Thanks to Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git. This was one of his Bah-Humbook recommendations for me.
Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov was written and is set in 1930’s Soviet Union. It manages to be both a dynamic and a somewhat hyperactive tale while at the same time delving into the depths of despair. Platonov’s short novel was not published until 1991. This is understandable, for had it been published during his lifetime in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it might have earned Platonov a trip to the Gulag.
The title character, Moscow Chestnova, is a young vibrant woman who becomes a parachutist in the Red Air Force. After being drummed out of military service when an unauthorized midair stunt almost kills her, she takes to hanging out with an assortment of Moscow intellectuals, artists, scientists and engineers. Among them is Dr. Sambikin, who is attempting to scientifically identify the human soul, and Sartorius, an engineer who falls deeply in love with Moscow.
After a night of passion Moscow leaves Sartorius to go explore the world. The remainder of the narrative explores the main characters’ descent into moral and psychological decay. Moscow, the once promising air force parachutist, becomes a laborer, loses her leg in an accident and eventually begins a liaison with Komyagin, another once promising individual whose life has fallen into meaninglessness and stagnation.
Sartorius falls deeper and deeper into a fugue and goes to work for the inglorious Department of Weights and Scales. Eventually losing that position also, he falls further and further. As blindness sets in he begins to lose even his identity and eventually marries an abusive woman.
This novel is full of symbolism and ideas. My version of the book was accompanied by a short but insightful summary of Happy Moscow Though Chandler sees the story as a balanced critique upon modernity, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of the “New Humanity ”, I see this work as more of an indictment of a world going very wrong.
Moscow clearly represents the new age. She is initially filled with energy and optimism; she completely believes in the new industrial and scientific driven society and wants to protect and support it,
“What Moscow Chestnova wanted was not so much to experience this life as to safeguard it; she wanted to stand day and night by the brake lever of a locomotive taking people to meet one another; she wanted to repair water mains, to weigh out on pharmaceutical scales medicines for patients, to be a lamp that goes out at just the right moment, as others kiss, taking into itself the warmth that a moment before had been light.”
The narrative is filled with descriptions of busy industrial processes and amazing scientific discoveries. The scientist and engineers are franticly pushing the boundaries of knowledge as exemplified by Sambikin’s pursuit of the human soul; at one point he believes that he finds it in the intestines of a cadaver! People are seen to display a dynamic and hyperactive optimism.
But all is not well. Underneath it all there are still masses of people with barely enough food and who live in squalor. In addition, Moscow and her friends are losing their values and their souls. The new high technological and industrialized world is empty and wretched under the surface.
At one point Sartorius observes clothing on sale in the Krestov market,
“petty clothes prepared for infants who had been conceived, but then the mother must have thought twice about giving birth and had an abortion and now she was selling the tiny lamented – over garments of an unborn person along with a rattle purchased in advance”
In particular, Moscow and Sartorius go into a steep decline. In the end, all that they believed in is shown to be nothing and they both fall into a life of degeneration and despair.
Part of the problem is Socialism. This is illustrated in Sartorius’ loss of self as he begins to absorb the identity of people who he meets on the street. Eventually, he loses his entire identity. However, humankind’s relentless pursuit of science, industrialism, and mindless optimism are things that are also condemned here. I see Platonov’s criticism also applying to many aspects of our modern capitalistic industrial and post -industrial democracies.
The book displays many literary, mythological and philosophical influences, some that I picked up on myself and some pointed out in Chandler’s commentary. One inspiration not mentioned by Chandler that I found incredibly striking is that of D.H. Lawrence. My commentary of some of Lawrence’s ideas can be found in my posts on The Rainbow and Women in Love. In those pieces I described how Lawrence seemed to be presenting a warning about the ominous direction that humanity was moving in. Lawrence saw modernity, industrialism and collectivism as poisoning the human soul. A really interesting thing about Platonov’s book is that it seems to be an uncanny description of the nightmare future that Lawrence feared. I get the sense that if Lawrence could read Happy MoscowThe Rainbow
Happy MoscowChandler, it is likely mostly finished and Platonov just wanted to complete some minor revisions and touch ups. Yet this work does seem to be underdeveloped to me. I wanted to learn and experience more from the characters. I think that thematically Platonov could also have filled in a much clearer picture as to what exactly the problem was with the twentieth century. Basically the book was too short. Despite its flaws however, this is an extraordinary imaginative novel full of compelling characters and ideas.