Happy Moscowby Andrey Platonov
An NYRB Classics Original
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her… See more details below
An NYRB Classics Original
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.
Unpublishable during Platonov’s lifetime, Happy Moscow first appeared in Russian only in 1991. This new edition contains not only a revised translation of Happy Moscow but several related works: a screenplay, a prescient essay about ecological catastrophe, and two short stories in which same characters reappear and the reader sees the mind of an extraordinary writer at work.
“Andrey Platonov is the most exciting Russian writer to be rediscovered since the end of the Soviet Union. Happy Moscow shows Platonov as a master of language, weaving out of official names, political speeches, ideological exhortations and popular philosophical hopes a reality equal to the gut feel of Soviet life in the 1930s….Happy Moscow remains an extraordinary read, because politics doesn't get in the way. This is just what it felt like to be swept away by the Soviet ideal of a new humanity.” —The Independent
“Happy Moscow is worth reading on countless scores. On the violence, often not physical, which a totalitarian system wreaks on the lives of those who exist within it, it is a vital counterpart to those works which deal with the more tangible horrors of the USSR, and a reminder of the unique, paradoxical power of literature to expose the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.” —The Spectator
“In the Thirties Stalin proclaimed Moscow a paradise. This savage satire shows the truth through the eyes of the ebullient Moscow Chestnova. In Platonov's hands she becomes a parody of a superwoman who leaves a career in aeronautics for lovers and life. Around her is a fascinating cast of characters and, even in translation, Platonov's prose is extraordinary. This first English edition brings one of Russia's great writers to light.” —The Times (London)
“Translated with what appears scrupulous imagination by Robert Chandler, Happy Moscow is stirringly readable, taking the air from totalitarian bombast and breathing new life into a neglected classic.” —The Observer
“Happy Moscow is a full-blown masterpiece, worthy not only of consideration alongside its author’s better-known works, but of comparison with modernist fiction’s greatest achievements.” —Tony Wood, New Left Review
“[Joseph Brodsky] identified Platonov as the only Russian writer capable of philosophically and stylistically transcending the tragedy of the twentieth century. Chandler’s exemplary translations are based on reliable texts, and yield the fruit of their long-standing collaboration with Russian and English speaking Platonov scholars.” —The Times Literary Supplement
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By ANDREY PLATONOV
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Anton Martynenko
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHAPPY MOSCOW
A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street into a boring night of late autumn. The little girl saw him through a window of her home as she woke from a boring dream. Then she heard the powerful shot of a rifle and a poor, sad cry—the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon after this came many distant shots and a din of people in the neighboring prison ... The little girl went to sleep and forgot everything she saw later in other days: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood were overgrown in her body forever by subsequent life. But until her late years a nameless man would unexpectedly and sadly rise up in her and run—in the pale light of memory—and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heart of a grown-up child. Amid hunger and sleep, at a moment of love or some young joy—suddenly the sad cry of the dead man was there again in the distance, in the depth of her body, and the young woman would immediately change her life: if she was dancing, she would interrupt the dance; if she was laboring, she would work more surely, with more concentration; if she was alone, she would cover her face with her hands. It was on that rainy night of late autumn that the October Revolution had begun—in the city where Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova was then living.
Her father died from typhoid; the hungry, orphaned girl went out of the house and never went back there again. Remembering neither people nor space, her soul gone to sleep, for several years she walked and ate up and down her motherland, as if in an emptiness, until she came to herself in a children's home and at school. She was sitting at a desk by a window, in the city of Moscow. The trees on the boulevard had stopped growing; leaves were falling from them without any wind, covering the now silent earth for its long sleep to come. It was the end of September, and the year when wars all ended and the transport system began to function again.
Moscow Chestnova had been in the children's home for two years. It was here she had been given a name, a surname, and even a patronymic, since the little girl remembered her own name and early childhood only very indefinitely. She thought her father had called her Olya, but she had not been sure of this and had kept silent, like someone nameless, like that nighttime man who had perished. So she had been given a first name in honor of Moscow; a patronymic in memory of Ivan, an ordinary Red Army soldier who had fallen in battle; and a surname in recognition of the honesty of her heart—which had not had time to become dishonest, in spite of long unhappiness.
