Andrei Platonov is an extraordinary writer, perhaps the most brilliant Russian writer of the twentieth century. Very different from any other writer I know of (in a sense he has no literary predecessors), he is still little known to the Western reader, in part be-cause of the extraordinary difficulty of translating his prose, in part because he is not a “proper” writer; he is “different.” Platonov never uses the formal elements of narrative—plot, character, denouement, conclusion—in a conventional way. He continually undermines the reader’s expectations in the most bizarre manner. In a Platonov story, the reader encounters a range of sensations for which he has no sensory organ—and this organ may or may not develop in the process of reading.
“Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated,” Joseph Brodsky once said. What does this strange statement mean? The great difficulty of understanding Platonov arises from the fact that he created his own peculiar, unique language using only standard Russian, without resort to a single neologism.
In the story “Dzhan,” for example, a poor young woman says to a man who has given her a great deal of money and many expensive gifts: “I will also soon give you presents. Wealth will soon arrive!” The translator renders the last sentence as “I’ll be rich soon,” but it means something entirely different. In Platonov’s odd usage, wealth “will arrive,” “will come,” flowing out of the stream of time just as the future, the seasons, and changes “will come,” without human intervention, on their own. “Wealth,” in Platonov’s language and system of sensations, is just as much a part of nature as the wind, spring, earthquakes, fate, time, and death. Even if one were to translate this sentence as “wealth will come,” the English-language reader wouldn’t sense the striking usage, wouldn’t see it as a fragment of Platonov’s unusual world.
Similar microdeviations from the norm, dislocations of meaning that suddenly reveal other ways of thinking and feeling, can be found in almost every paragraph of Platonov’s prose, if not in every sentence. The linguistic shifts in the original are so distinctive and unique that it’s possible that there is no adequate way to convey them in English (or French, or German). However, if these sorts of subtleties are lost in translation, other elements remain.
Platonov writes as though no one before him had ever written anything, as if he were the first person to take pen to paper. Things that are normally considered secondary often occupy a central place in his work, while “important” events are shunted off somewhere to the periphery. Characters who have no direct relationship to the narrative arise without evident necessity; on first (and even second) glance their role is unclear and they disappear without warning. Platonov’s protagonist is energetically engaged in some important activity that consumes all his strength; then, a mistaken calculation, a blunder, or a catastrophe destroys the …