Andrey Platonov’s Soul is the first selection in Soul and Other Stories. I was looking for the book Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman while in Metro Manila last month when I found the Platonov book. When a friend who accompanied me to the bookshop learned that the author was a Soviet writer during Stalin’s reign, he quipped about the title. Did the people there even have souls? I replied that people living under conditions of drudgery would have more chances of owning one than we ordinary middle class urbanites of today because it is perhaps the only thing they have got left.
As I began reading the book this month, I was surprised how Platonov eloquently broached on the same subject in Souls. The title novella, the complete text of which was first published only in 1999, is basically about a young economist who is sent from Moscow to his Central Asian homeland with the mission of saving his people. His nation of rejects and outcasts is called Dzhan, which is a Persian word for soul.
It was their shared name, given to them long ago by the rich beys, because dzhan means soul and these poor, dying men had nothing they could call their own but their souls, that is the ability to feel and suffer. The word dzhan, therefore, was a gibe, a joke made by the rich at the expense of the poor. The beys thought that soul meant only despair, but in the end it was their dzhan that was the death of them; they had too little of dzhan of their own, too little capacity to feel, suffer, think and struggle. They had too little of the wealth of the poor. (p. 141)
The hungry and downtrodden, constantly stalked by it, cannot make death a non-issue. Of this, Platonov perceptively wrote (I just love typing passages from a book I like):
Her thin, small face had become rapacious and angry from constant sorrow or from the effort of staying alive when there’s nothing to live for and nothing to live on, when you must force your heart to work, when you must keep remembering your heart for it to go on beating. Otherwise death may come at any moment – if you forget or fail to understand that you are alive, that you must keep trying to want something and not overlook your own self. (p.41)
Soul, award-winning translator Robert Chandler writes in the introduction, “is typical of the socialist realist literature of the Stalinist era.” Following official Soviet doctrine, all art, literature, and music should only depict the struggles of the common people and foster the development of socialism. In spite of this, Soul stands out for the lack of stiffness and uninspired militancy that is often associated with socialist realism. “Rarely does literature come this close to music,” The Observer praised.
Lines like “Stalin looked like an old man, the kind father of all orphaned people on earth” and other variations of the same idea appear almost ten times throughout the novella. This praise should not be taken at face value, however. In the beginning, the main character saw himself as a messianic hero-figure, mimicking the Vanguard Party and Stalin’s posturing as the savior of the toiling masses. But near the end, he concluded:
…he had wanted to be the first to create true life here – on the edge of Sary-Kamysh, the hellhole of the ancient world. But people can see for themselves how best to live. It was enough that he had helped them to stay alive: now let them find happiness beyond the horizon. (p.118) ■