Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Describing a beautiful nightmare about the Soviet 1930s



Moscow Chestnova, an orphaned girl, born a few years before the Russian revolution, is named after the city she lives in. Her story strangely mirrors the triumphs and terrors of the new communism.
A powerfully alive and beautiful young woman, she marries too young so that “her heart, which had sought heroism, began to love just one sly man…” Leaving him, she tells a stranger that she loves “the wind in the air” and he advises her to enroll in the school of aeronautics; she learns to fly, but plummets to earth after accidentally setting fire to her parachute. Following her “wandering” instincts, she moves through a series of lovers, loses a leg while helping to build the Moscow metro, and finally disappears from her own tale.
In parallel, author Andrei Platonov introduces the men who love Moscow: geometrician and town planner, Victor Bozhko, tirelessly writing letters in Esperanto to fellow-communists around the world, who celebrates Moscow as a model of a new humanity; or Sambikin, the immortality-seeking surgeon, who believes that the soul is located in the gut, in the “empty section between the food and the excrement.”
Part of Platonov’s power as a writer lies in his combination of contrasting registers, the metaphysical and the scatological, scientific and romantic. The mechanical engineer, Semyon Sartorius, loves the young Moscow so profoundly that “he could have looked at waste products from her with extreme curiosity.” Philosophical meditations on the “mystery of existence” segue into trade union committees or construction-workers’ canteens. The overall effect is more like a dream than a novel; plot and character are secondary to the hallucinatory progress of vivid, revelatory scenes.
The chapter in which Sartorius follows Moscow into the countryside is poetic: the city’s electrical glow “reached as far as the fields and lay on the ears of rye like an early, faithless dawn”; the couple walk towards a farm, imagining the smell of bread and pastured cows; they talk, weep and make love in a pit full of weeds. Then she leaves him and they return to “daily long labor.” The following chapter follows Sartorius into his workplace, the “Republic trust for Scales, Weights and Measures of Length.” Platonov drew on his own experience to describe this work, according to translator, Robert Chandler, “with almost documentary accuracy.”
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