Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The possibility of Utopia fascinated Russian writers at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and none was more intrigued than Fyodor Dostoevski. His rejection of Utopia in Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913), on the grounds that what is defined and finished is dead, points the way for Platonov’s Chevengur, a bizarre, surrealistic treatment of the revolutionary quest and its ultimate goal.

A quest implies a higher purpose and direction—perfect for a treatment of Marxism’s supposedly inexorable progress toward history’s final end, the resolution of all contradictions. Yet in the midst of turmoil, violence, and civil war, Platonov’s characters move about almost randomly, accidentally, as if by inertia rather than will. Ragged, isolated even when together, they have little sense of what they are doing—even though they have a vocabulary for it. Even Kopenkin—the Bolshevik Don Quixote in search of his Dulcinea, Rosa Luxemburg (who is, moreover, quite dead)—wanders from place to place in a kind of limbo, covering great distances on his horse Proletarian Strength but never really going anywhere.

There is a dreamlike unreality to time in the novel, partly because Platonov both expands it and contracts it, but partly because Chevengur itself has supposedly overleaped several historical stages to arrive at the end of historical time itself—a state of perfect equilibrium. The sun rises and sets, the grass grows, characters come and go, issuing directives and resolutions—all of which are taken absolutely literally—but time seems to be at a standstill; it all occurs in a vacuum, or at a dead end. The Chevengurians wait for Communism to show itself much as Samuel Beckett’s characters wait for Godot.