, of the Russian language.
What exactly makes for a Platonovism? Certain strategies make his strangeness recognizable (if not comprehensible), and those include:
And so, in honor of Platonov’s birthday on August 28, here are eight excerpts celebrating these and other authorial quirks. Try to pick them out, or just let your mind go blank and enjoy the poetry of his nonsense.
—The Foundation Pit
—“The River Potudan”
—“The Motherland of Electricity”
This final passage is cited by Robert Chandler in his article on Platonov in Asymptote, in which he makes the argument that the description of that plane tree might well describe Platonov himself. And considering how the author consumed the trials of Soviet life, made them something he could create art from, and endured that writing into his own self, it seems a fair analogy.
A final line from Platonov, for good measure: “We speak in a language that is incomprehensible, but true.” It may be tough to tease out anything like truth amidst his mourning animals, triumphal machines, and exaltations of the future time of the revolution. And so perhaps Stalin’s epithet of “double Dutch” referred to that very doubleness: a dizzying clarity about the human condition, as glimpsed through the incomprehensibility of Soviet construction, destruction, and the broken language that lay in between.
Thanks to Robert Chandler and his co-translators for sharing their translations and passion for Platonov’s language; to David Parker and Daniel Bush, fellow graduate students who have been sucked down Platonov’s chicken hole; and to Eric Naiman and Nariman Skakov, for opening the sluices to his incomparable prose.
Works by Andrei Platonov
Chevengur, 1928. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. Excerpt from Asymptote. (Quote #2)
Chevengur, 1928. Moscow: Vremia, 2011. (Quote #5; translation by author).
The Foundation Pit, 1930. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2009. (Quote #1: p. 1; quote #6: p. 79).
Happy Moscow, 1932. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #3, p. 16).
“The Motherland of Electricity,” 1939. In Soul, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #7, p. 268).
“The River Potudan,” 1937. In Soul, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #4, p. 214).
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