Thursday, April 12, 2012

The hole we dig for ourselves

It takes a little while to figure out what is going on in Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit, but about midstream this seemingly dry story takes an unlikely absurdist turn, when he describes how the horses had begun to under collectivism and were now taking their straw and putting it into a communal pile where they all ate together.  Like Tolstoy and Chekhov, Platonov recognizes the value of conveying his themes through animals as well as people, although in the case of this short novel, it seems all life forms and even the dead have been reduced to the same level of abject poverty as collectivism sweeps the Bolshevik nation.

The original translation feels a bit dry, but Robert Chandler eventually captures the absurd spirit.of the novel, as Platonov skewers the ambitions of the early Soviet state by showing how a small town tries to come together in a collective spirit after purging the notorious Kulaks.  As is noted in this article by Karen Vanuska, Platonov relies heavily on Soviet slogans for his dialog.  One wonders if this is a dig at Mayakovsky, who was perhaps the Soviet Union's greatest slogan writer.  Platonov turns these slogans on their head in illustrating the tenuous grip the persons who inhabit his novel had on reality, and how this grip eventually slips away during the course of the story.

It is symbolized in the orphan child, Nastya, who at first appears as a strong willed girl who recently lost her mother, only to become consumed with fever while the job foreman, Chiklin, tries desperately to keep her warm with the onset of winter.  The whole work crew of the foundation pit has adopted her, but Chiklin claims ultimately authority in the matter as she chooses him to cuddle up next to, while at the same time berating him with typical Soviet slogans of the 20s.

The story takes a great number of twists and turns, and at times seems incredibly disjointed, but somehow Platanov manages to iron it all out in the end, having created what may perhaps be the most damning statement in regard to Bolshevik collectivism and its accompanying ideology.  Not surprisingly, he was never able to get The Foundation Pit published in his time, and somehow miraculously avoided Stalin's purges.  Volkov noted that Vasily Grossman was able to get Platonov a job as a war reporter during WWII, which saw him and his family through those very hard times, but he died shortly afterward.  It was his daughter, Maria, who kept the story alive and eventually had it printed in the late 80s during Gorbacev's Perestroika.  The Harvill Press translation dates to 1996.  A newer one is linked above.

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