Friday, July 20, 2012

On Andrey Platonov's "No-Arms"

This month, The Caravan publishes "No-Arms", a story by the Russian writer Andrey Platonov.

Platonov (1899-1951) is now considered by many to be the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century. Like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the other, better-known names who might also be thought worthy of that title, Platonov was someone who for a time believed in the ideals of the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party before commencing a sceptical examination of the new reality it birthed, often by violence, in Russia. The individual and often mystifying emphases of his work and his utterly distinctive (and therefore unassimilable) style made it difficult for him to publish. Though Platonov published a number of great short stories during his lifetime, most of his longer works, along with his plays and screenplays, were published only long after his death. In his last years, he wrote a series of stories based on Russian folktales, infusing the material of these fairly well known stories with the spirit of his own metaphysics. 

In this tremendously powerful and wrenching story about a woman whose arms are cut off by her own brother, Platonov shows us both the ubiquity of human evil and the persistence of human grace in situations of extreme suffering. Although the story preserves the folktale’s clear distinctions between good and evil people, it is very complex in its understanding of guilt, redemption and justice. The recognition scene in which sundered lovers are reunited will remind Indian readers of a similar scene in Kalidasa’sShakuntalam, while the final act of violence (and the unforgettable image of a horse returning from the steppe) recalls Oedipus’s self-blinding when he finally perceives all the evil that has passed through him.

An interview with Platonov's main translator, Robert Chandler, is here.