At the time of the 1917 revolutions, Andrey Platonov was sixteen and had already worked as an office clerk, a pipe smelter, an assistant machinist, a factory worker, a warehouseman, and a railroad technician. During the next four years, he wrote extensively and conspicuously, publishing poems, stories, and hundreds of essays on every imaginable subject. But when drought and famine struck in 1922, Platonov abandoned his literary pursuits (which he deemed idle and ineffectual) to travel all over the country, working as an electrical engineer and administrator. It was only later, when he again took up writing—now with the belief that literature, like manual labor, could help build socialism—that he began to perceive the vocation as that of a “creative engineer,” tasked with “refashioning the inner soul.” Virtually all of this material remained unpublished for decades; the unfinished novel Happy Moscow would not appear in Russian until 1991, the year that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Happy Moscow is an experimental novel. It has no calculated plot and develops rather like a dream wherein ideas, as characters, are repurposed and their functions regenerated as they are made to relate to other figurative elements. Three quarters of the way through the book, its heroine Moscow Chestnova disappears completely, and Sartorius the engineer, her one-time lover, emerges as a central character. Inexplicably, he then changes his identity, becoming “Grunyakin,” and goes to work in the kitchen of a small factory in Sokolniki.
Whole passages from Happy Moscow appear word-for-word in “The Moscow Violin,” a story included in this volume. The character of penitent mistress Katya Bissonet resurfaces in the screenplay “Mother/Father.” And the suicide of the boy longing for his absented father at the end of Happy Moscow is described in the short essay “On the First Socialist Tragedy.” It is this aesthetic dynamism that distinguishes Platonov’s writing: every expression of great beauty is basically functional. Experiment in language is experiment in thought and vice versa, as it is in language that thought suffers—and resists—its own structures.