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Andrei Platonov: Джан (Soul)

Though originally written in the mid-1930s, this book was not published in the Soviet Union till 1964 and then in a censored version. The full version was not published till 1999. In fact, there were several versions written by Platonov. At the time of writing the book, Platonov was in trouble with the Soviet authorities and turned to writing about Central Asia, partially because he was tired of European civilisation but partially to please the Soviet authorities who were trying to develop the area, Soviet-style. Though the references to Stalin in the book are positive and the book might be interpreted as showing the success of Communism, I frankly doubt that the Soviets would have been too pleased with the book. The fact that they did not publish it for thirty years confirms this.

The story starts with Nazar Chagataev, a young Central Asian man, who is in Moscow on the day of his graduation from university. At a party afterwards, he meets Vera, whom he is attracted to. They talk, meet and are married the following day. She then tells him that she is older than he thinks – thirty-four – has been married twice before and is pregnant. She then introduces him to her 15 year old daughter, Ksenya, to whom he is also attracted. Soon afterwards, he is sent to Central Asia to help his people. His people are the Dzhan. This is a Persian word meaning soul (the Russian title keeps the Persian word). The Dzhan, as we learn, are a small people, consisting of mainly refugees from bad marriages, escaping military service and the like. The area they live in – round the Sarykamysh Lake – is inhospitable with little food. Indeed, the situation has been so bad that Nazar’s mother, when he was fifteen, had sent him off to find his way in the world as there was no food. He had, with the help of the Soviet authorities, made his way to Moscow. Before the Soviet era, the Dzhan had been tormented by the Khiva authorities who saw them as bandits and who would come to their region every year and take a few of the people back to Khiva and kill them. The Dzhan, who longed for death, finally went en masse to Khiva and smilingly demanded death for all of them. This so confused the Khivans that the Dzhan were ignored and went back home to continue their pitiful existence.

When Nazar arrives, he finds the situation still desperate. He does find his mother but, like most of the people, she is barely surviving. He goes to Khiva for help and this is promised. In the meantime another Communist agent, Nur-Mohammed, arrives and he decides to move the Dzhan away and they set off on a long trek. Naturally, some die on the way. Nazar eventually catches up with them and, after a showdown with Nur-Mohammed, Nur leaves and Nazar tries to take the people back home. With the help of Aidym, a young woman, he manages to do so but their journey is an epic one and superbly described by Platonov. Once they get home they start to build houses and Aidym organises them. Nazar get supplies from Khiva and the community starts to improve. However, the result is that several move away to try their fortune elsewhere. Nazar travels around Central Asia to persuade them to return home but cannot find them. However, when he does finally get back, he finds many of them have returned. There is now a thriving community. Nazar returns to Moscow and Ksenya (Vera died in childbirth) with Aidym, confident that his people will survive.

Platonov’s story can be interpreted on many levels. It can be seen as a biblical epic, with Nazar as a Moses leading his people out of the wilderness or as a larger myth, with Nazar as the saviour leading his people out of a hell, or simply as a tribute to communist activity. However, you wish to read it, Platonov tells a very fine tale of a people yearning for death and lost in the wilderness and, thanks to one man and one young woman, finding their way out.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Moskovskii Rabochii
First English translation Harvill 2003