Unpublished during his lifetime, The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov is a deeply philosophical novel filled with ruminations upon life and the human condition. It is also satirical and in parts veers into the absurd.
Like Platonov’s Happy Moscow, this book is set in the Soviet Union. It is the 1920s, and factory worker Voshchev is laid off from his job for too much thinking and not enough working. Shortly thereafter, he joins a work crew of diggers who are tasked with excavating a foundation pit that is the first step in the construction of a huge communal housing building. We are subsequently introduced to the various characters who are part of the excavation team.
Voshchev himself is in search of truth and the meaning of life. Various other members of the work crew exhibit interesting personalities. Safronov is the earnest and hard working group leader. Kozlov is a one hundred percent true believer in communist and party ideals. Prushevsky is the engineer who often tries to look at life in terms of material reality and rational calculation. Chiklin is an unthinking and somewhat violent enforcer of party ideology. Zhachev is also violent as well as legless and likes to terrorize those he deems as members of the bourgeois upper classes. This diverse group, as well as the project itself, is ripe fodder for musings about the meaning of life and humanity, as well as communist ideals.
When a bourgeois woman from Prushevsky’s and Kozlev’s past dies, the crew adopts her young daughter Natasha, who clearly represents the future of communism. Eventually, the narrative changes to surrealistic absurdity. Horses who begin to collectivize their own hay and a bear, who is a blacksmith’s assistant and who has a tendency to rough up members of the upper class peasantry, are introduced.
The novel is highly symbolic and allegorical. It almost seems that every sentence is infused with layers of meaning. I believe that this work is ultimately an exploration of humankind’s search for purpose and universal truth. For example, Voshchev is obsessed with discovering the meaning behind human existence.
This all seems to relate to the book’s complex exploration of communism. Though ultimately an indictment of the ideology, Platonov acknowledges that the system has many good intentioned adherents who are genuinely interested in improving the world and believe that the quest is a worthy purpose to life. This is, however, a tragic mistake.
Again and again, Platonov provides evidence that communism is destroying the human soul. In one of many examples, a priest who has “converted” to socialism remarks,
“Living’s no use to me” and later “I no longer feel the beauty of creation – I’m left without God, and God’s without man”.
Too much science and logic are also excoriated as spiritually vacuous. At one point, the rationalist Prushevsky sinks into suicidal despair and is unable to reconcile true human emotions with his analytical way of thinking.
“It seemed to Prushevsky that all his emotions, all his desires and his old longings met in his reasoning mind and gained awareness of themselves down to the very sources of their origin, mortally destroying the naivety of hope. But the origins of emotions remained a troubling place in life, by dying one could lose forever this single happy, true area of existence without having entered it. But good God, what was to be done if he lacked any of those self – obvious impressions that quicken life and make it rise and stretch its arms forward toward hope”
If there is any solace here, it seems to come from human recognition of the value of life, even seemingly unimportant life. Throughout the narrative, Voshchev continually collects little mementoes of deceased and bygone people, animals and plants and thoughtfully reflects upon both the objects and the lives.
Though at one point a group of the economically well off are placed on a raft and forever cast adrift at sea to “liquidate” them, this is not a story of state oppression, secret police or arrests. Instead it depicts extreme forms of collectivization and modernization as soul wrecking malignancies. Amazingly, as per the commentary by translator Mirra Ginsburg, Platonov did attempt to have this published in the Soviet Union, but unsurprisingly failed.
This is a challenging work; what begins as a somewhat conventionally written character study evolves into what is at times a bizarre and highly whimsical tale. I have also overgeneralized the ideas presented here. Platonov is anything but a simplistic writer and his themes and metaphors take all sorts of twists and turns that we are often presented cryptically. At times I found it really difficult to get my head around his main points.
I found that Happy Moscow was a more poignant and aesthetically stronger work. Though both books had similar motifs, Happy Moscow seemed more tightly focused on the universal themes and problems of modernity and rationality. My commentary on that novel is here.
However, if one is not hesitant to read a story filled with unconventionality as well as tackle a complex blend of ideas, this book is a good choice. It is filled with interesting characters and intriguing musings upon life.
Richard over at Caravana De Recuerdos also recently posted commentary of this novel here.