Sunday, December 4, 2016
A powerful novel by a little-known Soviet author
I'm not sure what led me to pick up a novel by the late Soviet writer Andrey Platonov - mentioned somewhere in NYTBR I think, but who reads him, who's even heard of him? - and have to say I'm very impressed by first 4 chapters of Soul - apparently written in the 1930s (when he was in his 30s - lived roughly 1900 to the 50s) but also apparently unpublished in his lifetime. One point to recommend it is that Stalin called his writing a load of crap. Hm, because at least superficially this novel is an endorsement of the Soviet ideology and of Stalin in particular - but that's superficially, on a deeper level we see a lot of the suffering and inequity in the USSR and we see at least a hint of Stalin's demagoguery. The opens w/ a young man arriving at the graduation celebration for his graduate-school class - some kind of engineering college in Moscow; he's a bit of a loner, somewhat cynical, he notices a very homely woman, fellow graduate, who is having a miserable time and trying hard not to show it; he asks her to dance, they spend the rest of the evening together, in very Russian fashion walking the streets and talking till dawn. He pushes her to invite him into he small and dingy apartment; she tells him she can't have sex because she's pregnant - the baby's father is dead - and he (Chataguev, I think?) suggests that they go to city hall and marry the next day. Then we learn his back story: he's from a remote state on the steppes, dire poverty, his mother - whom he believes is probably long gone - pushed him out of the house and sent him, a very young child, on his own heading for the city or anywhere else where he might have a chance to survive. Thus, we see the incredible poverty, broken families, suffering - but on the other hand he got beyond that, managed to get to the city and earn a valuable degree. But what will become of him? He is assigned to go back to the state of his birth and try to work w/ the mixed ethnic groups that runt he culture there - the name for these groups is the title of the novel - and bring them into the Soviet fold; he leaves wife, Vera, and her children behind as he sets off. All told efficiently and with some startlingly beautiful passages - making this a very inviting novel about a culture that in some ways feels almost ancient and in others still extant.