Post Road Magazine #9

“The Return” by Andrei Platonov from The Return and Other Stories -Katherine Shonk

“A short story exists, in a sense, to end,” Frederick Busch wrote in a 2002 New York Times review of Antonya Nelson's collection Female Trouble. Busch elaborates on this wonderfully suggestive statement, but for the short-story reader, his elaboration is better left temporarily withheld. More fun to ponder and puzzle out from these words, whose truth we sense instinctively, our own truth.

We all can name great novels with weak endings, and we forgive them their “flaws.” Not so with short stories, which we read with our fingers crossed, our breath held. We may be enjoying a story, we may even think that we will love it, that we do love it, but a promising short story that loses its nerves, that ends with a whimper or a lie, can leave us heartbroken, disillusioned, disgusted, not just with the story, but with the writer, the editor who published it, the magazine or publisher—anyone or anything associated with the weak-willed, phony piece of milquetoast.

Luckily there are stories that end well, that leave us feeling altered, off-kilter, like a baby who's been picked up and set down facing a different direction. The best stories ruin us a little bit, briefly paralyze and stun us, then make us take a long walk or take to our beds. A novel can do this, sure, and can sustain the effect over a longer period of time. But how much more impressive to achieve this effect in twenty pages or less.

Which brings me to my recommendation: the short story “The Return,” written in 1946 by the Russian writer Andrei Platonov (1899-1951). Each time I read “The Return,” without fail—and I've read it ten or twelve times over the past six years or so—I gasp when I reach the fifth-to-last paragraph as if I'd never read it before and weep through the ending. The deep emotion and sense of surprise that the story triggers in me, again and again, leave me in awe, and make this my very favorite story. No matter how many times I read “The Return,” the ending always feels like a surprise, and the surprise is suffused with feeling.

A story exists to end, but an ending depends on its beginning and middle. The events of the first nineteen pages of “The Return” feel so ordinary and innocuous (later we realize they were deceptively so) that I have to remind myself: it's these pages that make me cry on the last page.

On the first page, guard captain Aleksei Alekseevich Ivanov, preparing to return home to his family at the end of World War II, is seen off by his detachment “with regret, with love, respect, with music and wine.” His comrades drop him off at the train station, but the train is very late, and Ivanov hitches a ride back to the barracks for the night. There the obligatory sendoff is repeated: “Again they sang songs and embraced the departing as a sign of their eternal friendship with him, but now their feelings were somewhat more restrained, and only his closest friends attended.” The next day Ivanov again returns to the train station, only to face another night's delay. He considers again returning to his friends. “But it was embarrassing to go through a sendoff for a third time, to bother his comrades, and Ivanov resigned himself to boredom on the empty pavement of the platform.”

The humor and pathos of Ivanov's predicament draw the reader in; as the story builds, the humor gradually (though not entirely) recedes, while the pathos builds to an exquisite, excruciating pitch. Ivanov delays his return even further by seeking comfort with a young woman (known as “Masha the Bathhouse Attendant's Daughter” in one English translation and, proving just how suspicious we should be of translations, as “Masha the Forgotten Daughter” in another), she herself returning nervously from the war. Ivanov eventually wends his way back to a home that has changed utterly during his absence. He learns that his wife, Liuba, struggling to keep their children, Petrushka and Nastya, clothed, fed and warm during these desperate years, has toiled at the local brick factory and in her loneliness allowed strange men to visit with her and the children. Petrushka, now twelve years old, has become the head of the household and a shrew. He scolds his mother and sister for not working hard enough and even snipes at the fire in the stove: “Don't burn so sloppily, throwing yourself around to all sides!” In his son, Ivanov discovers a boy who has grown up too fast, who needs “love and attention more than the others.” Ivanov resolves to find a job and dig his family out of poverty. But that night, as Petrushka eavesdrops, the war veteran can't stop himself from grilling his wife about the men she befriended during his absence. Liuba insists she was unfaithful only once, and unhappily so: “My soul stretched out to him because it was dying, but when he came close to me I was indifferent.” We know that Ivanov himself was unfaithful just the day before, but his wounded pride keeps him from being touched by the despair in Liuba's voice; he calls her a bitch and refuses to forgive her.

“The Return” describes what happens when our dreams crash up against our own failings and those of our loved ones. In just one night of narrative time, it takes us through the difficult stages of homecoming: hope, confusion, disappointment, disillusionment. Finally, just when Ivanov has given up on himself and his family, and we along with him, Platonov shocks us by showing just how stubborn and fierce the desire to love and be loved can be.

Many writers speak of the importance of not over-planning their fiction so that their characters can surprise them and the reader. Reading “The Return,” I wonder whether its ending—with its epiphany that rivals anything out of Dubliners—surprised Platonov, whose stories often end bleakly (though no less honorably), in quiet resignation. If it has always been more difficult to write a convincing happy ending than a convincing unhappy ending, this must have been particularly true in Platonov's day. His characters are hapless, naïve dreamers, conned into believing in an imminent utopia and ill-equipped for the tidal waves of revolution, war and oppression that will supposedly deliver them there. A Communist throughout his life, Platonov was an early and enthusiastic believer in its promises. His novels and stories, many of them satirical, betrayed his growing doubts and disillusionment; widely attacked by the state, his books went unpublished for long periods of time. His only son was sent to the Gulag and returned home dying of tuberculosis, which Platonov contracted while tending to him. Platonov served as a war correspondent during World War II and wrote “The Return” upon his own homecoming. The story was vilified; the author died five years later in obscurity and poverty. His work did not appear widely in Russia until the late 1980s.

Russian writers struggle to describe to non-Russian readers the strangeness of Platonov's prose. “Platonov writes as though no one before him had ever written anything, as if he were the first person to take pen to paper,” writes Tatiana Tolstaya. “At times it seems that Platonov's work was written by a creature from outer space forced to live among us.” Joseph Brodsky wrote (and he meant this as a compliment), “It seems to me that Platonov is untranslatable, and in one sense that is a good thing for the language into which he cannot be translated.” Echoing plain peasant speech and the State language of his time, Platonov created his own language. Near the beginning of “The Return,” we are told that Ivanov's wife, Liuba, in expectation of her husband's return, “begged off from her work, did not fulfill her norms, and in the nights was unable to sleep for joy, hearing how slowly and indifferently the wall clock's pendulum moved.” How matter-of-factly that phrase “did not fulfill her norms” juts up against “was unable to sleep for joy”; how callously that pendulum swings.

We do not expect joy to return in this story—but perhaps we are just not paying close enough attention. Here is Frederick Busch's elaboration on how it is that a story exists to end: “Its powerful experience submits at last to the force of language: it becomes the language. When a story works, the reader can feel the pressure of the ending approaching as the story turns in upon itself to reveal something of its basic material, something the reader hasn't quite seen yet but has subtly felt.” I can think of no better description of the ending of “The Return.” The final page pulls us into its vortex and turns the story inside out, displaying its profound depths and those of its characters. •

Katherine Shonk is the author of the story collection The Red Passport. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories 2001, Tin House, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Evanston, Illiniois and is at work on a novel.

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