Post Road Magazine #30

The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

Gabriel Blackwell

It was, for me, a stroke of luck that Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson chose to give their translation of Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit an afterword rather than an introduction, because I was ignorant of Platonov and his incredible novel, and so reading it for the first time, without any context, could be a complete surprise, the kind of experience that can make one want to start a cult. Why didn't I know about this book? Was it that other people knew but didn't tell me? I mean, what's a cult novel without its cult? I know I cannot be the first proselyte, but that doesn't mean I can't proselytize. Let me fill the silence a little.

What I knew about the book going in had been slim, and, as it turned out, misleading. The Foundation Pit, I had read, was the story of a group of workers digging a pit into which the foundation of a great Soviet building is to be poured. All of this takes place in the 1920s or the early 1930s, which-this much I knew-was a horrifying time in Russia's history. And Platonov's writing had been suppressed, and this particular novel hadn't been published in full in Russia until 1994, over sixty years after it was written. That the book would be dark and surreal almost went without saying. But even before the workers have started digging the pit, Platonov has given us its moral and thus rendered the symbol of the pit inert: "Man puts up a building-and falls apart himself. Who'll be left to live then?" This is on page nine; so much for that, I thought. And, as it turns out, the novel abandons its pit altogether around the halfway mark, and only returns to it in the last few pages. No building is ever built, and it's uncertain whether even the digging will be finished.

If I had cared at all about the fate of the pit or the parable I'd heard The Foundation Pit was supposed to be, I might have been frustrated by this, but in fact the chief delight in Platonov's novel is the way Platonov uses language. It is almost always unmusical and it's seldom clear, but it's never uninteresting. Even at its most awkward, it has a kind of majesty, a kind of beauty.

For instance, upon being "made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence . . . Voshchev took his things into a bag; he then went outside so as to better understand his future out in the air." Those are just the first lines of the novel. Is it that "out in the air" I love so much, or is it "better understand his future," or what? In The Foundation Pit, even those skeptical of the Party and the party line cannot escape its language, and those who wish to rise in its ranks are rendered (farcically) near-incomprehensible. One character is "on the eve of nourishment by means of fats," because he is being considered for a position of importance. And another character in search of power is described as "Doing a thoughtful face and the gait of a member of the intelligentsia." "Doing a thoughtful face"! If there were room here to do it, I"d quote the entire book.

Even though Platonov includes what seems like an ars poetica-"Safronov knew that socialism was a scientific matter, and so he pronounced words equally logically and scientifically, reinforcing them with two meanings-one fundamental and one reserve-the same as he would any other material"-this isn't precisely doublespeak, and it isn't, no matter what it might seem in these quotes, parody, or not only parody. The novel is instead a lament, and, despite all of the officialese and oddly distanced narration, or maybe because of it, it is in the end a soulful lament, an elegy not only for the departed but also for the humanity that has been lost with them. "And why are you dying, Mama," a child asks her mother, "from being bourgeois-or from death?" "I got bored," says the mother. "I'm worn out." And then she dies. Many of Platonov's characters die, but very few are given the dignity of a death scene. Instead, the narration comes upon their dead bodies suddenly and without warning. A few pages pass and a character goes from digging furiously to dead, waiting to be buried, with no mention of what has befallen him. "We ourselves live without meaning to," a character tells us. The little girl whose mother has died sleeps in a coffin stolen from a peasant who wants it back because "Our coffins are what keep us all going. Yes, they're all we've got left . . . And before we buried them in the cave, we lay down in them-we've got them worn in!"

There is in all of this a Beckettian resignation, a sense of defeat that isn't cowardly but pragmatic: this is the way things are. Better to accustom oneself to it. As fantastic and awful as his story becomes, The Foundation Pit was made up of bits and pieces of Platonov's own, very real experiences. Total Collectivization had been enacted and the Terror Famine was on its way.

Like all suppressed or banned books, The Foundation Pit is a reminder that language matters, very much. The words we choose to describe things are not a convenience but a way of seeing, a way of thinking, and even the ugliest, most distorted, enstranged bureaucratic language can be put to poetic use. "Night was total at village level" may not be lyrical, but it has some bit of meaning that its plainer cousin "It was dark in the village" lacks, some bit of music that few authors have the instruments to play. Let the notes "It was dark in the village" cannot play be the first in the hymnal of Platonov's cult. Join us.

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