Friday, September 17, 2010

Robert Chandler. 'Cardinal Points' literary journal: Platonov and Shalamov

Robert Chandler. 'Cardinal Points' literary journal

The first of Shalamov’s criticisms is that Platonov is too ready to indulge in loose talk about ‘the soul’. Shalamov prepares the ground for this theme in the first paragraph of the story; this is why he alludes to Platonov’s Dzhan. Dzhan is a Persian word that has been adopted by the Turkic languages of Central Asia; its meaning is ‘soul’. The Dzhan, according to Platonov, are able to survive because they have not - in spite of everything - lost their souls. Platonov makes this explicit in a passage from the penultimate chapter...

All this is based on (1) the main character of "Snake Charmer" having the same name as Platonov the writer, and (2) that the name of a mine mentioned in the story ("Djankhara") supposedly reminds the reader about "Djan", a story by Platonov that was published after "Snake Charmer", but that Chandler maintains Shalamov had probably seen or heard about when he was briefly out of prison in the 1930s.

Now a lot of what Chandler writes about so well would be very convincing if we had more direct evidence. But I feel the evidence he cites does not bear it out. After all, a fictional name for a Kolyma mine and the surname of a character (very wide-spread, to be sure) can not really serve as proof. As for apparent indirect references, stranger co-incidences have been observed in the past: R. Leibov has shown that the "Drummers's Tale" by A. Gaidar would appear to referece Pushkin and Plato by the same logic. Of course, Chandler or his learned colleagues could have better evidence that they had not cited or that I have overlooked...

There is also something else: personally -- for what it's worth -- I would doubt Platonov would have been in it at all. I must say I haven't read "Djan"; however, in his short stories and "Chevengur" Platonov seems to be a very different opponent of Shalamov as compared to what Chandler makes him to be. I would expect Platonov's criminals to be almost sympathetic, as opposed to infernal as in Shalamov's stories; Platonov seems to be one with the world and the language, Shalamov consistently takes sides. For me, this appears to mean that, had a literary dispute between the two really happened, it would be about what  is soul, not about the ways to write about it or ways to preserve it.