One of the most magical and strange books of the 20th Century is Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. It is magical and strange both in its execution and context. His context being something we can barely imagine, living in the West, living in the 21st Century.
Everything Platonov (1899-1951) wrote was risky. Every time he put pen to paper he was risking his future, at times even his life. In the Soviet Union of his day, even relatives were endangered by what a writer thought and tried to publish. Though he escaped from the purges of the 1930s, his fifteen-year-old son did not. He was arrested and sent to a labor camp, where he contracted Tuberculosis. Finally, after long delays, Platonov was able to bring his sick son home, and he caught Tuberculosis as well while trying to nurse him back to health.
Platonov lived a very tough life, but never lost his compassion for human beings, for animals, and, strangely enough, for things. Especially buildings.
His novel comes out of the long history of great Russian literature. The Foundation Pit is the direct descendant of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and Zamyatin’s We. It shares themes and history with the great novels of Bulgakov, Olesha, and Pasternak. It shares the tragic sense of life, the fabled Russian stoicism, and the maddening conflict between old Russia and the New Soviet Man.
But Platonov takes us somewhere no other writer can. He creates a new language, part peasant, part folk song, and part Soviet cog in the jargon of the state. He mixes folk poetry with nonsense and non-sequiturs that echo Dada without the fun. The characters speak almost in riddles, if riddles could be formed that way, formed by breaking up sentences like someone hammering rock. Platonov puts them together again, trying to build the new Soviet state, despite the corruption, the brutality, the insane bureaucracies and the waste.
Fragments. His characters speak often in fragments. But because everyone talks that way, they aren’t. They’re just whole sentences in a world of broken rock. And he does create a world. It’s all of a piece. Contained. Self-contained.
Platonov was a communist, and because he was a communist he grew to dislike the Soviet state and became disillusioned by its horrific failures to even approach the ideals of the revolution. He was joined in that disillusionment by the writers mentioned above–except for Dostoevsky, of course. And they all wrote brilliantly about the tragedy of that national failure that caused the deaths of millions.
The Foundation Pit is on a small scale in a sense. It’s a short novel, but it can be read in such a way that the sweeping epic tragedy of Russia echoes beyond each fragmentary, surreal, puzzling sentence. It can be read in such a way that folk wisdom and eccentricity equals everyone and everything. Despite its unusual language and subject matter, despite its surreality, The Foundation Pit is universal in scope. It should be read, and read again. Break the rocks!