ONE OF THE GREAT EXPLOSIONS of modern literary creativity happened in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, with the emergence of writers like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Viktor Shklovsky, Isaak Babel, and Boris Pilnyak. There’s no knowing what the Soviet writing of the subsequent decades might have been if Stalin hadn’t killed, jailed, exiled or silenced everyone. Some of the best writing from that period only surfaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is just now starting to filter out into the international arena. One of the most remarkable discoveries is the work of Andrey Platonov.
Platonov was that rare thing, a proletarian writer. The son of a railway worker, he enthusiastically joined the revolution in 1917, seduced as many were by Lenin’s leap of faith. But disillusionment set in quickly. Stunned by the effects of the drought and famine of 1921, he studied engineering and for most of the 1920s worked on electrification and irrigation projects, only becoming a full-time writer at the end of the decade. While many of his stories saw print, his important cycle of novellas of Soviet life from the revolution through to the rise of Stalin went unpublished in his lifetime. Today, his most ambitious book, Chevengur — an allegorical history of the revolution and civil war — is, regrettably, still out of print, but New York Review Books Classics have issued three of his other works in beautifully produced editions.
Platonov is best known in the West for his compact masterpiece, The Foundation Pit, a sly reworking of the Stalinist genre of “Five Year Plan novels” in which heroic party activists inspire the workers to overcome obstacles and raise productivity It is a great work on the intimacy of violence and spectacle. At the beginning of the novel, the factory worker Voschev, the novel’s central character, stands still in the middle of production and thinks about a plan for the shared and general life — and is fired. Soon after, Voschev chances upon a building site where a small band of workers are digging an enormous foundation pit for a future House of the Proletariat. The pit keeps getting dug deeper and wider.
The novel’s central image, of course, plays on the basic Marxist trope of base and superstructure: it is clear that no base could ever support the extravagant superstructure promised by the reigning ideology. Platonov’s working class characters all speak in the approved slogans and jargon of the time, but they make mincemeat of this official language, denaturing it and recomposing its ideological force. For instance, the engineer Prushevsky, oberving “how the topsoil rested on a layer of clay and did not originate from it,” wonders: “Could a superstructure develop from any base? Was soul within man an inevitable by-product of the manufacture of vital material? And if production could be improved to the point of precise economy, would it give rise to other oblique by-products?” Platonov is not so much satirizing the official jargon of base and superstructure, production and by-product, as putting it to a quite different use. Prushevsky, and through him Platonov, advances a critique of the Soviet project in its own rhetorical terms.
As work proceeds on the foundation pit, Voschev alone seems alert to the coming crisis. Dead matter supports the living, and life supports the soul, each a meager surplus won from the layer below. But if the soul can’t expand itself to the point of...read more