Some of the greatest literature of the Soviet era is only now becoming available in fine English translations. Sally Laird finds similar themes reverberating in new Russian writingby Sally Laird / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
In the last few months three new translations of Russian novels have arrived on my desk. Two of them are examples of what came to be known in the late 1980s as “delayed literature”: works written decades earlier but left unpublished in Russia until the advent of glasnost. The third is the work of one of the most talented writers of the “post-Soviet” era, Victor Pelevin. Reading these novels in a row, I was struck by the story they tell of what has happened to Russian souls, and bodies, this century.
Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) is less well known to English speakers than his contemporaries Babel, Bulgakov or Pasternak. Yet he is every bit their equal as an artist, and wrote with extraordinary prescience about the times he lived in. His book, The Foundation Pit, is the most eloquent literary account I know of the meaning of collectivisation, the more astonishing for having been written contemporaneously with the events it describes.
One simple reason for our neglect of Platonov may be that his work is so difficult to translate. Neither a straightforward realist nor satirist, he incorporated into his writing the acronyms and circumlocutions of Soviet Newspeak, lending to even the simplest words an off-key, haunted intonation. In their translation, Robert Chandler and Geoffrey Smith have skilfully captured the disturbed beauty of Platonov’s language.
The Foundation Pit (first published in Russia in 1987) was written in four winter months between December 1929 and April 1930, when the campaign for collectivisation and “dekulakisation” was at its height. It tells of a group of men who have been set the task of constructing a huge, communal dwelling place for the collective workers of the future. They set about digging the foundation pit for the building, a pit that grows wider and deeper as plans for the imaginary home become ever more ambitious. “Activists” are called in to speed up the tempo of collectivisation; by the end of the novel the peasants have been prised from their original homes and the kulaks shipped down-river on a raft. But the “all-proletarian home” remains unstarted; there is nothing to show for it but the huge, grave-like pit. Among the several dead, meanwhile, is a little girl, Nastya, whom the workers had adopted as an emblem of future happiness. The novel ends with her burial.
Voshchev, the “hero” of the novel has been sacked from his former job because he “kept thinking at work.” He joins the construction brigade in the hope that the company of these purposeful men will provide him with the meaning that has so far eluded him. But it soon becomes apparent that the members of the brigade are no less removed from “meaning” than Voshchev himself. Chiklin, a model worker, complains of being unable to think because “he can’t feel his head.” Prushevsky, the engineer responsible for designing the “all-proletarian home,” looks out at the construction site and sees “nothing there except lifeless building material and exhausted, mindless people.” He imagines how, “in another decade or two, some other engineer would construct a tower, in the very centre of the world, where the toiling masses of the whole earth would happily take up residence for the rest of time… But he was unable to get a sense of the psychic structure of the inhabitants of his common home…What kind of bodies would young people have then?”
Prushevsky’s curious last question reflects a conflation of mind and body that is reiterated in Platonov’s text. It is the “devastated bodies” of the construction workers that Voshchev first encounters when he stumbles upon them asleep in their barracks. It seems plain that the men are starved; yet what form of nourishment they need is unclear. Voshchev construes his own physical weakness in terms of a spiritual starvation. His diagnosis sounds paradoxical; and yet he is right, of course, in believing that abstract causes can have dire physical effects; that is the lesson of Soviet history. Among the chief causes of his own malaise is precisely the language of the new world surrounding him, a language in which the abstract and the concrete, the animate and inanimate are systematically confused.
This confusion of substance is suggested both in Platonov’s own strange locutions and in the speech of some of the more “conscious” comrades (“the path lay through summer”; “he would snuff it like the clapped-out prejudice he was”), but it is expressed above all in the substitution of categories for people. Individuals are variously referred to as “vanguard cadres,” “low-paid categories,” “the kulak sector,” “the proletariat” or even “proletarian substances,” while by the end of the novel the collective farm itself has acquired autonomy as a subject: “The collective farm went outside, sat down by the fence and settled there.”
Such language constitutes an assault on the very sense of selfhood as residing in living, named, physical individuals. The constant attentions which Platonov’s characters pay their own bodies-the naming of parts, the stroking of bones-can be seen, in this sense, as a defence of their own selves: an assertion of their claim to at least one personal and inalienable possession.
This identification of the body with selfhood becomes strikingly clear at the climax of the novel, when the peasants are being physically prised away from their belongings: land, houses, trees and animals. The body at this point becomes a final refuge: by touching, kissing and in the last resort consuming their property the peasants are making a last effort to retain their identity. “During this brief period they had eaten meat as though they were taking communion-nobody had felt hungry, but the flesh of the livestock they had reared and slaughtered had to be hidden inside their bodies.”
