Soul—Russian Writer on Central Asia

Rather than a novel about Central Asia, Soul seems, in reality, to be a mythic novel that happens to be set in Central Asia. Author Andrey Platonov (1899-1951) traveled to Turkmenistan in the 1930s; he was taken with the region and later set the action of this book there.

Plot Summary
A young man named Nazar Chagataev1 is a member of an impoverished “nation” of disparate people living in the desert of Central Asia. His mother, despairing of life, sends him away as a child in the hope that he will find a way to survive. He goes to Moscow, where he gets a university education. The greater part of the book concerns his return to Central Asia on a mission to save his nation. Chagataev finds them close to death—only forty-some people are left, most of them aged. They subsist on reeds and seem to spend most of their time sleeping because they have “forgotten” how to live. A government functionary who arrived some years before induces the people to set out on a journey, but evinces no interest in their welfare. Chagataev eventually runs him off and takes over leadership. After almost dying in the desert, Chagataev returns his people to their homeland. However, once they have recovered and been well fed, they scatter, and Chagataev’s mission appears to have been a failure. Later, few of them return with a vision to get rich, having remembered, apparently, how to live. Chagataev returns to Moscow and joins up with the daughter of a woman he was married to very briefly in the beginning of the book.

This short novel (149 pages) is a dense, many-layered work, although the significance of the symbolism often eluded me, and I am sure much additional symbolism escaped my attention altogether. The book merits at least a second reading. Rather than offering an analysis, I will pose a few questions for anyone who has read Soul or would like to:

  1. What is the significance of childhood and the children in the book? Aidym, for example, is a girl of indeterminate age whom Chagataev befriends early in the book and who later assumes temporary leadership of the nation (while still a child). Several other children who appear in the narrative seem to indicate that Chagataev attaches special importance to childhood.
  2. What is the role of sleep? At first it appears to have negative associations. The members of Chagataev’s nation seem to sleep all the time because they have no hope. Later, however, after they have been well fed and cared for, they experience what seems to be a long restorative sleep, after which they get up and go their separate ways.
  3. Could this rightly, as Brian suggests, be read as an allegory for the Soviet Union? Chagataev is overtly compared at least once to Stalin, who gathered the “nations” into a single union.
  4. What is the significance of the four women with whom Chagataev has relationships in the course of the book—Vera, Aidym, Ksenya, and Khanom? Each one seems to be preeminently important to him, without precluding simultaneous attachment to the others; he exhibits an almost innocent naivete. The mythic nature of the book makes me think that he’s not just a womanizer, but this aspect of the work does strike me as very odd. It seems to signify something that escapes me.

In the translator’s introduction, Robert Chandler observes that the language of the original seems to be intentionally awkward. In light of this, it is difficult to account for the quote from Scott Badfield of The Times that appears on the back cover: “In Platonov’s prose, it is impossible to find a single inelegant sentence.” Was Badfield reading the translation? It seems dangerous to make such a statement about an author’s prose on the basis of a translation. If he was not, “awkward” is a long way from “elegant.”

I would not call Chandler’s translation “elegant,” but “awkward” did not come immediately to mind either. The language struck me as stark and unadorned—much like the desert in which most of the action takes place. Chandler’s style is appropriate, intentional, and consistent. I appreciate his statement that translation theory can only be posited “provisionally, with regard to a particular work, a particular paragraph, a particular sentence” (xix). His observation about domestication versus foreignization is equally insightful: “It is only too easy to translate into unusual English; it is a great deal harder to find a language that is convincingly odd, a language whose wrongness has a certain rightness.” While I did not sense that Chandler was intentionally foreignizing (although he does retain a few Central Asian words, such as chaikhona for “tea house,” which would be foreign to Russian readers as well), “convincingly odd” is a good term to describe the flow of certain passages.

This is a rich literary and philosophical text of particular but not sole interest to readers of Russian literature. I found it a bit bleak, however (like the desert), and was happy to finish. I started it a year ago when I was only a month or so pregnant but put it down about 50 pages in because I couldn’t handle the despondency of the book and morning sickness, too! It was worth returning to, though, and I would read (or at least skim) it again if I had the opportunity to engage in a discussion.

1. Chagatai is the name of one of Genghis Khan’s sons and of an extinct language in what is now Uzbekistan.

Click here for the text of an October 8, 2005, interview with translator Robert Chandler, including references to Platonov and his works: Ready Steady Book interview with Chandler

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