The Real Unrealists: On Andrey Platonov’s “Chevengur”

Josh Billings reviews the new translation of Russian author Andrey Platonov’s classic novel “Chevengur.”

The Real Unrealists: On Andrey Platonov’s “Chevengur”

Chevengur by Andrey Platonov. New York Review Books. 592 pages.

FOR A READER familiar with the great openings of Russian novels past, the first line of Andrey Platonov’s Chevengur strikes a familiar note: “Old provincial towns have tumbledown outskirts, and people come straight from nature to live there.” Here is the offhanded facticity of Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or the fragment of Pushkin that inspired it: “The guests were arriving at the dacha.” At the same time, there’s an unexpected creakiness to Chevengur’s opening too, as if the narrator were the last participant in a game of telephone that has gone on longer than anyone intended. The form of the message is intact, but the meaning has become garbled, losing its serene inevitability but gaining a kind of gimcrack poetry. None of the pieces seem to be working in the way they’re supposed to, and it is this general sense of “wrongness,” as well as the uncanny ambiguity of Platonov’s tone, that gives the opening of Chevengur an unsettled feeling, reminding us that, close as it may feel to the great novelistic openings of the past, we are not in Tolstoy’s Moscow anymore.

This question of tone—of the attitude the author manages to imply he has toward the words on the page—is a critical one in Chevengur, which is not just a very sincere-sounding book but also a book about sincerity. Begun in 1927 but not published in full until 1972, over 20 years after Platonov died of tuberculosis contracted while nursing his dying son (who caught his own case of TB in a Soviet labor camp), the novel is both a pitiless critique of post-revolutionary Russia and a sympathetic depiction of the hope and dissatisfaction that gave shape to the Great Bad Idea of Communism. It begins with an extended poetic dream that is also a nightmare—a reverie of Russian village life in the first two decades of the 20th century that is indebted to the great pastoral idylls of the 19th, from Sergey Aksakov’s Years of Childhood (1858) to the flashback in Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859), at the same time as it looks forward to the absurdist post-Soviet revisions of those backwaters in books like Andrei Sinyavsky’s Lyubimov (1962) or Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (2000). The common ancestor to all these forms is the Russian fairy tale, a veritable tattooed lady of talking fish and treed mermaids, which we see winking at us through the descriptions of Sasha Dvanov’s postrevolutionary childhood in Chevengur’s first 100 pages:

Calm night began. A cricket in the little earth bank tried out its voice, then sang for a long time—and its song wrapped the yard, the grass, and the distant fence into a single children’s birthland where life was better than anywhere else in the world. Sasha looked at the buildings—changed by darkness but now more familiar than ever—at the wattle fences and the shafts of sleighs overgrown by grass—and he felt sorry for them: they were just like him, but they were silent, they couldn’t move, and one day they would die forever.

This is what V. S. Pritchett called Russian literature’s “inconsequence of the eye”: a rambling, wheels-coming-off capaciousness that takes in the good and the bad in a single, often self-contradictory stare. In Pritchett’s formulation, the impartial inclusiveness of this look is part of what makes it work: reading it, we feel not just that everything is being seen but also that each seen thing is being given the same amount of importance. It’s like a canvas or a children’s book illustration in which every little detail has been painted with the same amount of attention, laws of perspective be damned—the result of which is a momentum that feels both “wrong” and irresistible, as if the narrative were a troika that should be falling apart at every bump in the road but which nonetheless keeps rolling indestructibly along.

With its credulity and willful obliqueness, Platonov’s prose in the opening chapters of Chevengur inherits the gloriously weird intimacy that is so central to the Russian novel, an intimacy the translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler occasionally muffles. In the above passage, for example, their punctuational choices add a breathlessness to the original’s patient plod. No doubt there was a pragmatic dimension to this change (Russian-to-English translators frequently use punctuation to give shape to the long sentences that, in Russian’s inflected grammar, make perfect sense on their own). But the tonal shift is noticeable. The passage loses some humor and, along with it, a certain amount of the original’s subtle irony—the sense that Platonov is encouraging us to maintain a certain critical distance from the childishness of Dvanov’s vision of the world, a vision that will later be developed into the muddled communism that he and other characters inhabit.

