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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why the Soviet government hated Platonov's novel

Andrey Platonov's novel Soul is so strange - it is both stunningly realistic, a near-documentary account of the extreme poverty in the desert states in the Soviet Union in the 1930s (and maybe much later) and surreal, dreamlike, mystical. The crux of the novel is the journey of the protagonist, Chatagaev, a young economist sent by the central government back to his homeland in what is now Turkmenistan (I think), a land he had escaped from in childhood when set on the road by his mother and told to keep walking. Now he's back with the goal of bringing the Soviet message and some level of prosperity to the impoverished region - much like a Peace Corps worker it seems - and his journey farther and farther into the remote desert regions unfolds like a dream: the descriptions of the sand wastes and the boggy marshes where people subsist on soups of boiled grass and the smoke-choked yurts and tents, just astonishing, and strangely beautiful. His encounters are equally strange and disturbing: he and the mystic priest, Sufyan, with whom he is traveling, come upon a blind man and his young daughter; the man wants to trade the daughter for an old woman or a she-ass (!); Chatagaev proposes that he take the daughter and will later send back an old woman. The blind man says OK and the off she goes; in realistic terms this seems frightening, abusive, criminal - but in the terms of this strange novel they are saving the girl from a terrible fate. Later, Chatagaev comes across an enfeebled old woman and, lo and behold, it's his mother whom he hasn't seen since early childhood. In another novel, that will seem and feel like pure manipulation of plot elements, a Dickensian melodramatic trick - but not at all in this novel, where the sudden encounter feels like an experience from within a dream. It's easy to see why this novel troubled - and puzzled - the Soviet censers of the era: it's by no means a traditional view of the enlightened and noble peasants. Rather, they live in poverty and misery and nobody, and no government, can bring help - the only solace seems to be a mystical yearning (for love, for lost youth), and the state seems a force of separation (of married couples) and dominance rather than of liberation and strength.

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