December 30, 2010
Andrey Platonov: The Foundation Pit
I’ve found myself reading more translated literature recently. (Four out of the last six books reviewed here.) This isn’t the result of a conscious policy, but I suppose there must be some underlying process at work in my choices. Perhaps it’s the notion that with foreign fiction, you’re getting the best of what’s on offer from other countries: the stuff has to pass through two selection processes rather than one. On the other hand, a fellow blogger has accused me of “over-celebrating marginal central European works.” Could this be true? Am I valuing foreignness as a quality in itself? These are questions which sprang to mind as I read Andrey Platonov’s recently re-translated novel.
The Foundation Pit has a complex publishing history. Written in 1929-30, it remained unpublished in Platonov’s Russian homeland until 1987 – 26 years after his death – but had previously been published (in Russian) in the USA in 1973. It was translated into English in 1996 by Robert Chandler for the redoubtable Harvill Press. However, the Russian publication on which that translation was based was heavily bowdlerised, and so when definitive texts became available, Chandler re-translated the book in collaboration with Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. This is the version which now appears in NYRB Classics (in the US) and Vintage Classics (in the UK).
Those two imprints of course are recommendations to me in themselves, so I approached The Foundation Pit with high expectations. Robert Chandler in his substantial appendices observes that this is a book and author that give us vital information on Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which led to the systematic liquidation (dekulakisation) of the wealthy peasant class in the Russian countryside. “Platonov and his friend Vasily Grossman were the only two members of their generation to write about Total Collectivization—and about the still more devastating Terror Famine—both truthfully and in depth.” The question therefore is how can a book be, at the same time, hugely important and virtually unreadable?
Such a bald comment is of course the result of a subjective reading experience. Did a succession of early rises leave me too tired to get the most out of The Foundation Pit? Has Twitter ruined my powers of concentration? Am I suffering from foreign-lit fatigue? Whatever the reason, this short book (150 pages plus appendices) evaded my comprehension at every page turn. The cover blurb told me more than I got out of the text itself: “A group of Soviet workers believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future. As they work harder and dig deeper, their optimism turns to violence and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation pit but an immense grave.”
The Irish Times describes the book as comparable to Godot and Lewis Carroll, and the absurd comedy suggested thereby is present from the first paragraph, where we learn that one of the lead characters Voshchev has been made redundant from a machine factory “on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour.” (“What if we all get lost in thought?” he is asked. “Who’ll be left to act?”) Without work, Voshchev feels himself not to be at a loose end, but to be a loose end, without purpose. “He did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him.” Anyway, “happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame.” And so Voshchev joins the workers building the foundation pit.
The language is key to the strengths – and, for me, weaknesses – of the book. There are passages which get the feel just right:
Out in nature a devastated summer’s day was departing into evening: everything, near and far, was gradually ending; birds were hiding away; people were lying down to sleep, smoke was wafting up meekly from remote field huts, and there a tired and unknown man was sitting by his pot and waiting for supper, resolved to endure his life to the end.
Elsewhere, however, the tone is bizarre, either incomprehensible or ostentatiously clumsy. When one character calls another “You class superfluity!”, it may be faithful to the Russian, but it clangs in English, and it’s a worryingly common experience. “Oh, Olya, Olly, you darling dolly,” coos the character Pashkin to his wife, “your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!” If the use of ‘organize’ is a joke, it’s one that works in only one register and deadens its own impact. These clumsy effects seem to be conscious, and indeed at times they communicated the desired effect to me – doublespeak, dictatorial cant – as when two characters die and are described not as being dead but “in eternal condition”. Such moments make me regret that the fault elsewhere was doubtless mine. Yet the Irish Times, this time in a review of the new translation, provides some helpful comparisons between the 1996 translation and this one:
“down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march.”
The automobile quote is one of many phrases in the book which had me scratching my head: now at least I’ve had a translation of the translation and know what it really meant. I found myself rereading paragraphs just to get a sense of what was happening on the surface (not perhaps unreasonable, as Platonov deliberately “deforms language”, Chandler tells us – which should be joyous news to me – and brings in characters, such as a bear, without introducing them so that the reader is left wondering whether they missed the first appearance). What makes this particularly frustrating is the fact that even in crystal clear English, The Foundation Pit is a book which requires knowledge of the historical and political background to get the most from it (to get, I would say, anything significant from it at all). The afterword and copious notes are very helpful, but would be better as introduction, with the notes numbered through the text: as it is, there is no indication in the body of the book that there are any notes at all. Properly forewarned, I might have spotted any of the subtexts or references – to Dante, to the biblical Elisha, to Pushkin – and found the book more tantalising than frustrating. As it is I can only say that this is a book I found impossible to review, and so – with an irony worthy of etc. etc.! – I leave you with one thousand words explaining why I am unable to do so.