This fuzziness of tone is barely noticeable at the beginning of Chevengur, but it accumulates by the book’s middle chapters, in which the beautiful nightmare of the early postrevolutionary years moves to scenes where we see the characters talking and thinking in the language of communism as it is wrestled into being all over the Russian countryside. Platonov’s great revelation about this language is that it is not a break from Russia’s prerevolutionary past but a continuation of it—that is, an extension of exactly the poetic gawp that saw in Dvanov’s village twilight a “children’s birthland.” And yet sometimes it can be difficult for the reader of Chevengur in English to trace this connection:

The modest Great Russian sky shone over the Soviet land with as much habit and monotony as if the Soviets had existed since time immemorial and the sky were in perfect accord with them. Within Dvanov there had already taken shape an immaculate conviction: that before the Revolution, the sky and all other spaces had been different, less dear to people.

Reading this translation side by side with the Russian, it is hard not to feel sympathy for its translators. Platonov’s untranslatability is frequently the main subtext of those few statements made about him in English—Joseph Brodsky’s comment “Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated,” for example, or Tatyana Tolstaya’s 2000 essay in The New York Review of Books. The general success of the Chandlers’ Chevengur proves that this untranslatability has been exaggerated—and yet, in passages like the one above, it is easy to see how even extremely accomplished efforts can run into trouble with Platonov’s nuances, making it hard for us to understand whether the description we are reading is meant to be satirical or poetic, or some highly original combination of the two.

It’s important to be as precise as possible about how this happens. Typically when we think or speak about a text being untranslatable, what we’re saying is that a certain amount of its aesthetic persuasiveness has been sacrificed or simply lost in the effort to retain a literal argument. But in Platonov, it is exactly the “unbeautiful” aspects of the prose that carry the book’s larger message. Over and over again, his Russian prose comes across as flat, awkward, vague—or rather, it manages to communicate these impressions while itself remaining sculpted and interesting. The effect is something like the deformation of classical painting found in modernists like Pablo Picasso or Henri Rousseau: an extremely sophisticated verbal technique evoking a world in which language is constantly being broken, abused, or just used inaccurately, to establish an unreality whose relationship to reality is not representational at all.

Language for Sasha Dvanov is not scientific; on the contrary, it is pragmatic and mythological—closer to the “bricolage” that Claude Lévi-Strauss identified in the tribal societies of Brazil than the dialectical Hegelianism the communist intellectuals of Chevengur pretend to be practicing. Looking at the sky, Dvanov sees “the modest Great Russian sky”—a phrase straight out of a Soviet propaganda pamphlet. And yet, even at its most cliché-ridden, the language of Chevengur impresses us as being highly artistic and indeed beautiful—not because of the way it allows us to see the world more clearly than we had before but because of how perfectly it depicts language’s ability to colonize and distort reality, turning a sunset into a kind of bloated Blakean sunflower. The challenge for the translator of Chevengur, then, is to retain the layered ambivalence of Platonov’s original as fully as possible, without ever allowing the reader to feel that these complications are a result of the translation itself.

The Chandlers’ translation does this remarkably well, for the most part, but there are several places where their small adjustments to the text add up to large effects—often paradoxically. For example, directly before the passage quoted above, they introduce one of the chapter breaks that are clearly meant to break the flow of Chevengur’s Russian original into more comprehensible chunks, but which instead disorient the reader, making it momentarily difficult for us to recognize whose “modest Great Russian sky” this is. The narrator’s? Dvanov’s? The break is dramatic and noticeable, turning what should be a ravishing use of free indirect discourse into something sloshy and bifurcated. Again, the thing that breaks is exactly what is most important to the book as a whole—that is, the richly self-contradictory tone that makes Platonov’s satire feel loving and his poetry refreshingly, almost unbearably haunted. We need to hear that voice, but in places like this, the translation feels frustratingly imprecise.

Nevertheless, by the time we reach the final third of Chevengur, the Chandlers have provided us with enough examples of its unique combination of parody and poetry that we start to feel both edges of the sword. This is the part of the novel in which the absurd adventure of Dvanov’s childhood and the quixotic picaresque of his journey through the steppes give way to yet another novel: a consideration of Chevengur itself, the titular town where, as various characters are constantly insisting, communism has already happened. For readers with even a passing familiarity with 20th-century anti-utopian literature, this section’s judgment of its subject matter will at first sound very familiar. Communism is a disaster, and any attempt to make it “happen” in reality will necessarily end in disaster. And yet, here again Platonov’s superpower as a writer is his ability to help us see beyond such easy truisms into the human tragedy that lies beneath. It’s to remind us that, flawed as the communist experiment was, its dissolution was a defeat, not of a nation but of an idea: one whose beauty spoke to some of the oldest and deepest human problems. We feel the tragedy of this loss over and over again in Chevengur—for example, in Platonov’s description of the large group of Russian peasants, whom the novel refers to as “the others,” that have been rounded up and brought to the depleted Chevengur:

The others were sitting about—in houses, in sheds, beside thresholds—working with their hands at whatever they could. Some were planing wood; others, with new peace of heart, were darning sacks in order to gather wild grains out in the steppe […] Wishing comfort for his own life, each now looked on some other Chevengurian as his own best good—and so he began gathering grain for him, or cleaning up boards; from these boards he might then knock up some gift or other. Those now crushing bedbugs had not yet found in any single person the good that brings peace of heart and the wish to labor to protect their chosen one from the disasters of need. They were working simply because expenditure of strength made their tired body feel fresher.