Moscow Chestnova's clear and ascending life began on that autumn day; sitting by the window, already in the second class, she was looking into the death of the leaves on the boulevard when she read with interest a sign on the building opposite: A. V. KOLTSOV WORKERS' AND PEASANTS' LIBRARY AND READING ROOM. Before the last lesson the children had each, for the first time in their lives, been given a white roll with a meat patty and some potato, and they were told what patties are made out of: cows. At the same time they were instructed to write a composition for the next day about a cow—if they had ever seen one—and also about their own future life. In the evening Moscow Chestnova, now full of white bread and dense patty, was writing her composition at the communal table; her girlfriends had all gone to sleep and a little electric light was burning weakly. "Story of a Little Girl with No Father or Mother About Her Future Life: Now we are being taught mind, but a mind is in a head, there is nothing on the outside. We must, to be honest, live with labor. I want to live a future life, let there be biscuits and jam and sweets and let me always be able to walk in the fields past trees. Or else I won't live, I won't feel like it. I want to live in an ordinary way with happiness. There's nothing to say in addition."
Subsequently, Moscow ran away from school. She was brought back after a year and was held up to shame at a communal assembly: How could she, a daughter of the Revolution, behave in such an unethical and undisciplined manner?
"I'm not a daughter, I'm an orphan!" Moscow answered—and once again began studying diligently, as though she had not been in absence anywhere at all.
What she liked most in nature were the wind and the sun. She liked to lie somewhere in the grass; to listen to what the wind, like someone unseen and full of yearning, was noising about in the thick of the bushes; and to see the summer clouds float by high above all the unknown countries and peoples. Observation of clouds and space made Moscow's heart beat more rapidly in her chest, as if her body had been raised to a great height and left there on its own. Then she would wander through fields, over simple, poor land, looking carefully and keenly all around her, still getting used to living in the world, and feeling glad that everything in it was fitting for her—for her body, heart, and freedom.
After completing her nine years of school, Moscow, like every young person, began unconsciously looking for a path into her future, into a happy closeness of people; her hands longed for activity, her heart sought pride and heroism, and in her mind some still-mysterious but elevated fate was already triumphing. The seventeen-year-old Moscow could not enter anywhere on her own; she was waiting for an invitation, as if she valued in herself the gift of youth and now grown-up strength. And so, for a time, she became lonely and strange. Then a chance man got to know Moscow and conquered her with his feelings and pleasing manner, and she married him, immediately and forever spoiling her body and her youth. Her large hands, fit for bold activity, were taken up with embraces; her heart, which had sought heroism, began to love just one sly man who kept a tight grip on her, as if she were his inalienable asset. But one morning Moscow began to feel such an aching shame of her own life, not quite knowing exactly why, that she kissed her sleeping husband on the forehead by way of farewell and left the room, not even taking a change of clothes with her. Until evening she wandered along the boulevards and the bank of the Moscow River, sensing only the petty drizzle and wind of September and not thinking anything, being empty and tired.
She wanted, as she had done in her wandering childhood, to find some kind of box or vacant food stall to sleep in, but she noticed she had long grown too big and that there was nowhere she could squeeze into unnoticeably. She sat down on a bench in the darkness of the late boulevard and dozed off, listening to the mutterings of the thieves and homeless toughs who were wandering about nearby.
At midnight an insignificant man sat down on the same bench, with the secret and conscientious hope that this woman might suddenly fall in love with him, since the meekness of his own powers made him unable to seek out love with any persistence. He was not, in essence, looking for beauty of face or charm of figure—he would agree to anything and to the highest sacrifice on his own part if only someone would respond to him with true feeling.
"What do you want?" asked Moscow, who had woken up.
"Nothing," this man answered. "I just—"
"I want to sleep," said Moscow, "and there isn't anywhere."
The man immediately informed her that he had a room. To avoid suspicion of his intentions, however, he suggested she take a room in a hotel and sleep there in a clean bed, curled up in a blanket. Moscow agreed and they set off. On the way Moscow told her companion to get her registered in some place of study, with food and a communal hostel.
"What do you love most of all?" he asked.
"I love the wind in the air and a few other things," said the exhausted Moscow.
"Then it's got to be the school of aeronautics—that and nothing else!" determined Moscow's companion. "I'll do my best."
He found a room for her in the Minin House, paid for three nights in advance, gave Moscow thirty rubles for food, and set off home, carrying away within him his own consolation.
