Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov: train wrecks

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1978), translated by Anthony Olcott

This will be the hardest post on Chevengur since it gets to the heart (and main character) of the novel, the town. The difficulty lies in both the complexity of the message and some ambiguity Platonov leaves in the story. I’ll apologize now for the length of the post but I don’t think I can break this into multiple posts and keep intact the flow of what happens.

I’ve mentioned before that if you read only one link I’ve provided make it Platonov’s Chevengur: The Ambivalent Space by Natalia Poltavtseva. One of the central topics of the novel she focuses on is the correlation between ideology and utopia. Which is true, and there’s more…so much more, even just on that topic. Early in the novel the main human character, Sasha, is involved in a train wreck between two locomotives of the Red Army. His heroics minimize the damage that could have happened. This collision of two huge engines is reflected later on in the novel in the conflict between ideology (particularly communism) and utopia, the damage compounded or minimized by human nature. Bureaucracy turns out (unsurprisingly) to be an enemy of utopia while inherent in ideology.

A quick run-through of this section of the novel: The introduction to Chevengur comes from Chepurny, nicknamed “the Jap” because of his looks. He is introduced as president of Chevengur’s Revolutionary Committee. He meets Alexander Dvanova (Sasha) at a party conference. He describes Chevengur as having already obtained communism, which intrigues Sasha. Sasha writes to Kopenkin (see previous posts on the novel), urging him to visit the town and see if the village has reached that goal. After Kopenkin arrives Platonov flashes back (for 60 pages) on how the town arrived at their current state—they kill the bourgeois and semi-bourgeois of the town, while the remaining villagers round up nearby proletariat and ‘miscellania’ (homeless people of the steppe) to populate the town. Sasha arrives in Chevengur and the town changes, making steps to become an actual utopian society after being a parody of one. Simon Serbinov, an investigator for the government, is asked to inspect the province to see if the reported acreage under cultivation has dropped significantly. This leads him to Chevengur, where he stays for a while after filing his report. Soldiers arrive in Chevengur and…well, it’s easy to guess the rest.

I’m going to include numerous quotes for the remainder of the post as I look at what Chevengur was “before communism,” the changes it makes in an attempt to forge their utopian society, and why that utopia was not allowed to stand. When asked about the ideology in Chevengur, Chepurny answers “They don’t have any,” “they are waiting for the end of the world.” (162) The bourgeois of Chevengur have been anticipating the Second Coming, not sowing or planting anything for the past three years. A government agent arrives in town and spouts the usual slogans of the Communist party, such as “Purge the town of the oppressing element for me!” (182) The rabble of Chevengur take the directives literally and slaughter the bourgeois: “The bourgeoisie of Chevengur had been beaten solidly, honestly, and in such a way that even their posthumous life would bring them no joy, for after their bodies, their souls had been shot too.” (180) The Second Coming didn’t come for the murdered townspeople:
Former stewards and dismissed civil servants lay by the fences in the comfort of the burdocks and whispered to one another of the Reign of the Lord, the Thousand-Year Kingdom of Christ, and about the future peace of a world freshened by suffering. Those conversations were vitally necessary for walking through the pit of communism’s hell. Forgotten reserves of accumulated ageless spirituality helped the old Chevengurians to bear the remainder of their lives with the full dignity of endurance and hope. By the same token, this was a misfortune for Chepurny and his rare comrades. Nowhere, neither in books nor in fairytales, was communism written out as a comprehensible song that might be recalled for comfort in a dangerous hour. Karl Marx looked down from the walls like an alien Sabaoth, and his fearsome books could not carry a man off in reassuring daydreams about communism. Posters in Moscow and the provinces depicted a hydra of counterrevolution and trains filled with calico and broadcloth chugging into villages that had cooperatives, but nowhere was there a touching picture of that future, for the sake of which the hydra’s head had to be lopped off and the heavy freight trains had to be pulled. (199)

It’s not clear to the remaining villagers that communism has arrived—it feels like nothing has changed. In order to help things along, they round up the “semi-bourgeois”( even though many had been counted as “reliable revolutionaries”) simply because they own homes. The semi-bourgeois were to be exiled but end up being slaughtered, too. There’s a horrific scene where the remaining townsfolk find a half-witted girl in an old boiler with her dead brother. Not satisfied with her staying on the outskirts of town they roll the boiler through the fields until it falls into a ravine.

