Where to even begin with The Foundation Pit? The author, Andrey Platonov was born in Russia in 1899, the son of a railway worker, and later worked as a land reclamation expert. He was a fervent supporter of the Russian Revolution; during the 1920s he supervised the digging of wells, construction of ponds, and draining of swamps in Soviet Ukraine; he was a war correspondent during the Great Patriotic War. Stalin, who read some of his work pre-publication, reportedly called him “scum” and urged that he be beaten. Platonov’s son was arrested as an enemy of the people and returned from the Gulag with terminal tuberculosis. Platonov contracted the disease while nursing him, and died of it in 1951. Much of his work, including The Foundation Pit, was not published in Russia until the time of glasnost; some of it was not published until the 1990s.
The Foundation Pit takes place during the time of the first Five-Year Plan and Total Collectivization. It begins with the mobilization of various people to dig out the space that will serve as the foundation for a gigantic and grand edifice. What should be built is never specified, but the characters are led to believe that it will be shining and splendid, a monumental achievement at the edge of their otherwise unremarkable town. In the meantime, work brigades are rushed here and there, ever more people are brought in for the collectivized effort, even as the available tools remain utterly inadequate for the task at hand. Things get stranger from there.
As the translators write in their afterword, “All these works appear at first glance—especially to a reader unversed in Soviet history—to be highly surreal. This impression, however is misleading; they contain barely an incident or passage of dialogue that does not directly relate to some real event or publication from these years. Platonov’s focus is not on some private dream world but on political and historical reality—a reality so extraordinary as to be barely credible.” (p. 157)
Read as a surreal and symbolic parable, The Foundation Pit is unsettling; read as something more literal, it is even more troubling. It’s also funny in parts, poignant in others, and just plain strange in yet others. Platonov’s Soviet Russia of the 1920s is far, far more alien than Asimov’s New York millennia hence.
Even with the notes provided by the translators, I am sure that I just skimmed across the surface of The Foundation Pit. There’s a lot going on in the book; I wouldn’t want to try to calculate its fractal dimension. (Indeed, a German journal of East European studies, Osteuropa, devoted an entire issue to Platonov’s work in 2016.) The translators again:
One day, no doubt, someone will publish a commentary listing the abnormalities in each sentence of The Foundation Pit and the expressive power of each of them. Platonov used language more creatively than even the greatest of the great Russian poets who were his contemporaries, and there is no simple answer to the question of why he wrote as he did. Sometimes, as we have seen, he deviates from the norm in order to summon up a biblical, cultural, or political allusion. Sometimes he orders the most common of words in an uncommon way so as to bring out in full the meaning of a word that we normally take for granted. … Sometimes Platonov puts something in an unusual way in order to bring out how trapped his characters are in a crushingly materialist view of the world. … At other times, however, this materialism shifts into an equally extreme idealism. (pp. 172–73)
This is a journey to another world, recognizably human, but seen through the veils of history, language, culture and the author’s own imagination to make it more distant than what is found in much of science fiction. “The reality of life in Stalin’s Russia will always remain hard to understand. No sources of information—no memoirs, no diaries, no reports by informers for the secret police—are entirely trustworthy. It is easier to be sure of the true beliefs of such distant figures as Chaucer and Dante than of the true beliefs of many of Platonov’s contemporaries. Even against this background, however, the degree of uncertainty around Platonov himself is extraordinary. There is hardly a single important work of Platonov’s, or important event in his life, that is not veiled in ambiguity.” (p. 162) The Foundation Pit gets deeper, but no nearer completion.