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Written between 1932 and 1936 and unpublished until 1991, Happy Moscow generates its characters (in particular Moscow Chestnova, the book’s sexy but sentimental and injury prone heroine) out of pure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.”
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .