Andrey Platonov
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
Read two extracts from Chevengur translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, & Olga Meerson 

about the author 

Andrey Platonov
  Andrey Platonov

The Roslavl' prison, along with its inmates, was torched by the Germans, but the cell walls still bear brief messages inscribed by the fallen. '17 August, my birthday. I'm sitting in solitary, hungry. 200 grams of bread and a litre of swill — a rich feast. Year of birth, 1927. Semyonov.' Another prisoner had, with the addition of a single word, indicated Semyonov's fate: 'Shot'. In the cell next door a prisoner had addressed his mother:

                    Don't cry, dear mother, don't weep.
                    Dear mother, don't sob and don't groan.
                    You won't, dear mother, stay long
                    On this terrible path, alone...
                    It's damp, I look through the bars
                    Of my cell, and God only knows...
                    My thoughts rush to you like a wave,
                    As my heart with tears overflows.

He did not sign his name. It was no longer something he needed, because he was losing his life and moving away from us into eternal oblivion.

In a corner of the same cell was an inscription that must have been scratched with a fingernail: 'Zlov was here'. This was the most concise, most modest tale of a human being: a man called Zlov had lived and suffered in the world, he had been shot in the Roslavl prison yard, petrol had been poured on him and his corpse had been burnt — in order that nothing should be left of the man except a handful of chalky ash from his bones, which would mingle with the earth and leave no trace as it disappeared into the nameless dust of the soil.

Beside Zlov's inscription were the words of an unknown Rosa: 'I want to stay living. Life is paradise, but they won't let me live, I'm going to die! I'm Rosa.'

Rosa. Her name had been written with a fingernail or the point of a pin on the dark blue paint of the wall: damp and age had created in this blue the outlines of mysterious countries and seas - the misty countries of freedom, which the prisoners entered with their imagination as they gazed into the half-dark of the prison wall.

Who had this imprisoned Rosa been and where was she now? Had she fallen, without breath, here in the prison yard, or had fate again blessed her with life in the freedom of the Russian lands and was she with us once more — in the paradise that is life, to use the words of Rosa herself? And who had Zlov been? He had said nothing about himself, merely registering on the prison wall that a man of that name had lived in the world.

We were unable to find any traces of Zlov's existence, but Rosa turned out to have been a martyr even among martyrs and so her story had remained in the memory of those few who had escaped death. Other prisoners, as they were led out into the yard to be shot, had consoled themselves by remembering Rosa: she had been taken out to be shot, and, after being shot, she fell to the ground yet remained alive; the corpses of others who had fallen were placed on top of her body, straw was packed around them, petrol was poured over them and the dead were committed to the flames; Rosa was still living, two bullets had just harmlessly damaged the skin on her body, and, being covered by the pile of dead, she was not burnt by the fire but remained safe and came back to consciousness; during the half-dark of night she got out from under the dead and made her way to freedom, through the bomb-flattened ruins of the prison wall. But the next day, in the town, Rosa was captured again by the Fascists and taken off to the prison. And she had again begun to live in confinement, waiting a second time for her death.

Everyone who had seen Rosa said she had been beautiful, as lovely as if sad, grieving people had deliberately thought her up for their joy and comfort.

Rosa's fine hair was dark and curly, her large, youthful grey eyes were lit from inside by a trustful soul, while her sweet face was swollen from prison and hunger but still tender and pure. Although not at all big, Rosa was strong as a boy and deft with her hands; she could make dresses and had worked as an electrician. Now, however, there was nothing for her to do but live with her sorrow; soon she would be nineteen and she looked no older than that, because she knew how to get the better of her grief and not let it age and cripple her: she wanted to live.

For a second time Rosa was waiting for her death in the Roslavl prison, but she waited in vain: the Germans had mercy on her. The Germans understood that, once someone had been killed, there was nothing more to be done with them and it was impossible to wield power over them. Without power over others, the Germans found life uninteresting and unprofitable. They needed people around them to exist, but to exist half-alive; they needed a person's mind to become a nonsense, a person's heart to beat not from joy but out of timidity — out of fear of dying when ordered to live.

Rosa was summoned for interrogation. The interrogator was certain that she knew everything about the town of Roslavl and about Russian life, as if Rosa herself were the whole of Soviet power. Rosa did not know everything; and what she did know, she was unable to say. In the investigator's office she drank beer from Munich, ate warmed-up sausages and put on a new dress. This was how the investigator referred to his little gifts when he spoke to his subordinates, whom the prisoners referred to as 'masters of the other world'. They brought Rosa a beer bottle filled with sand, and with this bottle they beat her breasts and her stomach, so her future motherhood would die away for ever. Then she was whipped with flexible iron rods that scorched her body to the bone, and, when her breathing was faltering and her consciousness half-asleep, Rosa was 'dressed in a new dress': harsh black electric wire was wound tightly round her, bedded deep in her muscles and between her ribs, so that blood and the cold moisture that comes before death came out onto the surface of the prisoner's body; then Rosa was taken back to her cell and left in isolation on the cement floor; she had exhausted everyone — both the investigator and the 'masters of the other world'.

What were the Germans meant to do next? A living Russian girl was refusing to yield to them; it would have been possible to kill her then and there, but there was no sense in having power over the dead.

Through her life, and equally through her death, this Russian Rosa was subjecting to doubt and criticism the entire meaning of the war, of power, of domination and the 'new organization' of humanity. Such sorcery could not be allowed to continue — was it aimlessly, was it for nothing, that German soldiers had fallen and were now lying in the earth?

The German military interrogator was lost in thought in the Roslavl prison. Over whom would it be permissible to wield power when the German people was left on its own to live in the great cemetery of every other nation?

After dissipating his good working mood, the interrogator summoned Quick Hans — who had been given that name because of his brisk efficiency. Johann Foght had once lived a long time in the Soviet Union and he knew Russian well. The interrogator ordered Quick Hans to fetch some vodka and then asked him how a human being can be organized so they don't live but don't die either.

'Child's play!' said Hans, understanding immediately.

The interrogator drank the vodka; his mood lightened and he ordered Hans to go to Rosa's cell and check whether she was alive or dead.

Hans went off and came back again. He reported that Rosa was breathing; she was asleep, smiling in her sleep. He added his own opinion: 'She's not supposed to be laughing.'

The interrogator agreed that Rosa was not supposed to be laughing; she shouldn't really be living at all, but killing her would prove no more helpful since it would entail a reduction in the live workforce and would be of no edification to the rest of the population. The interrogator considered that Rosa should be made into a constant living example that would instil fear into the population, an image of terrible torment for all who disobeyed; the dead were unable to perform such useful service, they merely evoked the compassion of the living and inclined them to fearlessness.

'Half-life's the thing for her!' said Quick Hans. 'I'll make her into a half-wit.'

'A half-wit?' said the interrogator. 'How?'

'The crown of the head,' said Hans, pointing to his own head. 'I'll push down on her fontanelle. I know the tool for the job.'

'Rosa will cease to live,' said the interrogator.

'She'll recover,' Quick Hans pronounced with conviction. 'I'll handle her carefully. I won't let her get as far as death.'

'The man's a small-scale Fuhrer,' the investigator said to himself as he ordered Hans to start work.

In the morning Rosa was released from the prison. She left in a beggar's dress — mere rags since the first, long-ago beatings — and barefoot, because her shoes had disappeared in the prison store. It was already autumn, but Rosa didn't feel the chilly autumn weather; she walked through Roslavl with a blissful, timid smile on her fine, open face, but her gaze was clouded and indifferent and her eyes looked at the world sleepily. Rosa saw everything correctly, just as before — she could see the earth, the houses and the people; she just didn't understand what these things meant and her heart was crushed by unmoving terror of everything that appeared before her.

Sometimes Rosa felt that she was dreaming a long dream, and she began to imagine, in weak, uncertain recollection, another world where everything made sense and did not frighten her. But here, worn down by her numbed reason, she smiled in fear at every person and object. She wanted to wake up, she made a sudden movement and began to run, but the dream stayed with her and her deadened reason did not awaken.

Rosa went into someone's home. There was an old woman in the front room, praying to an icon of the Mother of God.

'But where's Rosa?' asked Rosa. She had a confused desire to see herself alive and healthy; she didn't know who she was any more.

'Rosa? What Rosa?' said the old woman crossly.

'She was Rosa,' said Rosa, with meek helplessness.

The old woman looked at her guest.

'She was — but now she isn't... Ask the Fascists about your Rosa. We're always being counted, so that we get fewer and fewer.'

'You're a cross, wicked old woman,' Rosa said stoutly. 'Rosa was alive. Then she went out into the fields and she'll be back soon.'

The old woman looked more closely at her destitute guest and said, 'Sit down, my girl, sit down here with me for a while.'

Rosa did as she was told. The old woman went up to her, and she touched the clothes on Rosa.

'You poor little waif!' she said, and began to cry; she had her own, quite different grief, and Rosa brought this grief back to her mind.

The old woman undressed Rosa, washed off the dirt of the prison, bound her wounds, and then dressed her, like a bride, in a dress from her own girlhood, put satin-covered shoes on her feet and fed her what little she had.

None of this brought any joy to Rosa, and towards evening she left the home of the kind old woman. She wanted to make her way out of Roslavl, but she couldn't find any end to the town and she walked up and down the streets without her reason.

During the night a German patrol took Rosa off to the commandant's office. Inquiries were made about Rosa and she was released the next morning; they removed her beautiful dress and satin-covered shoes, giving her instead some rags that had been on a woman they had arrested. They were unable to find out who had dressed and shod Rosa — Rosa was mute.

The following night Rosa was once again taken to the commandant's office. Now she was wearing a coat, there was a warm scarf round her head, and fresh air and food had put colour in her face. The people still left in the town evidently cherished Rosa and made much of her — a heroic truth to which every dispossessed and hope-fallen heart was drawn.

Rosa herself didn't know anything about this, she just wanted to get out of the town, into the distance, into the pale blue sky that began, she could see, not far away from the town. It was clean there and full of space, you could see a long way there, and another Rosa, the Rosa she was trying with difficulty and pain to remember, was wandering about in that country, and she would catch her up and reach for her hand, and this other Rosa would take her away for ever, take her to where she had been before, where her head had never ached and her heart had never felt the sorrow of being apart from people who were still living in the world but whom she had forgotten and could no longer recognize.

Rosa kept asking people to take her out into the open country, she could no longer remember the way, but in response they invited her to their homes, fed her, talked gently to her and settled her down to rest. Rosa listened to everyone, did what everyone asked, but then once again asked them to take her by the hand and lead her out into open country, where there was space and you could see a long way, like in the sky.

One little boy did what Rosa asked; he took her by the hand and led her out along the main road, into the country. Then Rosa went on alone. When she came to a checkpoint on the road, where there were two German sentries, Rosa stopped beside them.

'Are you going to kill me again, Quick Hans?' Rosa asked.

'Half-wit!' said one of the Germans, in Russian, while the other struck Rosa on the back with his submachine gun.

Rosa ran away from them; she ran into a field of tall grass and went on running for a long time. The Germans watched her and felt surprised that the half-wit had got so far way from them and was still alive — the field was mined. Then they saw a radiant flash, the death light of Rosa the half-wit.


Translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler

© Copyright  Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler.
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