Andrei Platonov: Soul

Soul - Cover Image

Author: Andrei Platanov

Title: Soul

ISBN: 184343038X

Pages: 208

Since the publication of the majority of Andrei Platonov’s work following the Khrushchev Thaw, it having been previously suppressed due to its ‘subversive nature’, Platonov has enjoyed an ever increasing reputation within his homeland, where he is regarded as arguably the greatest Soviet writer of the twentieth century, and is often bracketed with other giants of Russian literature such as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Yet he remains relatively unknown in the west. Perhaps due to the dense symbolism he used to criticise the nature of the ‘socialist utopia’ he lived in, as well as his idiosyncratic prose rendering him a very difficult writer to translate accurately. An indication of that difficulty is given by the need for a translating team of half a dozen to render Soul, a book that falls short of a hundred and fifty pages, into English.

However, the time and patience they must have spent over this translation is to be applauded. In particular the lead translator Robert Chandler, who over the last few years has been responsible for bringing some of the best works of the Soviet era to a wider audience, and in many instances such as this, for the first time in their full uncensored glory.

Praise is also needed for the excellent notes that are included in this edition, which include many insights into the symbolism and references that Platonov worked into Soul. Whilst I was able to work out the meaning of children lost in the desert being lead to safety by shepherds without too much trouble, the rebellious nature of Platonov describing local folk music and the influences of Sufism and Central Asian culture on his text would have passed me by if I hadn’t been forewarned.

“Many pale eyes were straining to look at Chagataev, trying not to close from weakness and indifference. Chagataev felt the pain of his sorrow: his nation did not need communism. His nation needed oblivion – until the wind chilled its body and slowly squandered it in space. Chagataev turned away from everyone: all his actions, all his hopes had proved senseless…Did there remain in his nation even a small soul, something he could work with in order to bring about general happiness? Or had everything there been so worn away by suffering that even imagination, the intelligence of the poor, had entirely died? Chagataev knew from childhood memory, and from his education in Moscow, that any exploitation of a human being begins with the distortion of their soul, with getting a soul so used to death that it can be subjugated; without this subjugation, a slave is not a slave. And this forced mutilation of the soul continues, growing more and more violent, until reason in the slave turns to mad and empty mindlessness. The class struggle begins with the victory of the oppressors over the “holy sprit” confined within the slave: blasphemy against the master’s beliefs – against the master’s soul, the master’s god – goes unpardoned, while the slave’s own soul is ground down in falsehood and destructive labour.”

Soul is set in the deserts of Turkmenistan, an area Platonov knew well and had a great fondness for. As with many of his books, the plot is disarmingly simple. Chagataev, a recent graduate from the Moscow Institute of Economics, is sent back by the authorities to the land of his birth to collect together the ‘Dzhan’, a destitute and lost nation of people, and bring them back into the communist fold.

As he undertakes this task, we learn of Chagataev’s childhood, how he came to Moscow, and how his good intentions are not always met with success. His leadership is surpassed by others within the nation who, after they are led to safety and provided with housing and food, choose to leave that life for one of their own creation.

Whilst Soul deals with the ideology of the time, there is also a more personal desire being played out for a restless soul to find happiness. Chagataev comes to realise that the Dzhan are not in fact the poorest of the poor because they have soul, a happiness born from belonging to each other, a happiness he lacks. We also see that you can help people but you cannot save them. They can only save themselves. What you want in their best interests is not always what they want, and cannot be imposed. A lesson for present times perhaps.

Soul is a novel rich in meaning, only some of which it is possible to access from a western viewpoint. But it’s also a book I shall return to again and again, in the knowledge that each time there will be more I can take away. This is the best book I’ve read for a long time, and thanks to the work of Robert Chandler and his team of translators, an opportunity to see a truly great writer at the height of his powers.

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~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

One Response to “Andrei Platonov: Soul”

  1. An astonishing work of art.

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