Five days later, thanks to his efforts, Moscow entered the aeronautics school and moved to the communal hostel.
In the center of the capital, on the sixth floor, lived a thirty-year-old man, Viktor Vasilievich Bozhko. He lived in a small room lit by a single window; the din of the new world reached the height of such a dwelling like a symphonic composition—the falsehood of low and mistaken sounds died out no higher than the third floor. The room's furnishings were poor and austere—not because of poverty but because of dreaminess. There was an iron bed as in an epidemic ward, with a greasy blanket impregnated through and through with humanity; a naked table fit for great concentration; a mass-produced chair salvaged from somewhere or other; homemade shelves against the wall, with the best books of socialism and of the nineteenth century; and three portraits above the table—Lenin, Stalin, and Dr. Zamenhof, the inventor of the international language of Esperanto. Below these portraits, in four rows, hung small photographs of nameless people; and in the photographs were not only white faces but also Negroes, Chinese, and inhabitants of countries of every kind.
Until late into the evening this room stays empty; tired, saddened sounds gradually die away in it, bored substance sometimes gives little creaks; a quadrilateral of sunlight, shaped by the window, slowly wanders across the floor and fades into night on the wall. Everything comes to an end, only objects pine in the dark.
Then the man who lives there arrives and ignites the technological light of electricity. As usual, the tenant is happy and calm, because his life is not passing in vain; his body is tired from the day, his eyes have gone white, but his heart is beating steadily and his mind shines as clearly as in the morning. Bozhko, a geometrician and town planner, has that day completed the meticulous plan of a new residential street, calculating the places of greenery, children's playgrounds, and a district stadium. Anticipating a future now close at hand, he works with the heartbeat of happiness, though he looks upon himself, as a man born under capitalism, with the indifference of equanimity.
Bozhko took out a file of the personal letters he received almost every day at his office and, at the empty table, began to concentrate all his thoughts into them. He received letters from Melbourne, Cape Town, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, from small islands hiding away in the watery desert of the Pacific Ocean, from Egypt, from a village in Megara, at the foot of the Greek Olympus—and from countless other points in Europe. Clerks and factory workers, far-off men pinned to the ground by eternal exploitation, had learned Esperanto and so conquered the silence between peoples; drained by labor, too poor for travel, they communicated with one another through shared thought.
Among the letters were several money orders: a Negro from the Congo had sent one franc, a Syrian from Jerusalem had sent four American dollars, a Pole called Studzinski sent ten zloty every three months. They were building a workers' motherland for themselves in advance, so they would have somewhere to shelter in their old age, and so their children could eventually escape and find refuge in a cold country now warmed by friendship and labor.
Bozhko punctiliously invested this money in State bonds, sending the certificates by recorded delivery to their invisible owners.
After studying his correspondence, Bozhko would answer each letter, sensing his own pride, and his privilege as a representative of the USSR. But in what he wrote there was no pride at all, only modesty and compassion:
Dear, distant friend,
I received your letter, everything here is going from strength to strength, the communal good of the laboring people multiplies day by day, and the world's proletariat is accumulating a vast inheritance in the form of socialism. Every day flesh gardens are growing, new housing is being occupied, and invented machines are working fast. Different, splendid people are appearing too—I alone remain as before, because I was born long ago and have not been able to lose the habit of being myself. In five or six years we shall have vast quantities of cereals and all kinds of cultured comforts, and the workers from the other five-sixths of the earth, a whole billion of them, can come and live with us forever, bringing their families—and as for capitalism, let it remain empty, unless a revolution sets in there. Pay attention to the Great Ocean, you live on its shore. Sometimes you'll see Soviet ships sailing about—that's us.
The Negro Arratau was informing Bozhko that his wife had died; Bozhko responded with sympathy but advised him not to despair: the earth has no one else, no one to be on it but us, and so we must save ourselves for the future. Best of all, why didn't Arratau come straightaway to the USSR? Here, among comrades, he could live more happily than in a family.
At dawn Bozhko went to sleep with the sweetness of useful exhaustion. In his sleep he dreamed he was a child. His mother was alive, it was summer in the world, there was no wind, and great groves of trees had sprung up.