Surely communism must have come to Chevengur now since the oppressing element has been eliminated. Labor is to be completely eliminated, with the exception of alternate Saturday assistance moving houses (more on that in a minute):

The next day they would have no work or assignments, because in Chevengur the sole sun worked for all, in place of each, for in Chevengur the sun had been declared the world-wide proletarian. At the incitement of the Jap Prokofy had given labor a special interpretation, where labor was declared once and for all to be a survival of greed and animal exploitative voluptuousness, because labor encourages the formation of property, and property is oppression. However the sun released normal rations which are completely adequate for people to live on, and any increase of those rations through deliberate human labor goes to feed the bonfire of class warfare, since it creates a surplus of dangerous objects. (171)

Chevengur turns into a parody of a utopia while the villagers mouth the slogans of communism. The villagers expect nature to change for them. They are fortunate that nature truly is keeping care of them, with plenty of grains growing wild on the steppe and the vegetable gardens replenishing themselves:

The bourgeois of Chevengur had sown and planted nothing for three years now, since they had been counting on the end of the world, but the plants multiplied from their parents and established among themselves a particular balance between wheat and thistle, three thistle roots for every stalk of wheat. When Chepurny looked at the overgrown steppe he always said that it too was an International of grass and flowers, and thus all men were guaranteed abundant food without the interference of labor and exploitation. The Chevengurians saw that it was thanks to that that nature refused to oppress man with work, instead of making the unpropertied consumer a gift of food and other necessities. In its time the Chevengur Revolutionary Committee had taken official note of the submissiveness of conquered nature and decided to erect a monument in its honor at some future point. (223)

The villagers plan for nothing, depleting matches and bullets without looking for any type of replacement. To assist in the slogan of not allowing anything to come between men they decide to move all houses close together while moving the gardens to the outskirts of town. Still…everyone feels empty in the town. They send Prokofy (the eldest son of Sasha’s ‘second father,’ see this post for more detail) to search for the proletariat who “had been tormented enough already” (210) and miscellaneous people to help share the new world they have created. While he is gone the villagers take the slogan to protect communism literally, spending each night vigilantly guarding their town from enemies who must surely plan to attack.

Even with all these changes, “not a single proletarian was hurrying into Chevengur, probably because they did not know that communism had been prepared there for them, as well as peace and common property.” (225) Underlying the disappointment of the people in Chevengur is the feeling that something has gone wrong with the revolution. They were expecting communism to be something tangible. The disappointment is sometimes described as the felling that “the revolution is slipping away” or referring back to 1917 when it was an “unsullied revolution.” Kopenkin, of course, thinks the village rude for not worshiping Rosa Luxemburg like he does: “It was as though Rosa Luxemburg had died for nothing, and not for their sake at all.” (242) Prokofy arrives with people, mostly ‘miscellania’.

Two things happen just after the miscellaneous arrive in Chevengur, significantly changing what happens in the town. The first is when the bureaucracy is eliminated when the Revolutionary Committee disbands. The miscellaneous make it clear that they will demand nothing from the committee or the town, they just want to exist unmolested. The hindrance in achieving utopia because of (communist) ideology becomes clear after the second event. The townspeople first try to keep a sick baby alive—they believe death should not occur where there is communism (reflecting their belief that nature will change). When the baby does die they try to revive it so it will live one more minute under communism, proving the correct ideology exists in their town. The mother’s love for her sick baby proves to be radically different than the propaganda being spouted. She chides the villagers for trying to revive the baby, realizing their motivation lies in selfish reasons rather than altruism. There is plenty of symbolism in this passage, too, since Platonov takes great pains to build a symbolic structure linking the sun with fatherhood as compared to the moon and motherhood. It’s beyond the scope of this post to delve further into these metaphors, but I will note that at this point the villagers realize the sun will not provide everything for them. It’s also important to note that the proletariat and miscellaneous that enter Chevengur are all described as fatherless. The villagers begin to complain about the lack of women in the town, so Prokofy is tasked again to find people, this time wives for the villagers.

