Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reading. Platonov.

I had never read anything by Andrei Platonov until I was looking for something by Brodsky and the search engine came up with The Fierce and Beautiful World. The direct and terrible beauty of the title captured my attention, drew me to it, and I could not resist, did not want to resist. For a while I had turned away from Russian literature, followed my heart down a different path, wound up in another, distant garden. Sometime last spring I found myself realizing that it was time to return, and the labryinth of memory that is literature brought me back to where I began all those years ago.

I fell in love with Russian literature some ten years ago; I fell in love with the language a few years afterwards. They have remained inextricably intertwined in my mind and heart all this time since. I think it was Bulgakov who first enraptured me with the beauty and mystery and poetry and musicality of his words, the way he used language. (It was for Bulgakov that I learned Russian; I have learned languages for pleasure or for love or out of necessity, but Russian I learned for literature). It was something new to me then, and now I find Platonov is another thing entirely, completely different from anything I have read before.

The foreward by Tatyana Tolstoya gives an inkling of what is to come when she quotes Brodsky's statement, "Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated," bringing to the fore the question of how to translate what is untranslatable, his "dislocations of meaning," the way he uses the Russian language in all its subtleties of meaning. And then she brings into the open what she considers the central theme of Platonov's work, "the happiness of the mind and the happiness of the heart in their complex interaction; he studies what happiness really is, why and how it appears, where it goes, how to find and hold on to it."

I have only gotten a little ways into the first short story of this collection, Dzhan, but its very first words tell me that I have found something extraordinary, something that will grip me about the heart and not let go. Nazar Chagatayev, a young man, not a Russian, walked into the courtyard of the Moscow Institute of Economics. It is not, perhaps, a particularly arresting opening sentence, but something tells me that my world is about to change. Again. There is a simplicity to his words that is so beautiful it feels as though my heart is cracking wide open, not breaking but splitting itself in order to grow greater.

There are so many moments that make me pause, like when you have fallen in love and the person you love is so often saying or doing all these little things that draw you in deeper. A woman's body is described as smelling good and warm, like bread; when Chagatayev is with her he forgets himself, he feels that ease and happiness poured out of this strange woman whom he would probably never meet again; this is how bliss often exists unnoticed right next to us. Perhaps this is what happiness is, these passing moments with complete strangers who will always remain as a single, brief memory, that moment when you come across a line in a new book and feel your heart catch on fire.

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