martes, 7 de mayo de 2013

The Foundation Pit

The Foundation Pit [Kotlovan] (NYRB Classics, 2009)
by Andrey Platonov [translated from the Russian by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson]
USSR, 1987 & 1994

"And who might you be?" asked the old man, folding his respectful face for an attentive expression.  "Are you a swindler...or simply a bourgeois boss?"
"I'm...I'm from the proletariat," reluctantly announced Chiklin.
"Aha--today's tsar!  In that case, I'll wait for you."
(The Foundation Pit, 47)

I finished The Foundation Pit--named after the novel's not so subtle symbolic fictional foundation pit for a future, indestructible, all-proletarian, and never to be completed workers' dwelling that just might double for the Soviet Socialist Republic's grave--a few weeks back and liked it well enough despite its occasional heavyhandedness, I suppose.  However, it's really too bad that the novel's had to follow on the heels of Karl Kraus Week in the reviewing queue because not everybody can do disgruntled political satire and social commentary quite like Herr Kraus can.  Nein!  In any event, a reviewer from The Irish Times has I think rightly pegged Platonov's book, begun in the late 1920s but not published as a complete text until 1994, as an "absurdist parable."  Ditto for translators Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, who in their afterword to the novel describe the work as "a philosophical fable" but one in which "the world [that] Platonov evokes...is a hell where both language and labor have lost their meaning, where nearly every character is alienated from his own self, and where acts of violence are seen by both perpetrators and victims as the most normal thing in the world" (157-158).  Assuming you like absurdist philosophical fables much more than I do, this all sounds great and sometimes is.  Those not so fond of absurdist poli sci schtick may well be bored at times, though.  Since Platonov probably amused me a little more often than he frustrated me, I'll try to stay positive here.  What I liked best about the work is the way it brings the recently fired/"made redundant" factory worker Vohschev (1) into contact with a cross-section of Soviet society at the height of the collectivization efforts and the terror famine--what Chandler and Meerson refer to as "among the greatest--but also the least acknowledged--catastrophes of Soviet history" (153).  This historic backdrop lends gravitas to what's occasionally some less than riveting storytelling, but on the other hand Platonov must have done something right to eventually make me feel sympathy for the orphan girl Nastya who is introduced announcing "kill the kulaks" and things of that nature.  What did I like least about the work?  Well, I guess I'm just not all that into the absurdist political humor scene, comrade.  Nyet. Also, there's nothing raw or visceral about the writing here unlike what you'd find in an alienation-fixated contemporary like Arlt or Broch: Platonov's daring is all about his themes, not his rather spaced out language.  One possible exception--Nastya, rejoicing that a big black bear "was on our side and not on the bourgeoisie's," asks a memorable question on page 108: "He suffers too...so that means he's for Stalin, doesn't it?"

Andrey Platonov (1899-1951)

I read The Foundation Pit as 1/2 of a two-man group read with Dwight from A Common Reader--hope that he will have a response of his own to the novel up soon.

18 comentarios:

  1. For what seems to me one of the strange co - incidences, as this is not all that popular of a work, I just finished this book last week. As I tend to like to ponder things a bit I was planning on putting up commentary in the next week or so.

    I agree that this was an odd one and it was difficult in terms of style and ideas. On the other hand I did really like what I thought was fountainhead of ideas.

    In many ways I thought that Happy Moscow was a much better book.

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    1. I agree that The Foundation Pit was fairly rich in ideas, Brian, but I had a really hard time connecting with Platonov's aimless, drifting delivery. Almost had the impression that he must have been high while writing it or something! Funny to hear that you thought the unfinished Happy Moscow was a more together book--look forward to your post on this one, though! P.S. On the coincidence front, Scott from seraillon also read this recently--don't know if he'll be posting on it, though.

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  2. Thanks for the mention...I'll get to it through in the backlog that isn't clearing anytime soon.

    It definitely isn't an easy book to connect with, but then I think it goes beyond the style and includes a "historic backdrop" that is almost beyond our comprehension.

    I definitely will get to this during my WTFIFLPO phase. (whatever I feel like posting on...paraphrased) Thanks for holding up your end of the deal. I'll get there.

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    1. I'd love to see a post on this from you eventually, Dwight, but no worries or anything. It's not like I was exactly on time for your Galdós readalong, you know? I do agree with you about the historic value of the work, and it was an added bonus for me to see what one of Grossman's closest writer friends was up to way-pre Life and Fate. I was just disappointed--not a ton but enough--that Platonov's writing chops didn't live up to the hype for me.

