Friday 31 October 2014

Soul by Andrey Platonov
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Conjure these, a novella and a travel book, on a damp and windy day in verdant Inniscarra and you know you've pleasantly, violently, achingly, lost your footing.

Andrey Platonov's creatures in Soviet Uzbekistan are beyond Beckett's; voiceless.
They sat on the ground and fell into thought, even though, given their advanced years, they had already had more than enough time to think everything through and arrive at truth.
The people Colin Thubron meets in the same place, sixty years later, post-Soviet, have something to say. When he asks a young girl about her future she replies that soon she'll be a young woman and then she'll be married and then she'll be an old woman. Then a corpse, she adds.

Unlike the soul nation in Andrey Platonov, they have not forgotten who they are, though some would prefer to. It was better when you were a Muslim and a member of your family, not Uzbek or Tajik or Kyrgyz or Kazakh, says one man. It was better when you didn't know anywhere other than where you were.

Many Uzbeks think England is next to America; and they're right. In Central Asia, nationality is a bend in the river, a mountain range, a horde on the steppes, a burrow in the sand. If you can trace your ancestry back to the Middle Horde across thousands of miles of arid steppe, what need of placehood, only inwardness and a mouthful of damp sand.

I once met a woman who wanted to be in the middle of the world. When she said it I thought of Central Asia, obscurely but definitely, as if learned during childhood, from folk tales or music: In the steppes of central Asia by Borodin, for example. The size of Asia gives its centre a ring of truth: the desert is like the sea and the mountains the sky, how could you not think you were in the middle of the world, the middle of your world, the one you've crossed and recrossed and thus own?

Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, did. Then, when trade east/west transferred to the sea, sparse hordes criss-crossed the steppes and the mountains, picking fights and sucking sand, and new nations formed, like the Soul nation, out of wayfarers caught like tumbleweed in the scrub, Stalin thought it ripe for gigantesque conversion. He scooped up Central Asia, all of it, and set about collectivising (read: starving) the nomads and depleting the inland seas.

Wastelands go away East and South from the Aral Sea, whose former ports are now sixty miles from the nearest water. What's left condenses into clouds that fall as salt rain all around. Cotton crops no longer grow, nor any other. They're trading oil out of the lost heart of Asia these days, which makes 5% rich and leaves 95% poor. The country code for Uzbekistan is 998. Add one and it's a major emergency.

Colin Thubron's penultimate chapter begins: I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude. Here's Beckett again. Here's Platonov. Puzzling echoes of Roger Deakin (Wildwood), whose Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are apple and walnut paradise. Colin Thubron sees a slightly warmer Siberia where discarded people, Trotsky among them, could be parked, and nuclear fission tested.

Andrey Platonov, who was born in Uzbekistan, finds the sublime when he returns. As we're inclined, all of us who return, towards the sublime. To get published at all, Platonov has to satisfy the Supreme Soviet; Chagataev, his main character, is sent back to his birthplace to bring socialism to his nation. The ridiculous aids the sublime.

I know this nation, said Chagataev. I was born in Sary-Kamysh. 
That's why you're being sent there, the secretary explained. What was the name of your nation – do you remember?
It wasn't called anything, said Chagataev, though it did give itself a little name.
What was this name?
Dzhan. It means soul, or dear life. The nation possessed nothing except the soul and dear life given to it by mothers, because it's mothers who give birth to the nation.

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