Monday, July 28, 2008

Russian Reading Challenge 2: Platonov's “Foundation Pit”

Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) was a perfect Russian Reading Challenge selection: I read the first 30 pages several years ago but got stuck. I’m glad I stuck with it this time because, though I still found it quite difficult, this short novel is very rewarding.

The Foundation Pit, written in 1929-1930, is an allegory of the era of collectivization: workers digging a pit for a foundation also find themselves digging, in effect, a collective grave. They take part in the collectivization campaign, too, banishing kulaks by sending them away by raft.

Form and content are inseparable in The Foundation Pit, and Platonov draws on language and themes found in divergent genres, mixing elements of folk tales, carnival, existentialism, and socialist realism to create a dystopia so painful and surreal that I feel almost as if I’ve lived there.

Despite the inherent tragedy of The Foundation Pit, some passages were laugh-out-loud absurd – the behavior of collectivized horses stands out – but I thought others plodded, perhaps because they were so familiar and reminiscent of “real” socialist realism. Other chunks of text jarred to good effect: an orphaned girl taken in by the workers speaks in violent, revolutionary terms, demanding death of kulaks.

What sets The Foundation Pit apart from other dystopian novels – and most other fiction – is Platonov’s creativity with the Russian language. Language is the foundation upon which the book is built, with Platonov’s diversity of linguistic registers reflecting changes in society. The Foundation Pit depicts on every level – from words to characters’ actions – untenable visions of a socialist future in a place where truth and rationality are losing their meaning.

Joseph Brodsky says in this (Russian) piece, which evidently appears as an afterward to an English-language edition of The Foundation Pit, that the book is untranslatable. (I find a lot of irony there!) He cites as one reason Platonov’s depiction of a nation that effectively becomes a victim of its own language. Obviously not all of Platonov’s words in The Foundation Pit have equivalents in a language like English – the content of “энтузиаст,” for example, differs tremendously on a cultural level from our “enthusiast.”

But I think Brodsky may underestimate the talents of translators, readers, and Platonov himself. Many of Platonov’s unique phrases translate elegantly enough into English to read well. Robert Chandler and Geoffrey Smith’s translation beautifully captures the mood and meanings of the novella’s unique first paragraph. Much later in the book, as I translate it, a bear “sang a song with his jaw.” Even culturally laden phrases that don’t translate this easily into English can still display Platonov’s ability to use repetition or word combinations that force the reader to (re)consider meaning.

Even if I don’t quite agree with Brodsky about translating Platonov – particularly after reading Robert Chandler’s crackling versions of Platonov in The New Yorker and the paragraph cited above – I think his definition of surrealism sums up The Foundation Pit very neatly. He calls Platonov the first surrealist, arguing that surrealism is not an aesthetic category but rather (as I translate it) “a form of philosophical rage, a product of the psychology of dead end.”

In the end (whether it’s dead or not) what I find most interesting about The Foundation Pit is that, to be blunt, I didn’t often enjoy reading it… but I can’t stop thinking about it. I even have thoughts of rereading it. I’ve enjoyed Platonov’s short stories much more because they feel peculiar and, perhaps even alienated, without conveying utter desolation. But I love a literary puzzle, and that’s what The Foundation Pit feels like. I may be back in a few years.

Summary: The Foundation Pit is one of the most difficult books I’ve read in recent years, but it’s worth the effort if you enjoy dystopia or writing that depends on both form and content to convey its messages. Platonov layers the book with far more themes than I’ve mentioned here: I felt like I barely touched on their significance in this, my first reading. I should add that my first attempt at reading The Foundation Pit was my introduction to Platonov. Reading several short stories between then and now helped me feel more comfortable with his style.

Cross-posted at Russian Reading Challenge


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