Introducing Andrei Platonov

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated from the Russian by Joseph Barnes

Andrei Platonov
Andrei Platonov; drawing by David Levine

Andrei Platonov’s face, looking out from one of his last photographs, is the face of a tired Russian worker. It has not a trace of affectation, no hint of what is called “artistic temperament,” no monumental profundity, no “oracular brilliance” in the eyes.

People with faces like this do not like eloquence. They prefer the pains-taking study of the intricate mechanics of living, and before believing something, they want to feel it all over with their hands.

It’s the face of a worker who thinks—the face of a master.

The prose Platonov wrote has just this kind of face.

Not long before the second World War, a short story called. “The Third Son” by this Russian writer Platonov, who was almost unknown in the West, fell into the hands of Ernest Hemingway, who was already famous. At a meeting with some Soviet journalists, Hemingway spoke with admiration of the pithiness and the expressiveness of Platonov’s style. (Hemingway did not know that Platonov had written a brilliant article about his novels To Have and Have Not and A Farewell to Arms.) To their shame, by no means all of the journalists taking part in this conversation with Hemingway knew the work of their compatriot. Platonov was not spoiled by fame during his life, either at home or abroad. He belongs among the delayed-action writers, whose talent is like a safety fuse which runs many years in length. This fuse smolders unseen but persistent, staying dry even under the drizzle of time, until finally a blinding explosion destroys bridges that had seemed built for eternity.

Platonov’s talent was noticed by Gorky. Fadeyev and Sholokhov, who had both official critical recognition and wide readership, admired his talent in spite of many differences of their own with the direction in which he was moving. They understood very clearly that somewhere far from the center of the literary stage, which was flooded by limelight, there burned the quiet but steady candle of a remarkable master. And toward this independent, proud candle, away from the limelight, they both moved hat in hand.

Platonov’s destiny did not work out as theirs did, and while these writers were in the center of the public eye, Platonov was, as it were, on its very edges.

But the literature of any people is always a big city. Only the superficial judge the real spirit of a city by its well-known avenues and its public squares, obligingly advertised by the tourist agencies. For old residents and thoughtful visitors, a city reveals itself most often in the outskirts where the tourist buses do not go. There, away from the noise and the congestion inside the city limits, you can feel the city’s enduring quality. The outskirts reveal the true meaning of the center more than the center shows the meaning of the outskirts. The coarse, sorrowing life of the outskirts is always more…

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