That this refuge has failed becomes apparent when, dispossessed of all else, the body itself begins to wither. “Stuff some food down me, woman!” one old man implores. “I’m lying here all empty… I’m afraid I’m going to fly away.” “His horse was his soul,” Chiklin explains, “so now he’s gutted. Leave him like that for a while-let the wind clean him out!” Later, when the peasants have been unsuccessfully collectivised and assembled in the OrgYard, Chiklin addresses them: “Are you all right now, comrades?” he asks. “‘Yes,’ came the reply from the whole of the OrgYard. ‘We can’t feel anything-all that’s left inside us is dust.'” But Platonov makes clear that the peasants’ dispossession is only one instance of a universal blight. With every vital artery severed-memory, possession, language, any ability to name and lay claim-landscape and flesh seem to wither in tandem: the very trees shrivel up “in shame.” Victims and perpetrators alike are afflicted: indeed, Platonov makes no distinction between them.
In an abandoned draft of the novel’s ending, Platonov asked rhetorically: “Will the USSR die like Nastya, or will it grow into a whole person, a new historical society?” One answer can be found in a novel written 40 years later: Moscow Stations by Venedikt Yerofeev. In The Foundation Pit, the language of the state, disseminated through the ever present loudspeaker, functions as a principal instrument of oppression. As Robert Chandler puts it, much of the novel’s action takes place against the background of “consciousness gushing out of the loudspeaker.” If we switch on the sound again in 1969, we find the loudspeaker still there, but somehow neutered: reduced to intoning the names of stations on the line from Moscow to Petushki. Hammer and Sickle, Kackarovo, Chukhlinka: any Russian intellectual will recognise these names as Yerofeev’s stations of the cross, the signposts on his epic journey to death in Brezhnev’s Russia.
“What kind of bodies would young people have then?” we recall Prushevsky asking in The Foundation Pit. “What new force would stir them and set their hearts beating and their minds thinking?” If we turn to Moscow Stations, the answer, alas, could not be more melancholy. For the single force which propels our new hero-indeed propels the entire novel-is alcohol.
True, the form of the alcohol is new. Here is Yerofeev’s recipe for a cocktail known as Dog’s Giblets: “Zhiguli beer: 100g. Sadko the Wealthy Guest shampoo: 30g. Anti-dandruff solution: 70g. Superglue: 12g. Brake fluid: 35g. Insecticide: 20g.” As translator Stephen Mulrine points out in his introduction, Yerofeev’s “murderous recipes… have a basis in fact”: Yerofeev (who, perhaps not surprisingly, died of throat cancer at the age of 51) was famous for drinking “anything that burns”; indeed, many of the most bizarre episodes in his book are drawn directly from his extraordinary life.
Born in 1938, Yerofeev belongs to the generation that came of age after Stalin’s death. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he seems never to have been touched by the brief period of idealism which the “thaw” rekindled; nor did he ever seek access to the intellectual establishment, preferring to earn his living through a series of casual jobs: bricklayer, librarian, factory inspector, cement storekeeper, the leader of a brigade laying underground cables, even the desk clerk at a police station. In this he resembled many of the disaffected intellectuals of a younger generation, for whom his novel-circulated in typescript-became a revered classic of the “stagnation era” (it was published in 1989, in a journal improbably titled Sobriety and Culture).
The novel takes us on a suburban train ride that becomes, with each new drink, an ever more hallucinatory excursion into the author’s mind and body. There we find not only the remains of the morning’s vodka, tinned sprats and wine, but the detritus of a far-ranging culture: Dvorak’s symphonies, the agonies of Christ, the works of Goethe and Schiller, of Marx and Engels whirl by alongside the latest pickings from the international news and reflections on women, suffering and love. Like all great drunks, the hero swerves dangerously between bathos and brilliance: at one moment declaring “Man is mortal-that’s my opinion”; at the next offering an inspired analysis of the drunken hiccup in terms of the Kantian categories, an sich and f?r sich. The hiccup, the author declares, is just as good a subject of research as astronomy or psychiatry.
The hero does, however, have a destination-and not just a railway station but a house, woman, child. They are the purpose of his journey to Petushki; and as darkness gathers, and the stations appear to be moving backwards, he starts to register a dim alarm. By this time, “…everyone was so stupefied, and there was so much fog inside every head, that there was no room left for bewilderment.” But a last faint recollection still stirs in Yerofeev: the darkness outside the windows “…awakened a dark thought. I squeezed my head, so as to try and focus this thought, but no way could it be focused, it kept flowing away, like beer on a tabletop.”
