Magazine article The Spectator

A Hero Suffering without an Audience

Magazine article The Spectator

A Hero Suffering without an Audience

Article excerpt

THE RETURN AND OTHER STORIES

by Andrey Platonov Harvill,0.99, pp. 215

For a number of reasons, none of them relating to the quality of his writing, Andrey Platonov has, in comparison with some of his compatriots, received little attention from the non-Russian-speaking world. Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were both brought to the notice of the West at the height of the Cold War, and their personal experiences were symbolic in a grand, tragic 'way of the injustices of the communist system: Solzhenitsyn endured the Gulag and Pasternak was infamously forbidden to accept the Nobel Prize for Dr Zhivago. The details of Platonov's life, no less tragic, never made it out of the Soviet Union onto the international stage; like many of his heroes, he suffered virtually without an audience.

Born in 1899, Platonov witnessed as a child the grotesque poverty of peasant Russia, and he became convinced of the need for profound social reform. He began to write in 1918, and was initially successful. However, as Stalinist Russia took shape, the optimistic tone of his early writing darkened, and from 1930 he was unable to publish any of his serious work. During the second world war, he found employment as a correspondent, but in 1945 his 15-yearold son was removed to the Gulag. He returned a year later fatally ill with tuberculosis, which Platonov subsequently contracted, dying himself in 1951.

Given the extreme violence and deprivation of the times in which he lived, it is not surprising that death is never far behind the scenes in Platonov's fiction. The stories in this selection are centrally concerned with the way in which ordinary people continue to live in a world where death constantly deprives them of what they love, whether a person or an ideal. Suffering, in Platonov, is not noble and eloquent; it reduces humans to near beasts, to a state of inarticulate numbness where life has ebbed into mere existence. Nikita, hero of Mie River Potudan' (described by one critic as 'one of the finest stories about love in Russian literature'), leaves his wife because his impotence, the result of an excess of tenderness, is making her unhappy. He becomes a tramp and loses the ability to speak,

his sense of his own self . …

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