28 February 2006

Andrei Platonov

Platonov is a realist as only the Russians can be realists, unsparing and utterly without any literary device except the exact and telling detail. The result seems...more myth than reality... ~Guy Davenport

I picked up The Fierce and Beautiful World, a collection of short stories by Andrei Platonov, at the little bookstore a week or two ago on the recommendation of a Russian woman at the bookstore. I had never heard of Platonov before, but the book sounded interesting, especially when she told me the first story was set in Central Asia.

The translation from Russian of all the stories was done by Joseph Barnes and first published in 1970. However, the translation of Dzhan, the story of a man who returns to the deserts around the Aral Sea to help his people, was done from a censored Soviet version. There is a new translation that I'd love to read (apparently not available at Amazon's US site, just the UK one) . Tatyana Tolstaya, who wrote the introduction, was a bit critical of the translation.

I rarely bother doing more than glancing through the introduction written by "experts" to most books, but this introduction was surprisingly good (I always save them for the end though). Originally written in Russian, it captures some of what I loved about these stories:
The central theme running through Platonov's work is the happiness of the mind and the happiness of the heart in their complex interaction; he studies what happiness really is, why and how it appears, where it goes, how to find and hold on to it.

While the stories certainly aren't happy, this is exactly what I thought while I was reading. The characters find, or don't find, or lose happiness in many different ways. And even though they're not happy, they are satisfying.

It was also interesting to read how he used sleep as a way for people in very difficult circumstances to get through them. It reminded me of Lily Bart who just wanted to sleep, just to have a little rest.

If you can track any of Platonov's stories down, I recommend reading them. Do see if you can get a newer translation though, or at least one of his the full text.


  1. Thanks Amira, very interesting and I'll bet it is a great read.

    Do you think anything gets lost in translation?

    I like the notion of the sleeping. My grandma used to say, I just need to rest my eyes, during emotionally difficult times.

  2. Something always gets lost in translation, but I could feel it this time even though I don't read Russian well enough to really know. That's why I'd really like to compare the translation I read to a new one.

  3. The library has one book by Platonov and I'll be checking it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. I'll be interested to see what you think of it Laura.

  5. Platonov is a wonderful writer but these translations are generally regarded as based on older defective texts. You can find a better version of Dzhan as Soul, translated by Robert Chandler. He has also done The Return, a selection of short stories and The Foundation Pit, a novel. He is working on a new version of Chevengur, probably Platonov's masterpiece. There is another translation published by Ardis but it is hard to find.