Reviewed by Alex Wenger
A nation's literary patrimony is a strange thing. We can never be quite certain of our holdings. Americans, in 1900, did not know they had Melville. From the 1930s till his death prompted a revival in the 1940s, F. Scott Fitzgerald fell into relative obscurity. It was through no fault of our own that Faulkner became our greatest novelist; we have France and then the Nobel committee to thank for that. But after these figures ascend to their rightful place, it is difficult to imagine how we looked at our letters without them. All nations surely suffer these tectonic alterations of their pasts, but they are especially important when work is forgotten for reasons graver than the stupidity of book reviewers. Russia, since the late Sixties and especially since the fall of Communism, has been reclaiming the writers and artists of Stalin's purges. Some works from the period, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Isaac Babel's short stories, have gained canonical status. Most have been slower to emerge from shadow.
NYRB Classics has just published Andrey Platonov's Foundation Pit, translated into English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson from the recently established definitive Russian text. (Previous English translations by Mirra Ginsburg and Thomas Whitney were made from an earlier version.) NYRB's edition comes on the heels of their publication last year of the Platonov collection Soul, which included the title novella and several short stories. A smattering of other Platonov titles have turned up in recent times, and one can hope he will penetrate the American literary consciousness. There is no one else quite like him.
Soul is a bizarre miracle, a story of life in one of the USSR's central Asian provinces that suggests psychoanalysis, documentary, and legend without sounding much like any of them. It is simultaneously timeless, reactionary, and radical. The Foundation Pit has a similarly supra-categorical feel, though this is somewhat muted by its greater political directness. Soul addressed Stalin's violence obliquely and therefore mysteriously. In The Foundation Pit, the critique of Stalinism is unmistakable. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Platonov believed the book safe to show others, let alone that he would try to see it published. (Yet apparently he did—and failed. The novel did not appear publicly in Russia until 1987, long after his death in 1951 in one of Stalin's final purges.)
That critique is front-and-center in the first pages of The Foundation Pit when the novel's big titular symbol is laid before us. The novel opens with the excavation somewhere in the Russian countryside of the foundation pit for a massive complex in which the collectivized farm laborers of tomorrow will reside. The hole is gigantic, near-mythic, and little detective work is needed in a novel about tyranny to deduce that the dreamt-of paradise structure will never be completed. That obviousness may be a problem, in fact, in the early pages. The symbol of the pit is perhaps too easily read. But risking obviousness can deliver power. A pit so unfillably vast makes manifest its preening, idiot ambition, its cynicism, its needless destruction of the old world, its replacement of what was there not with achievement but with a scar on the land. There is value in Platonov's speaking clearly about despair.
And what astonishing language he uses to articulate that despair. It is easy to see what a massive challenge The Foundation Pit presents for translation. The prose is a wild combination of the degraded bureaucratic and the weirdly personal. On the one hand, almost everyone in The Foundation Pit speaks in mad cliché. Here are two quotations selected at random:
"Comrades, our task is to mobilize the stinging nettle onto the Front of Socialist Construction! Beyond our frontiers the stinging nettle is nothing other than an object of crying need!"
"Anyone in whose trousers lies the Party's card must ceaselessly take care that there should be enthusiasm in his body. So I challenge you, comrade Voschev, to join in socialist competition for the highest happiness of mood!"
These bromides are so rigid and so bizarre that they pass beyond cliché. George Saunders and Austrian Elfriede Jelinek are two other, very divergent but likewise successful latter-day practitioners of this strategy of making the monstrous Caliban-language of the mass culture sing its own inadequacy.
Amid the shouted cliché—and potentially producing too rich a blend—Platonov has also inserted an idiosyncratic language of deeply felt emotion.
Chiklin gazed for a long time into the exultant thick of the people and felt, in his own breast, the peace of goodness; from the height of the porch he could see the lunar purity of the distant scale of things, the sadness of light that had gone still, and the submissive sleep of the entire world—a world that had cost so much labor and pain to organize that this had been forgotten by everyone, so that they would not know the terror of living on further.
This quieter language is as delirious as the sloganeering it abuts, as if we can hear the author insisting This too is in the world. "Sadness" and "boredom" occur countless time in The Foundation Pit, and though these may be overfamiliar, limp terms in present-day American writing, they were dangerous in the context of the narrow circumscriptions of acceptable Soviet emotion of their time. With the repetition of these terms—which often jut up at unlikely points in sentences—Platonov asserted private realities that were being officially denied.
Private realities are a difficult matter indeed for the citizens manqués of The Foundation Pit. Out of a large cast, no main character emerges; the novel passes through the minds of various workers, engineers, peasants, and overseers as they puzzle over their boredom with life and the gulf that separates it from their incoherent hopes for socialism. An officer gestures to proletarian empowerment while his concerns are strictly bourgeois: prestige, comfort, satisfying his wife's consumerism. A vagrant threatens to denounce as counterrevolutionary anyone who fails to meet his extortionate demands. The architect of the complex, when not designing utopia, longs for suicide. In each case, there is no awareness of contradiction. Their world is a failure. It has thoroughly displaced the old order, yet exists at such an extreme distance from actual socialism that its members lack any sense that life could or should be anything more than this. Their spoken language is too devolved and impoverished to accommodate the questions that might lead to a larger life.
The Foundation Pit is a demonstration of the infinite possibility (always in the negative sense) of life under dictatorship. The way in which it emerges is unexpected. For the entire first half of the book, the plot centers on the pit's excavation. Then, while we follow a pair of workmen on a seeming errand into town, one of them mentions in passing that the pit is fully dug. Lightly, a new action is taken up: state-sponsored violence. With no mention of any change in priorities or any sense that this work differs in a meaningful way from pit excavation, the workmen set about persecuting kulaks. They round up rich peasants, seize private land, murder recalcitrants, ship whole populations down the river into slavery—all with the same combination of boredom and confused hope that animates their every other activity. They see the annihilation of a society as another unpleasant duty, like ditch-digging, which must be undertaken to enact socialism. Platonov's treatment of character here is fascinating. At no point in the narrative do his socialists possess depth; they never depart from their revolutionary rhetoric and simplistic self-concern. But through an expansion of their flatness, terrifying potential is revealed in these single-note existences.
The novel is not perfect. Sometimes Platonov's satire is too easy. His portrayal of social climbers and informants feels weakly imagined and unconvincing. For such a moral writer delivering a text that amounts to a book-length shriek, he can appear naïve. As discussed above, the book has a self-defeating intricacy, in which the emotive strangeness of the one tone continually breaks the depersonalizing, mindless spell of the other, and vice versa.
In the end, The Foundation Pit overwhelms its flaws. There is too much vision here, too much strength in the poetry, too much strangeness. It is one of those rare books that grows steadily better as it progresses, and it improves all the way to a memorable last page in which the true purpose of the great pit is fulfilled. The Foundation Pit is a lamentation on all that was inhumed by Stalin's decades. That this novel survived those terrors does not make up for the murder of its author and countless others, but we can be grateful to have it now all the same.
Alex Wenger is a writer living in New York City.