The book is rather difficult to read despite its brevity. It begins and ends at the site of an enormous excavation for a housing project’s foundation, although it isn’t all that clear if the work is being carried forward in any rational manner, and in between there is a long section that takes place in an agricultural village where a party functionary, known as The Activist, is pushing along the collectivization program. The story is structured like a fable, almost a fairy tale, but the landscape is bleak, and people speak only in political sloganese. In fact, the language of the text is what is most difficult, for every sentence seems to contain within it many allusions, parodies, sarcasms, and deep ironies. Readers who are not familiar with early Soviet culture and its controversies are likely to be mystified, or bored.
The weird language that Platonov creates seems to be mirror of the weird, irrational, tortured state to which Soviet society was reduced during the era of the purges and collectivization. It seems to mock its speakers with its haywire intellectual pretensions, and sometimes notes of intense tragedy break through, in spite of it.
A sample – The activist is making a raft on which to float away the deported kulaks, perhaps an allusion to the practice of filling barges with anti-revolutionaries and sinking them that occurred during the French Terror – a kulak challenges the authorities:
“Show me your papers then, if you’re truly an authorized body.”
“What kind of a body am I to you?” said Chiklin [an engineer at the pit]. “I’m a nobody. The only body around here is the Party.”
“Show me the Party then. I want to take a close look at it.”
Chiklin gave scant smile.
“You wouldn’t recognize it – not if it were staring you in the face – I can barely sense it myself! Report to the raft at once, you capitalism, you bastard!”
“Let him sail the seas. Here today, and gone tomorrow, isn’t that right?” pronounced Nastya [a very youg girl]. “Bastards like him make life boring.”
Chiklin and the hammerer [a bear that acts like a human – often found in Russian folklore] further liberated another six huts that had been built with the flesh of poor laborers, and then returned to the OrgYard where the masses, now purged of kulaks, were standing in expectation of something.
The activist checked the newly arrived kulak class against his own social stratification register, found complete precision, and rejoiced in the action of Chiklin and the forge hammerer. In return, Chiklin showed his approval of the activist: Now that’s what I call consciousness! Your sense of the classes is just like an animal’s!”
Zhachev, a legless veteran of the “imperialist war” watches the kulaks float away.
By then, the kulak river transport had begun to disappear around a bend, behind the bushes on the bank, and Zhachev was loosing the appearance of the class enemy.
“Fa-are we-ell parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Fa-are we-ell! responded the kulaks floating off to te sea.
Does he loose site of the kulaks, or does he cease to see them as class enemies once they are reduced to their helpless state? Does he know which? Later, the activist is made frantic by a directive from on high that states that many people like him have gone too far, undermined socialist progress, maybe even been wreckers! Such forward and backward leaps of policy, leaving the fanatical and the opportunistically faithful vulnerable to purges were common, and completely planned by Stalin.
After a while, the activist descended an inventory down onto the floor so that the child could leave a mark confirming receipt in full of all the property acquired in life by the landless laborers who had died without kin and stating that she would put this to good future use. Nastya [who dies at the novel’s end] slowly drew a hammer and sickle on the paper and handed the inventory back.
A symbolic exchange. Note the weird verb cases – “descended an inventory down onto the floor…” This is not a poor translation, it’s a deliberately odd use of the passive voice, mocking, I think, the pseudo-scientific, objective prose to be found in so much communistic hack work.
Somehow Platonov survived to die in 1951 from the TB he caught from his son who was sent to the Gulag at age fifteen.
… And now, for some comic relief:
18 February 2009
Bankers are the new kulaks, rails Lady Black
As credit-crunched citizens of the world unite to scream “Off with their heads!” at bankers, who will protect the money-spinning classes from the howling mob? Step forward Barbara “My extravagance knows no bounds” Amiel.
In an extraordinary article for the current issue of the Canadian magazine, Macleans, Lady Black compares the treatment of bankers to that meted out to the intelligentsia in Mao’s China and the kulaks in Stalinist Russia.
“Those 1960s and 70s marches, complete with stops at which foul intellectuals would kneel and allocate [sic] to the mobs, are not so different from the modern American perp walk. These days it’s the pointy-head intellectuals and the media class that are the Red Guard, and Wall Streeters the accused. Every night, some TV station posts photos of the day’s addition to the Top 10 Business Villains and another fund manager is added to the list of foul CEOs…We are living through a collective madness, all part of the mob, finger pointing, judging, some driven by fear of economic chaos, others enjoying the schadenfreude express.”
This, of course, would strike a chord with Amiel, whose husband is currently serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence in Florida for defrauding Hollinger shareholders.
“I suspect current economic criminals resemble past ones in that they come in two varieties: the ones who really commit economic crimes and the ones who are elevated by political fashion to the status of criminals. Stalin’s taste made economic criminals of the entire kulak class; kulaks in today’s America would include CEOs and Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Certain titles such as ‘hedge fund manager’ have become terms of disapproval that trip off the tongues of people, at least half of whom I suspect have utterly no idea what a hedge fund is,” Amiel rails.
Amiel concludes, “Driven by old fears and left-wing hates, we are moving to notions, à la Bertolt Brecht, that all wealth is suspect. If, as I suspect, the economy is a psychodrama, anti-market hysteria is unlikely to restore equilibrium.