A subversive, absurdist novel
FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews The Foundation PitBy Andrey Platonov, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, Vintage, 224pp, £8.99
A LITTLE GIRL REFUSES to hand over the coffin in which she has been keeping her toys. Eventually, she needs it herself. Somewhere in provincial Russia an unlikely team of bewildered, alienated workers are haphazardly occupied in digging a vast foundation pit for a shining, many-storeyed building called socialism – except the hole is actually a grave for them all. Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, written in 1930 and eventually first published in its original Russian in 1973 – in the US – and later, in 1987, by Novy Mir, is as much parable as it is polemic; the genius of this short, brilliant satire about Stalin’s brutal collectivisation lies in Platonov’s extraordinary and extreme use of language. The test for his translators is to convey the meaning without losing Platonov’s essential Russian whimsy.
It is a subversive, absurdist novel that in ways pre-empts the European Theatre of the Absurd, containing set pieces worthy of Beckett and Ionesco. Happiness is discussed as if it were a holiday destination. Platonov served in the Red Army during the civil war and later worked as an electrical engineer on land-reclamation projects. He cleverly exploits Soviet jargon with its rhetoric, cliches and colloquialisms and turns it in upon itself.
A vital key to reading not just The Foundation Pitbut all of Platonov’s work – much of it unfinished – is provided by the translators in an insightful afterword to this revised edition of the first English translation, Chandler’s 1996 version with Geoffrey Smith: “Often Platonov’s language derives its extraordinary weight and density from its instability. Words hover between different meanings, and we are not sure which way to understand something or to whom a particular thought is addressed.”
This is interesting, because several of the changes made by Chandler and different collaborators in this new, more literal version are rather clumsy: for example, “down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march”. This is a terrific novel, but I certainly prefer the jauntier rhythms of the original translation.
Voshchev, the philosophical token hero, loses his job. He has been made redundant; his crime appears to have been thinking. Having taken refuge in an inn, he is eventually ejected for having bought only one beer. Voshchev reluctantly sets off into the night, aware that more fortunate men are already sleeping. He tries to settle in a ditch and hears a dog barking weakly in the distance, musing: “The dog’s bored. It’s like me – living only thanks to its birth.” When Voshchev wakes the next morning he decides to ask the trade-union committee why he was fired. “Administration says that you stood and thought in the midst of production. What were you thinking about comrade Voshchev?” Our hero’s reply, “About a plan of life”, articulates the philosophical surrealism that shapes much of the narrative.
He walks on and finds a place where he can lie down. He notices a dead, fallen leaf, and hides it away “in a secret compartment of his bag, where he took care of all kinds of objects of unhappiness and obscurity”.
On arrival at a town, weary because his soul “had stopped knowing truth”, Voshchev overhears an argument between a cripple and a busy blacksmith who reminds him that he had given him money only the day before: “Give me a week’s peace. Or one fine day I’ll set fire to your crutches.” The crippled beggar persists: “My mates will hoist me up in my cart and I’ll tear the roof off your forge.” Suddenly a band begins to play marching music, and Voshchev laments the fact that the children are unaware of the politics. The tone is intriguingly objective, while a balance is soon established between the often abusive verbal exchanges and the delicate beauty of the poetic asides.
The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov “simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.”
Standing between Gorky and Bulgakov, Platonov wrote more than 100 short stories and was a war correspondent during the Great Patriotic War. On being officially silenced, he spent time in various camps. After his release from the Gulag in 1946, he became a janitor in the House of Writers in Moscow. Through nursing his teenage son as he was dying of tuberculosis, Platonov caught the disease, and his daughter has written movingly of her father’s refusal to touch her for fear she would contract it. He died in 1951, aged 52, his great works as yet unpublished, survived by his kindred spirit Vasily Grossman, who lived a further 13 years.
The divide between the urban and the rural is well marked, while, in a narrative of symbol and metaphor, little Nastya, the orphan adopted by the workers, represents the fledging USSR, and she too sickens and dies. Platonov knew his country; its plight is also reflected in the bear that works as an apprentice blacksmith, frantically making horseshoes as if there is no tomorrow – because in this daring and prophetic tale, there doesn’t appear to be one.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times