Bozhko was renowned at his workplace as the best shock worker of all. In addition to his official line of work as a geometrician, he was secretary of the wall newspaper and organizer of the local branches of the Osoaviakhim and the International Organization of Aid for the Fighters of the Revolution, as well as being responsible for the factory's allotments and financially supporting a young woman he little knew, paying for her to study in the school of aeronautics and thus diminishing, if only by a little, the State's expenses.
Once a month this young woman came to see Bozhko. He would treat her to some sweets and give her money for her food, along with his pass for the general store, and the young woman would then leave shyly. She was not quite nineteen and her name was Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova. He had met her once on an autumn boulevard, during a moment of his own elemental sadness, and since then he had been unable to forget her.
After her visits Bozhko usually lay facedown on the bed and yearned from sorrow, even though universal joy alone was the reason of his life. After moping for a while, he would sit down to write letters to India, Madagascar, and Portugal, summoning people to participation in socialism and to sympathy with the laborers on the whole of this excruciating earth, and the lamp would shine on his balding head that was filled with a dream and patience.
One day Moscow Chestnova arrived, as usual, and did not leave straightaway. Bozhko had known her for two years, but he had been shy of gazing closely into her face, not hoping for anything.
Moscow was laughing; she had finished the pilot school and had brought with her some delicacies, at her own expense. Bozhko began to eat and drink with the young Moscow, but his heart was being beaten by terror, because it had begun to sense the love long confined in it.
When late night set in, Bozhko opened the window into dark space, and into the room flew moths and mosquitoes, but it was so quiet everywhere that Bozhko could hear the beating of Moscow Ivanovna's heart in her large chest; this beating was so even, resilient, and true that, had it been possible to unite the whole world to it, her heart could have regulated the course of events—even the mosquitoes and moths that settled on the front of Moscow's blouse immediately flew away again, frightened by the din of life in her warm and mighty body. Moscow's cheeks, enduring the pressure of her heart, had acquired a ruddiness that would last her whole life, her eyes shone with the clarity of happiness, her hair had been burnished by the fierce heat above her head, and her body had taken on the roundness of late youth, finding itself already on the eve of that womanly humanity that allows one human being, almost inadvertently, to begin life inside another.
Inseparably, until the new bright morning, Bozhko went on looking at Moscow—when the young woman had long ago fallen asleep in his room—and a drowsy, happy freshness, like health, evening, and childhood, was entering this tired man.
The next day Moscow invited Bozhko to the aerodrome to look at the work of the new parachutes.
A small airplane took Moscow into its own self and flew high into the eternal deserted sky. At the zenith, the airplane cut its engine, dipped forward, and ejected from its underbelly a small, bright lump that began to drop without breath into the abyss. At the same time, flying slowly and quite close to the earth, another airplane had throttled back its three engines and was wanting to land. Not far above this three-motored gliding plane the solitary little airborne body hurtled defenselessly down with increasing acceleration, opened out into a flower, then filled with air and began to swing from side to side. The plane immediately started all three engines so as to move away from the parachute, but the parachute was too close, it might have been sucked into the whirling streams near the propellers, and the clever pilot once again cut the engines, giving the parachute freedom of orientation. The parachute landed on the surface of a wing and curled up; after a few moments a small figure walked slowly and without fright along the inclined wing and disappeared inside the machine.
Bozhko knew it was Moscow who had flown down from the air. Yesterday he had heard her steady, resonant heart; now he stood crying with happiness on behalf of the whole of bold humanity, regretting that for two years he had given Moscow Chestnova a hundred rubles a month and not one hundred and fifty.
That night, as usual, Bozhko wrote to his world of unseen correspondents, excitedly describing the body and heart of the new human being who was overcoming the deadly space of height.
But at dawn, his letters to humanity completed, Bozhko began to weep; it saddened him that Moscow's heart could fly about through the element of air but was unable to love him. He dozed off and lost himself in sleep until evening, forgetting about his work.
In the evening there was a knock at the door and Moscow came in, looking as happy as always and with the same loud heart as before. Timidly, impelled by the extreme need of his own feelings, Bozhko embraced Moscow, and she began to kiss him in response. A hidden, excruciating strength seethed up in Bozhko's emaciated throat and he forgot himself as he came to know, for all of life, the only happiness of the warmth of a human being.
Excerpted from HAPPY MOSCOW by ANDREY PLATONOV Copyright © 2011 by Anton Martynenko. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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