Why This Book Should Win: "Happy Moscow" by Andrey Platonov [BTBA 2013]
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and others, including Olga Meerson, Jonathan Platt, Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingston, and Eric Naiman, and published by New York Review Books.
This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.
To my knowledge, none of Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s early science fiction novels have been translated into English. Robert Chandler, the writer’s fearless advocate and translator, once told me in conversation that they were minor efforts, though I would love to read them. To my mind, Happy Moscow reads at times like a marvelous anticipation of the futuristic excursions of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. As in the latter’s acerbic novels, wry but demented visions of utopia and dystopia meet, mingle, and morph at the bloody crossroads of humanity and technology, language and gibberish, innocence and despoliation. As Eric Naiman writes in his introduction to an earlier version of the NYRB translation, “in both form and content this work captures the strange combination of enthusiasm and catastrophe that characterized Russia in the twentieth century.” Neither proclamations of unshakeable cheer nor prophecies of global meltdown are in short supply today: Platonov dramatizes the clash between Russian extremes of propaganda and reality to the point of cartoon absurdity. His deconstruction of reality-denying hubris remains provocative, still one step ahead of the postmodern pack.
Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure Stalinist kitsch, bloated visions of “immortal” vitality that from time to time crash into an increasingly degraded existence. Early on, the bold and beautiful parachutist Moscow finds herself plummeting helplessly to the ground:
She flew, her cheeks red and burning, and the air tore harshly at her body, as if it were not the wind of celestial space but a heavy dead substance—it was impossible to believe that the earth could be harder and still more merciless. “So, world, this is what you’re really like!”
Ah, the tragicomic exhilaration of the new Soviet woman falling toward the old, old ground.
Unsurprisingly Happy Moscow counterpoises its energetic (and amusing) rhetoric of ideological confidence with compelling images of excrescence and decay. Platonov’s humane ethos is articulated by a skeptical character as he is leaving a room filled with corpses that are being dissected in the scientific search for “the cistern of immortality”:
He was saddened by the sorrow and poverty of life, saddened that life is so helpless that it must almost uninterruptedly distract itself through illusion from an awareness of its own true situation. Even Sambikin was seeking illusions in his own thoughts and discoveries—he too was carried away by the complexity and great essence of the world in his imagination. But Sartorius could see that the world consisted primarily of destitute substance, which it was almost impossible to love but essential to understand.
Happy Moscow is a wild study in cosmic disillusionment, a diagnosis of linguistic, political, and metaphysical fiddle-faddle whose challenging use of broad caricature and stylistic instability will lead some readers to toss it into the bin of genre fiction, while others will dismiss it as a surreal doodle. But this book deserves to win because it is a sui generis masterwork, a satiric fantasia of unmistakable brilliance from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, with ample collaborative evidence offered by the other pieces in this volume, particularly the story “The Moscow Violin.”