The villagers completely change—instead of lazing around all day they feel the need to do something for other residents in the town. They begin to chop wood, build dams, derive fire, concoct millstones, and gather food and herbs in order to help other people in the town. Usually the desire is a longing to help a particular person, but once such a perceived need is satisfied they feel empty. The torment the miscellaneous feel, that they were “useless to themselves,” leads to the call for wives and working for others. Part of the parody continues—work is allowed as long as it does not benefit the one doing the work. But they are in the embryonic stages of caring for others, something practically foreign in the world Platonov has described up to this point. The ideological slogans have been replaced with actual concern for others.

I want to take a temporary diversion on ideology again, focusing on the bureaucracy inherent in it. Prokofy represents the bureaucracy, something supposedly to help the ideology but really supporting his power and status. Which, in this case, proves to cause existential problems between ideology in general, communism specifically, and the utopia promised by that ideology. Prokofy is the Secretary of the district executive committee and interprets much of the ideology for Chevengur, providing an important job as decision-maker for many of the characters—they feel like everyone else is smarter than they are so they defer judgment on actions and events. Prokofy is quite blunt in his assessment of those around him: “He knew that correct government was lacking in Chevengur and that the reasonable and intelligent elements had to live within a retarded class in order to raise it up gradually, under their own authority.”(257) We’re back to the mass insuring “their vain hopes with a leader,” no matter how ill informed or lacking in concern he is for others. While he reliably did what was asked of him in bringing in others to the town, “Prokofy regretted having to give up ownership of Chevengur, to hand it over to the wives of the proletarians and the miscellaneous.” (268) Prokofy tries to rationalize bureaucracy, echoing the ideology and the masses' need for a leader:

“You can see it yourself, Sasha,” Prokofy continued convincingly, “That the satisfaction of their desires will make them repeat again and make them even start wanting something anew. And each citizen will want to realize his own feelings as quickly as possible so as to feel himself and his suffering at [as] little as he can. But even so you’d never get everything ready for them. Today it’s give them property, tomorrow it’s a wife, then round the clock happiness, and history just won’t be able to manage it.” … “I want to organize the miscellaneous. I’ve noticed already that wherever you’ve got an organization there’s never more than one man doing the thinking, while the others live like empty pots, following along behind the first man. Organization is the smartest thing of all. Everybody knows himself but no one possesses himself. And things are great for everyone and only bad for the first man, because he’s doing the thinking. When there’s an organization you can take a lot of the superfluous from a man. (269)

Platonov captures a lot of Russian literature in Prokofy’s statement that “in the Russian village misery is not torment but a habit.” He also introduces a crucial element (in addition to bureaucracy) to either the ideology or utopia conflict—human nature. Near the end of the novel Prokofy begins to take an inventory of the town, intent on taking over everything. In a sense he got what he wanted as the government…the ideology…has to destroy the utopia, since it can’t have these pesky, independent people actually believing and living what has been preached. On the other hand, Prokofy lost everything since while he inherits the inventory list he compiled he has no power without the people of the town.

I’m going to stop here even though I haven’t talked about many important elements of this section, such as the focus on water (again), Sasha’s ties to his father (an expanded and specific piece of the father/sun theme), and the importance of dreams (including the song of the half-witted girl in the boiler). Chevengur proves to be a very dense work that rewards patient reading, even though I feel I only understood a fraction of what Platonov intended.

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