As so often happens in Chevengur, the difficulty of this passage is its apparent directness. Is Platonov being sincere? Or is he baiting us—inviting us to adopt an ironic relationship to his language, the way that, say, an Aldous Huxley or George Orwell would? The prose itself does not tip its hand, or rather, it tips it over and over again, making it impossible for us to establish a comfortable critical distance. The possibility it opens for the reader is that the feeling Platonov’s awkward, clichéd language describes the others experiencing here is, in fact, a real one. Communism in Chevengur really may be “happening,” in the only way that it can—that is, not because of the whimsical decrees of its implementers but in spite of them, as an occasional communion. Any skepticism we feel about the others’ “new peace of heart,” then, becomes as much a judgment of ourselves as it is of them—since how much do we really want to believe that such movements of spontaneous, almost physiological altruism should automatically be met with suspicion and disbelief?

Moments like this—which arrive with greater and greater poignancy as the book draws to its apocalyptic close—are what make Chevengur stand out as a compelling reading experience, even for readers who might be fairly familiar with the idea that large-scale utopian social projects end in shambles. It shows us communism’s dream of changing the world from the inside, bringing us so close to its roots in alienation and ordinary human loneliness and fellow feeling that we occasionally sense our own convictions starting to shake. In this way, it runs counter to the current of practically all anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, transforming the closed question of “why did this happen?” into something open and alive—often disturbingly so. For in the blasted, starved, utterly unrooted vacuum of Platonov’s postrevolutionary Russia, we can feel, almost viscerally, why human beings would use the most powerful tool at their disposal—language itself—to replace the rational, religious, or political structures that history had destroyed. Barbarism in these circumstances is not a rejection of meaning at all; it is a creation of it, an invention as necessary and predictable as a pup tent or a wheelbarrow.

Insofar as no age is immune to the need to keep the unbearable aspects of reality at bay via the unrealities of language, Chevengur is not just a nifty rediscovery but also a vital proof of just how rich and riven the Russian literary tradition is—not to mention how much it still has to say to us. Strange as they may seem, the sincere unrealists of Platonov’s steppes are all around us today—they are us—just as the apocalyptic landscape they wander through is not some distant nightmare but a possibility latent in our most civilized rituals. Maybe the greatest irony of the book, then, is the way it shows us just how close the end of the world is, and always has been. Apocalypse is civilization’s oldest obsession—one that seems to have been programmed into us, if only by the way our languages always turn out to be unbearably distant from the world they seek to capture. The miracle—a small, ambivalent, but real one in Chevengur—is that we manage to survive, at least so far.

The worry is that this is exactly what disappoints us. But then here, again, Platonov anticipates our dread, elevating it out of its specific historical moment, so that we begin to see the failure of Chevengur not as an anomaly but as one of the conditions of human existence:

Sasha felt a sense of loss and longing with regard to past time; time constantly comes into being and vanishes, while man with his hope for the future stays in one place. And Sasha understood why Chepurny and the Chevengur Bolsheviks so desired communism. It was the end of history, the end of time. Time moves only in nature—while man can’t escape melancholy.

If there is a consolation in Chevengur, it is this: that, try as we might, humankind can’t escape the complicated, disappointing, ultimately partial condition of our own existence, and that, therefore, all our misguided attempts to transcend ourselves will eventually fail—no matter how formidable they appear in the moment. The town of Chevengur descends into the oligarchic pyramid scheme that it always had been. Innocent people die, injustice triumphs, darkness covers the land. And this is a disaster, plain and simple. But it is our disaster, as we will be forced eventually to recognize. Cold comfort, for sure, but one that we really do have in common.


Author’s correction: An earlier version of this review mistakenly stated that it was Andrey Platonov, and not his son Platon, who contracted tuberculosis in a Soviet labor camp. I am grateful to Robert Chandler for pointing out this error.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. He edits the Rustica Journal, a literary and arts magazine dedicated to the new pastoral.


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