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  3. Everything in this review makes the novel sound pretty entertaining. If I weren't already stuck with dozens of books to read, I'd give it a try.

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    1. Miguel, I could have made the book sound a lot more entertaining but I got tired of digging through my now barely legible notes for a book that didn't wow me in the end. There's a lot of good stuff in the novel, though, and somebody who's more kindly disposed to Platonov's humor or storytelling style might well think I was full of shit about The Foundation Pit. I'm OK with that.

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  4. I have seen Chandler say that young Russian writers are treating Platonov like Dostoevsky Tolstoy Nabokov etc. etc., treating him like a giant, a godfather. So who knows, maybe some knockout contemporary writer, if she is ever translated, will someday teach us all how to read Platonov.

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    1. I've seen comments like that somewhere, too, but I have to say I have a hard time wrapping my head around them. I wouldn't want to judge the guy on one perhaps slightly better than average book alone, but I didn't think there was anything adventurous in The Foundation Pit (i.e. aside from its politics) unless "adventurous" now equals "heavyhanded symbolism" + "uninteresting use of an anthropomorphized animal character." But a godfather? Let's hope not.

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  5. I remember reading a book by Platonov years ago (I think, looking at his Wikipedia page, it might have been The Return) and found it tedious social realist rubbish. But that may be because it was written after 1937, when fellow-travellers were made to conform.

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    1. Obooki, Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git went on record here a few months back calling The Return and Other Stories "an excellent point of entry" to Platonov or something like that. Please confer with him to get your two stories straight! All kidding aside, "tedious social realist rubbish" naturally doesn't exactly sound all that appealing--maybe I should start stifling my complaints about The Foundation Pit even though I tend to read better books than it all the time.

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    2. Hmm, maybe it wasn't The Return then, because I remember it being a novel and not short stories. But nothing else on Wikipedia particularly stands out: though The Motherland of Electricity certainly sounds like it might be the right kind of social realist nonsense.

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    3. The funny thing about your uncertainty about the title is that now we know there's a horrible social realist Platonov out there somewhere--except nobody but you will know about the danger until they read it (I'm assuming you'd recognize the book if you encountered it again). It's almost like the book version of a sci-fi movie: everybody's at risk of being contaminated except Dr. Obooki, who's already been exposed to the Platonov virus and survived but whose temporary amnesia won't save anybody else!

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    4. Sorry to have taken so long catching up with this.

      "Social realist writer" is what Platonov clearly wasn't, except perhaps for some of his earlier works. He was an experimental author - although that is perhaps not much in evidence in "The Foundation Pit", which, I suspect, is his best known work in the West for the very reason that it *isn't* so experimental, and, as a consequence, more easily read. His very individiual, experimental approach is certainly in evidence in "Happy Moscow" and in "Soul", works which, at least in part because they *are* so experimental, I haven't quite come to terms with. The stories in "The Return" are varied, and perhaps provide the best introduction to his work.

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    5. I'll almost surely give Platonov another try at some point, Himadri, but I'm not sure I understand the hype about him at this stage of the game. Not sure if a more "experimental" novel would have made any difference for me here since, even though I liked parts of this novel a great bit, I also found it clumsy and heavyhanded at times. In any event, I will keep your appreciation of The Return in mind as the variety of mini-efforts there might be a different way to approach Platonov. Thanks for weighing in. Cheers!

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  6. This is next on the pile, once I get through the remaining 75 pages of Dead Souls. I've a feeling the transition may be a smooth one.

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    1. Scott, I have to think this will be a major letdown from Volume One of Dead Souls and a smooth transition from Volume Two of that novel if you catch my drift. In any event, I hope you appreciate Platonov more like Brian and Dwight have than I did.

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  7. Well done review. I'm just starting to read contemporary (or 20th century at least) Russian writers. I'm almost through with Andre Bitov. I really like his writing style-even though it's pretty surreal. I like what he has to say. He ponders the meaning of life but with hope.

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    1. Thanks, Sharon, and welcome to the blog. I haven't read anything at all by Bitov yet, but I particularly appreciate the rec about him since I'm trying to do some catching up on some of the more obvious Russian writers in the even months of this year (next up: Goncharov's Oblomov in late June). Cheers!

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