Tuesday 16 April 2024


Andrey Platonov's Chevengur is a large book about meagre lives in a vast land—southern Russia after the revolution. I read it in bed, during round two of a bad cold, at first put off by the size of it, in hardback too, but then grateful for the heft of the book, the chalky, well-designed pages that stay open if you put the book aside.  Most days, with rests between chapters, I found it beautiful. 

On the first page is a man alone who can fix or equip anything, who in summer lives out in the open with his tools in a sack. He treated people and fields with 'an indifferent tenderness, not infringing on their interests'. He is the first in a novel full of people adrift in some expectation of communism, which, according to one man 'might inadvertently have come about somewhere or other, since there was nothing people could do with themselves except join together out of fear of troubles and the strengthening of need.'

To call their lives meagre already seems wrong, as I lie in bed, under a duvet, with a cup of hot ginger to hand. Elemental? Desperate? No. Not any more than Beckett's characters are desperate. They are too far beyond. And, as with Beckett, therein lies the beauty. To say they live close to the land is an understatement. They are of the land and the land is of them. And the sky, the sun and the moon and the stars. They have nothing and expect nothing.

When property lies between people, they calmly expend their powers on concerns about that property, but when there is nothing between people, then they choose not to part from one another and to preserve one another from cold in their sleep.

Chevengur is a village in the steppes that has been cleared of its bourgeoisie and occupied by what one of the 'organisers' calls 'the proletariat and others'.

These others are simply others. Worse than proletariat—no one and nobody. .... They're fatherlessness. ... They were living nowhere. They wander.

They are wandering, one man suggests, if you want to put a word on it, to communism. And Chevengur has communism. This is stated as the vaguest and most definite of facts. These others had their first sense of the world in cold, in grass made moist by traces of their mother, and in aloneness. Not one of the others had ever seen their father. There are characters who read books, who fix things, mend roofs, collect plants for food, and so on, but the others sound like a barely perceptible human note. They are the disparate mass on the fringes of the masses, the proletariat, history's detritus. Here's one of them, thinking.

What first took place in him and his fellow others was not thought but a certain pressure of dark warmth. Then, one way or another, thought would speak its way out, cooling as it escaped.

I read Platonov for these depictions. For this slightness of life amid the vast spaces of the steppes. Since I was a child I have been bewitched by the phrase 'the steppes of Central Asia', the extent of them needing no support from the music of the same name by Borodin, nor the realisation from looking at a map, of their enormous extent, from Ukraine to China.

There is little difference between clear consciousness and the vision of dreams—what happens in dream is the same life, only its meaning laid bare.

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