Forty years on, to answer Prushevsky, amnesia has replaced bewilderment; and if its cause is more obvious, its physical effects are similar. Like Platonov’s building, Yerofeev’s journey is doomed from the outset: it ends not at home, but where it began. The hero’s one consolation is to see, in his last hour, the sight that has eluded him all his life: not happiness, it is true, but the Kremlin “shining in all its splendour.” Moments later four apocalyptic horsemen catch up with Yerofeev, “They plunged the awl deep into my throat. Since then, I’ve never regained consciousness. And I never shall.”
The USSR itself, as we know, expired two decades later in the wake of a drunken coup. But reeling the tape forward 20 odd years, we find the loudspeaker still going strong-albeit piping a bizarre new message: “What does the Lord expect of us, as He turns His hopeful gaze in our direction?” we hear. “Will we be able to make use of His gift?” And then the voice of the announcer: “You have been listening to a broadcast from a series specially prepared for our station by the American charity ‘The Rivers of Babylon.'”
In Victor Pelevin’s The Life of Insects, we move from Brezhnev’s brave new world to the still braver world of post-Soviet Russia. The year is 1993; the place, a shabby resort in the Crimea. Much of the landscape is distinctly familiar: the wire fences, weeds, tin cans, the tawdry “videobar” and “the dance-floor filled with writhing, steaming bodies, like a bus at rush-hour.” More familiar still: “The road ran past a deep foundation pit with the ruins of an unfinished building. Grass, bushes and even young trees were growing in the cracks in the walls, and the place looked less like a foundation pit dug for a new building than a grave for a building that had died, or the excavated remains of an ancient city. Sam took a long look at it and walked on without speaking. Natasha also fell silent.”
Something distinctly strange, however, has happened to the bodies of the characters here. For Sam is a part-time mosquito, Natasha a species of fly; in fact, all the characters in the novel double as insects, one moment functioning capably as post-Soviet humans-racketeers, prostitutes, drug addicts and the like; the next sporting wings, six legs and a pair of mandibles.
Pelevin, a specialist in such transformations, engineers these metamorphoses with consummate skill. The book consists of several intertwined stories, each of which functions as a separate parable: the scarab beetle, condemned to push a giant dung-ball through an obscure “dung world”; the moths, forever flying towards the light; and the mosquitoes, of course, who stay alive on blood. Sometimes the characters change species: Natasha, who started life as an ant-the offspring of an accordion playing officer from Magadan-rejects life in her mother’s cramped, stuffy burrow and transmutes into a fly, doubling in human life as a prostitute. In a more evident progression to higher things, the twin moths Mitya and Dima discover within themselves the principle of light, and turn into fireflies; while Seryozha, who was born to be a cicada, narrowly escapes the drudgery of life as a cockroach, emerging into clear air on “a windless summer evening, with the purple clouds of sunset gleaming through the trees.”
The last time we caught a whiff of such an evening was in the homesick visions of Platonov’s peasants, dreaming at nights of a village in the rye. The relief is palpable-dimmed only by the discovery that we are no longer on earth but in a place called paradise, where “people go when they die.”
Pelevin’s previous works include a story set on a mysterious train that is bound for a ruined bridge, and a satire on the Soviet space programme which leaves its hero stranded in the tunnels of the Moscow underground. In both these works, as here, he offers those metaphysically inclined the consolation that meaning can be found if only we attend hard enough to the inmost workings of our being.
But for most of us, what will stay in the mind are his precise, almost tender evocations of the residual outer world: the shards of broken bottles, the faded posters of bright faces on abandoned display stands, and that dancefloor again with the bodies writhing: “Suddenly the music became louder, the lights went out and then began flashing in turn, snatching frozen figures out of darkness… In the brief moments of its existence the crowd resembled a heap of plaster statues transported here from all the Gorky parks and young pioneer camps in the country… And then it became clear that really there was no dance, and no dancefloor, and no dancers-nothing but a multitude of dead Gorky parks, each of which existed only for a split second while the lamp was lit before disappearing, to be replaced by another Gorky park equally lifeless and deserted, differing only in the colour of its temporary sky and the angle at which the statues’ limbs were bent.” The foundation pit
Andrei Platonov, Harvill Press ?8.99 Moscow stations Venedikt Yerofeev, Faber ?14.99 The life of insects Victor Pelevin, Harbord Publishing ?8.99