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The Foundation Pit
on 1 December 2012
Archetypally Russian. This means, of course, more over-emoting than is found in most operas. Russian literary characters have always reminded me of Elmer Fudd (Elmer Fuddovich?), the seemingly bi-polar nemesis of Bugs Bunny. Fudd's moods, in a five minute Looney Tunes cartoon, run the full gamut, from murderous to vengeful to bashful to melancholy and so on. One moment he loves Bugs, is contrite for trying to kill him, cries even, the next he is intent on extreme violence once again. Much the same is on display here: lots of hand wringing, soulful gazing into the distance, gulping down tears, and angry exchanges.
The plot of The Foundation Pit is, quite frankly, as threadbare as the plot of one of these cartoons, although it is built around a satisfyingly satirical idea. A group of workers are engaged in digging the foundation pit of the title, upon which is to be erected a house that will be inhabited by the whole of the proletariat. Chortle. The primary concern of the novel is the tension between one's desires as an individual and one's responsibility to the whole state. Collectivisation, a kind of pooling of agricultural resources, which involved an order for farmers to give up the best of their possessions, features heavily.
It is worth bearing in mind that Platonov was writing this stuff whilst it was actually happening, not after the event, and he ought to be admired for his bravery. But bravery does not make a masterpiece, otherwise Ivan Denisovich would be one, so what then earns The Foundation Pit those 5 stars? The prose. His style, in this novel in particular, is exhilarating, is so odd and uniquely his own that many criticise the translation, believing an inept translator to be the only reasonable explanation for their own struggles with the text. Platonov's sentences are idiosyncratic, the word order initially confusing but designed to give emphasis to certain important words.
His greatest achievement is to make the reader feel as though he too is trapped in a wildly incomprehensible world. The novel is written, and the characters more often than not communicate, in baffling doublespeak. You are given the impression that everyone, including the author, has been brainwashed, with party-approved phrases abounding:
"You're a fully class generation. You may only be a minor but you have a precise consciousness of every relationship."
"The proletariat, comrade Voshchev, lives for enthusiasm! It's time you received this tendancy!"
"Silence, you benighted pettiness! Your task is to remain whole in this life. Mine is to perish, in order to vacate a place!"
There is evidence enough, I hope, in this review to convey just how very funny The Foundation Pit is, but I would also make a case for it being a very moving book. There is a sense that these characters are "lost souls," that they are striving towards a future and believe in an ideology that is to their detriment. No one is happy in Platonov's world, but there is some hope in the hearts of the characters, and that is the most painful thing of all.