Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.
Context is key; as the translators of Andrey Platonov (1899-1951) point out, although this short story (excerpted from an unfinished novel) is written about a Macedonian officer who is spying on a Central Asian kingdom, it's really a satire of the Russian regime. Moreover, the theme of the Focus: Russia section, in which this story appears, is "Reinventing Reality," and Natasha Randall is wise to include this story, which emphasizes not just the ability of fiction to help us see, but the urgent need--under some oppressive regimes--to be able to write several layers deep, putting the truth out in plain sight for those who are not too deluded to see it. That said, Platonov's story suffers from its incompleteness, but holds up as a series of wry observations--pointlessness is the point, so then the story can get away one-off lines, especially when they're as well put as this: "Nature had been deliberately torn out around the palace, so there would be a show of empty visibility."
Other good paradoxes include stuff like this: "The new construction, on its completion, again failed to satisfy the Tsar, because his states, mind, feelings, mood and even every secondary quality of his nature were continually evolving, even though they had long ago attained perfection." There's also this: "...over a hundred people were torturing themselves in the enthusiasm of ecstasy." We grossly exaggerate all the time in our everyday life, and Platonov gains points for extending and applying these exaggerations to actual life, showing, in essence, how impractical some of these "grand ideas" and gestures are--for instance, Communism. (A "perfect" system that, nonetheless, is constantly evolving.) And what good is 24-7 ecstasy, the sort that leaves you too exhausted to even enjoy it?
Platonov also has a nice section on what Americans suffer from--our dependence on the gut, which he calls (presciently) "psychiatry":
He understood that the modest spirit of Hellas held sway only on the shores of the Aegean and in Macedonia, while the rest of the world was ruled by psychiatry--as Aristotle, teacher of the Macedonian, called every sudden art of instantaneous feelings. But psychiatry was determined by something as slight as a sharp hair on a lover's body--could it really be true that this hair directed people's labor and hearts and even their graves?Ultimately, after the Tsar sets the officer the impossible task of turning deserts into lands of sweet water (which doesn't even exist), his ministry decides that this is no longer necessary, that, in fact, their empire has already attained paradise, simply because the Tsar has decreed it so, and truly--if there is nobody willing to stand up and argue that things are not as they should be, that they are, in fact, not as they should be? Circular logic works nicely in fiction because of how rounded, how smooth, it is--it's a particularly savage and comic effect. But again, it is only one of many tools: ultimately, the story must look to do more.