Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Picaresque Adventures in the Workers' Paradise

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Picaresque Adventures in the Workers' Paradise

Article excerpt

"Happy Moscow," Andrey Platonov's novel of socialist realism from 1930s Russia, is a labor of love for the translators, and merely a labor for readers.

Happy Moscow. By Andrey Platonov. Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson and Eric Naiman. 266 pages. New York Review Books. Paperback. $14.95.

A superstitious tradition, meant to protect children from vengeful spirits, persists in Spanish-speaking countries -- naming babies for the opposite qualities that benevolent parents might be expected to wish upon their offspring. Parents who want their daughters to lead joyful lives might name them Dolores ("sorrows") or Soledad ("loneliness").

Andrey Platonov, the beleaguered Soviet writer who died in 1951 of tuberculosis (contracted from his son, who had been infected in Stalin's gulag), seems to have pursued the reverse strategy when, in the mid-1930s, he began work on an allegorical novella entitled "Happy Moscow," to see whether it was "objectively impossible" to write a bona fide "Soviet" work of fiction.

Russians, of course, are superstitious in their own way. Whistle indoors, shake hands across a threshold or, if you're female, sit on the grass, and you'll soon discover your error. But in naming, Russians tend to follow a practice of literalness and optimism -- as any babushka called Traktorina or Lenina, any woman called Lyubov ("love"), any man known as Boris ("fighter for glory") can attest.

But "Happy Moscow" didn't meet with a happy fate when Platonov gave a draft to his publishers: they rejected it. He worked on it for another year, then abandoned it. In a notebook from 1936, Platonov wrote, "The novel was not accepted -- and arms and body came out in boils." The book wasn't published in Russian until 1991.

In "Happy Moscow," Platonov's lead character is a full-bosomed ruddy-cheeked orphan and sometime parachutist named Moscow Chestnova (her last name connotes "truth" or "honor") whom the author uses as an emblem of the city of Moscow and an exemplar of the ideal of Soviet socialist realism. "We need creative engineers of human souls," Platonov wrote in an essay entitled "On the First Socialist Tragedy," which he wrote in the 1930s but which, like "Happy Moscow," was not published until much later.

His words deliberately echoed Stalin's 1932 toast hailing writers as "engineers of the human soul." What is needed, Platonov explained, is a new, improved socialist soul, "trying to overcome its own wretched poverty, in order that the most distant future should be insured against catastrophe." But in "Happy Moscow" the paralyzed present shows no signs of departing, and catastrophe lingers.

His "happy" protagonist, a sort of Slavic Candide, could certainly have used disaster insurance. Moscow Chestnova's parachute bursts into flame when she tries to light a cigarette after jumping from a plane; her leg is crushed when she helps build the glorious Moscow subway, and she emerges from anesthesia after her limb has been amputated to find herself being groped by her infatuated surgeon, "hugging her, smearing her breasts, her neck and her belly with blood. …

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