A great Russian writerby Penelope Fitzgerald / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1920, andrey platonov attended the first all-Russian Congress of Proletarian Writers. In reply to a point in a questionnaire-“What literary movement do you belong to or sympathise with?”-Platonov, then just 21, wrote, “None, I have my own.” I take this story from Robert Chandler’s introduction to The Return. Anyone who (like me) knows pretty well nothing about Platonov will be very grateful to Chandler.
Platonov’s life was one of who knows how many thousand tragedies of obstinate integrity. He was born in 1899, the eldest of 11 children of a metal worker. He left school at 15, trained as an engine driver’s mate and electrician, always wanted to write and gave it up only once, and then temporarily, to work on a land reclamation scheme. Politically he was committed heart and soul: a bliss-was-it-in-that-dawner who longed to serve the revolution but could not forgive it for what it became and for what it was not. The date of the first story in this collection, “The Motherland of Electricity”, is not certain, but it is certainly in the spirit of the first Five Year Plan, with Platonov himself as a young electrician setting out to walk for three days down the cart-tracks to Verchovka, where the village soviet has appealed for emergency repairs. He takes with him only a few potatoes his mother has boiled for him, a little bread and some salt. At Verchovka he finds a ramshackle emergency power station, with an English twin-cylinder motorcycle driving a small dynamo. It is running on grain spirit. An old man, blissfully drunk, is sampling the spirit from a tin mug to see that it’s strong enough. An old woman, who has been taking part in a procession, agrees readily that God doesn’t exist. “I picked the old woman up as if she were a girl of eight and carried her in my arms towards the village… and decided to dedicate my life to her, because in youth it always seems there is a great deal of life and that there will be enough of it to help every old woman.” The young electrician converts the generator into a pump and then sets off home again. It is hard to convey the appealing innocence, almost gaiety, of this story, but not difficult to see why Platonov found himself in disfavour.