Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov


Unpublished during his lifetime, The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov is a deeply philosophical novel filled with ruminations upon life and the human condition.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.




31 comments:

Suko said...

Brian, this sounds complex, unique, and thought-provoking. Excellent review! I will keep both The Foundation Pit and Happy Moscow in mind for future reading.

Guy Savage said...

Thanks very much Brian: this is one of the many unread Russian books on my shelf. I've yet to read Platanov, but he's somewhere in my future

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed this is a complex novel. I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you reed it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Guy - So many unread books on my shelf too. At least as Russian novelists go, Platanov writes relatively brief works.

Sharon Henning said...

That was a fantastic review. I feel as though I've gotten all the major points of the book. A very interesting story. I wonder how many people under the Soviet Regime thought as Platonov did. I mean actually looked up from their daily grind and thought about what exactly was going on. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks so much!

From what I understand many people opposed the regime. Of course they were confronted with brutal oppression.

Miguel said...

The second review of this book in recent times. I'm seriously thinking of picking it up at the Lisbon Book Fair.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I think that you would like this one.

Oddly enough it seems that Richard and I were reading this book simultaneously and did not know that each of us was reading it.

stujallen said...

his books are on my wishlist ,thanks for reminding me about him as I m in london he may be one I buy ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I would imagine that with your interest in literature that is translated into English that you would be interested in Platonov.

argumentativeoldgit said...

In one of his talks, I heard Robert Chandler effectively say that this was his first attempt at translating Platonov, and that, in retrospect, he is not entirely satisfied with the results. He thought he had come closer to Platonov's voice in "Soul", "Happy Moscow", and the collection of short stories "The Return and Other Stories". This may account for this volume not making so great an impact as did "Happy Moscow".

Naida said...

Soon as I heard that for Voshchev was laid off for too much thinking and not enough working I liked him. This sounds like an odd, yet interesting book. Platonov seems to be a writer that makes the reader think.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himdari - Something that I did not touch upon in my commentary. I could not lay my hands on the Robert Chandler translation. Instead I read the Mirra Ginsburg translation. I did to a tad of research and fpr what it is worth Ginsberg was also a Platanov scholar and this translation seems to garner respect.

One reason that I found happy Moscow more compelling was I found that its themes were more universal. It concerned itself mostly with modernity and rationalism. Those were touched upon here but this work was much more concerned with the dehumanizing effects of communism. I just think that the message about communism almost goes without saying these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Ha! You made me laugh! Indeed too much thinking at work has gotten me into trouble at times too!

Caroline said...

Sounds very good. It made me luagh to think he was fired for thinking too m uch and not working enough. In recent times I've seen people fired for not thinking at all - and working even less.
I like the introduction of the animal characters. Did it remind you of Orwell or is that too far-fetched?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I did not make the Orwell connection but now that you mention it I do think there are some parallel thought patterns here. Platonov's bear and horses symbolize different aspects of society like the animals of Animal farm did. I say parallel and not influential. This work was written before Orwell's, but Orwell would not likely have known about this novel as it was still unpublished when Animal Farm was published.

Suko said...

Congrats, Brian Joseph! You've won a book on my blog. Please stop by when you get a chance. Thanks!

Richard said...

Belated thanks for the link, Brian, and for the reminder about Vohschev's collection of mementos: that little detail was actually one of the sadder, ongoing "human" motifs that affected me more than the allegorical or the surrealistic elements of the novel. Anyway, an interesting book even if not altogether to my liking.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Suko!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - Indeed this could be a difficult book to like I just tend to like it when an author throws out ideas in a creative way. As I believe that we discussed in the comments section of your blog, I thought that Happy Moscow connected emotionally much more effectively.

Ryan said...

Where do you find such interesting titles?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I discovered Platonov when Himadri recommended Happy Moscow in the Bah Hum Book book suggestion for me.

I picked this one sometimes get my selections from particular lists. Boom's Western Cannon and Clifton Fadiman's lifetime reading plan are two of my favorites. I do not exactly randomly pick from the lists but usually find books that are otherwise look interesting for some reason. After reading Happy Moscow, which I liked, I consulted Bloom's list and it indicated that THIS was the Platonov book to read. Turns out I liked Happy Moscow better.

....Petty Witter said...

Hi Brian, having seen your blog mentioned on Suko's site I thought I'd stop by, say hello and have a nose round.
Great blog, its been nice meeting you, I've really enjoyed my visit as its always nice to find a male book blogger. Happy reading, PW.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty -Thanks for the good word and thanks for stopping by. I am off to take a look at your site.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I've never heard of the book or the author but it sounds really worthwhile. Digging a foundation pit sounds like one of those jobs they give to slave labourers in places like North Korea. Evidently some sort of social structure develops in this one and perhaps its not as bleak as it seems

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - The bleakness in this book is very different from what one would expect. The diggers are not slaves. They all join voluntarily and are free to leave is they please. Yet the system is portrayed as destroying all of society.

Maria Behar said...

You know, Brian, this book sounds like a very depressing, yet, at the same time, very illuminating read. It's obviously a very profound work, as well. I've never heard of this writer before. I'm very glad that, through this novel, he presents a sound criticism of communism, while at the same time recognizing that there are some well-intentioned, idealistic people involved in this political system. That shows that he's an objective analyst of it. Of course he wasn't allowed to publish this book at the time. Like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, he had to endure censorship.

I think I need to get this book, as well as the other one you reviewed, "Happy Moscow". I've long been fascinated by Russian culture, which was unfortunately tainted by this deceptively liberating ideology.

Thanks for another interesting review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria!

Thanks for the good word. I think that you hit it on the head, while an indictment on communism this book explored the nuances that are often part of life.

As I mentioned, I would recommend Happy Moscow over this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria!

Thanks for the good word. I think that you hit it on the head, while an indictment on communism this book explored the nuances that are often part of life.

As I mentioned, I would recommend Happy Moscow over this one.

James said...

Thanks for your penetrating review. This is a book that I have had on my "to-read" list for some time, so I will now move it to the top.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I think that a reread of this one will really bring out aspects not apparent the first time around. I look forward to reading your commentary when you give it a go.