Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit


Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit presents a nightmarish world set during the Stalinist drive towards mass collectivization and industrialization. The novel opens as Voshchev (whose name, as Chandler and Meerson note, is perhaps derived from the Russian voobshe, or "generally", hence a Soviet everyman), who has just been dismissed from his job for "thoughtfulness," walks to a neighboring town and joins a group of workers who are digging the foundation pit for an apartment building to house future proletarians. The major irony of this project is that the foundation pit eventually becomes the grave for Nastya, an orphaned girl who throughout the novel represents to all the other characters the hope of the future proletarian generation destined to live in the world of total communism.

Indeed, the thinking of the ardently devoted members of the work crew, such as of Chiklin and Safronov, strictly runs along the lines of Leninist-Marxist dialectical materialism. The engineer Prushevsky, who oversees construction of the foundation pit, understands the construction project not just as an engineering problem, but thinks about the social structure of the project in terms of Marxist
base and superstructure theory (19). Many of the workers seem to be resigned to the fact that they will die in achieving socialist construction in order to facilitate the ultimate transition from capitalism to communism.

The tension of the current moment of socialist construction that the novel captures is so great that even the natural world conforms to the Marxist plan, as though following the animal-world equivalent of Lysenkoist botany. This is particularly true of the part of the novel that focuses on a collective farm located not far away from the foundation pit. For example, a group of rooks "felt like departing ahead of time [i.e., before the normal migration], in order to survive the organizational collective farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm" (75). Not only does the collective farm contain conscious, collectivized middle and low peasants, but also a group of collectivized horses who are able to equitably distribute hay among themselves according to communist principles. The following sentence describing their behavior echoes the Leninist mantra of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs": "Each animal took a share of nourishment proportionate to its strength and carefully carried it in the direction of the gate from which all the horses had first emerged" (88). And finally, there is a blacksmith bear named Misha (apparently taken at least in part from Russian folklore) on the collective farm who represents a kind of idealized proletarian worker and helps root out kulak peasants.

The novel is heavily grounded in the language of estrangement (ostranenie). (This is a concept perhaps best articulated by the Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky.) In the afterword to his translation Chandler emphasizes all the unusual turns of phrase that Platonov employs in Russian in order to make strong allusions to Russian orthodoxy, literature and philosophy. This is certainly true, and I appreciate how Chandler attempts to remain faithful to Platonov's experimental language. 

However, earlier this year I discussed the problem of translating language too literally, so that the resulting English is awkward. It seems the case that there are some rather odd-sounding renderings in the Chandler and Meerson translation where the Russian would seem to justify a more natural English translation. For example, Voshchev refers to the worker's barracks at the foundation pit as "the dwelling place", though the original zhilishche can mean simply "lodging, quarters" (50). At another point near the beginning of the novel Safronov asks Kozlov to "reinforce yourself with physical culture" (24), which sounds like a rather literal translation of the original fizkul'tura. When I am translating texts (which are admittedly much less literary than Platonov) I simply render this word as "exercise" or "physical fitness," which are certainly much more common in English than "physical culture." (But I will also note that "physical culture" was a major theme of 1930s official Soviet culture, as this page from the Seventeen Moments in Soviet History explains, and it is true that Chandler and Meerson include a short note on this as well). And in a scene that takes place at the village church, the translators render Russian khram as temple (93). Though the latter can be translated as a temple, I think the context here dictates that it should be a simple parish church.

Works Cited

Platonov, Andreń≠ P, and Robert Chandler. The Foundation Pit. New York: New York Review Books, 2009. Print.