x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Fixing a hole

Books Andrey Platonov sought to capture a reality radically unlike any other in Russian history with language unlike any other in Russian literature.

Workmen dig Lenin's grave in Moscow's Red Square in February 1924. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov magnifies the theme of doomed diggers to epic proportions .
Workmen dig Lenin's grave in Moscow's Red Square in February 1924. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov magnifies the theme of doomed diggers to epic proportions .

Andrey Platonov sought to capture a reality radically unlike any other in Russian history with language unlike any other in Russian literature. Ilya Bernstein reads a new translation of his darkest masterpiece. The Foundation Pit Andrey Platonov translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson New York Review Books Dh54 The image of men digging their own grave and then getting executed in it - one of the iconic images of the 20th century, associated with the atrocities of the Second World War and numerous other massacres, from Turkey to Cambodia - became a reality in Russia soon after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. In March 1922, for example, the newspaper Revolutionary Action described an event that had taken place outside Petrograd some months earlier: "The prisoners were transported at dawn and forced to dig a hole. When the hole was halfway finished, they were ordered to strip. People started screaming, crying for help..." This particular episode entered the annals of Soviet history because one of the bodies left behind in that hole was that of Nikolay Gumilev, an adventurer poet, former husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova, and the first figure in the Russian literary world to be executed by the Soviet government.

Ten years later, the theme of doomed diggers was magnified to epic proportions by Andrey Platonov in the darkest of his masterpieces, The Foundation Pit. The workers in Platonov's novel are digging a hole in the ground ostensibly in order to lay a foundation for a building. The real purpose of the hole is another matter. "Man puts up a building-and falls apart himself. Who'll be left to live then?" asks one of the characters. "That's the way graves are dug, not buildings!" says another.

As all Russian schoolchildren know, Andrey Platonov was the most serious and most creative Russian writer of the 20th century. His prose often comes across as a kind of literary miracle. Although he entered Russian literature in the early 1920s as a "writer of proletarian origins" who had little sympathy with the Modernist games that were being played around him, his break with literary conventions and with common parlance was more radical than that of any other 20th-century Russian novelist. Yet unlike many Modernist writers, he was never interested in language for its own sake. His linguistic wizardry was always motivated by a striving for a deeper representation of reality.

Just as Platonov's writing was like none other that had ever existed in Russian literature, the reality which he undertook to represent during the 1920s and 1930s was like none that had ever existed in Russian or any other history. In this respect, Platonov was in a different position from someone like James Joyce. Joyce also broke with conventions in literature in order to present a deeper picture of the world, but this world itself was more or less a continuation of the world that literature had depicted before him. The world that Platonov confronted was utterly new. In the mid-1930s, Platonov's focus shifted to more traditional themes - love, family, and then war - and he began to write in his mysterious way about a subject matter that was universally familiar. But for about a decade prior to this change, his work represented a convergence between a very peculiar style and a very peculiar subject matter. That subject matter might be described as the "Soviet project": the attempt to transform Russia into a workers' paradise and to teach its inhabitants to see it as such a paradise. And nowhere in Platonov's fiction is his engagement with Soviet ideology more intense than in The Foundation Pit.

The novel opens with a swirl of Soviet bureaucratese: "On the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was cashiered from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his existence. His dismissal papers stated that he was being withdrawn from production in consequence of his growing strengthlessness and thoughtfulness amid the general pace of labour." Although there is ridicule in these words - "growing strengthlessness" remains within the boundaries of the tortured idiom of the age, "thirtieth anniversary of his private life" goes a hair's breadth beyond them - their existentialist overtones outweigh the satirical ones. Voshchev is a kind of literary personification of "thoughtfulness": his only need in life, it seems, is the need for meaning. He suffers because "he did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him".

Voshchev heads out town and starts walking. Eventually, he finds "a warm pit for the night"-only to be awoken and told that he must leave. "'What's it to you?' said Voshchev reluctantly. 'This isn't a site - it's a superfluous place.' 'From now on it's a site - it's going to be situated with stone... Soon this place will be hidden forever beneath construction.'" Resonating on multiple registers, this brief exchange is typical of Platonov's writing: the opposition between "site" and "superfluous place" is at once metaphysical, political, and comic-an example of Soviet-style newspeak as practised by the common man.

Voshchev spends the night among the labourers who will be working on the construction and in the morning he joins them and begins to dig. These characters have no biographies to speak of: they fade in and out of the foreground like the characters in The Pilgrim's Progress, each of them illustrating a different way of suffering, each of them with one foot planted in eternity. Safronov, ideologically-driven and focused on the future, pushes the Russian language toward nonsense with his oratory: "And this is why we must throw each and every person into the pickle juice of socialism," he declaims, "until the skin of capitalism peels away from him and his heart begins to pay attention to the heat of life around the bonfire of the class struggle and enthusiasm comes to pass."

Zhachev, a legless war veteran who prowls the construction site, rails against everything that belongs to the past. "As a freak, I only welcome your opinion, but I can't help," he informs the workers when they decide to spend more time each day digging. "You're all going to perish one way or another anyway, because inside your heart lies nothing. So it's best to... poison yourselves with labour. Exist, you bastards, for now!"

One day, a man appears at the site looking for coffins that had been stored there. Voshchev, who "still did not know whether there really was anything special about existence in general," leaves the workers and follows the man back to his village. What he discovers is a village that is being turned into a collective farm - a process that involves the extermination of all peasants who are not impoverished, followed by the starvation of those peasants who are. The rest of the story, except for a grim return to the foundation pit at the end, takes place here, and death becomes its main focus.

By 1929-30, when The Foundation Pit was written, the "Soviet project" had perpetrated a massive separation between words and things, opening up an enormous vacuum between them. A new language had been developed, from which emanated a penumbra of meaning, and which was used to discuss a reality from which its lexicon was completely divorced. If a visitor to the Soviet Union could have "turned off the sound", he would have seen a different world from the one discussed in the press and the rest of the public sphere. Confronted with the great gap between the rhetoric and the reality, Platonov took his stand neither on one side nor on the other, but wrote a text that seems to fill up the vast empty space between them. Soviet reality is there along with Soviet rhetoric: they are like two victims of the same tragic fate, two parts of a shared shipwreck.

The distinctive vision of the world that Platonov conjures up in The Foundation Pit derives its force from his prose style. "One must remain among the ranks of ordinary people engaged in patient socialist work, nothing more": this is how Platonov summed up his view of the writer's vocation in an article entitled "On Socialist Tragedy", written in 1934. Patient work, socialist or otherwise, is not an image that comes to mind when one thinks of the writers who created great Russian prose during the 19th century: Gogol and Dostoevsky. These authors wrote by getting carried away, and their genius stemmed from their ability to put themselves in a position in which they were helpless to stop themselves. Platonov's approach was in an entirely different vein. True to his beginnings in the Proletkult movement, which sought to infuse Soviet culture with the "spirit of the proletariat", he regarded writing as a form of labour like any other. Literary production, in his view, was subject to sober planning and methodical implementation.

What boggles the mind, when one reads Platonov, is how someone who endorsed such a drably workmanlike attitude toward writing could have stuffed hundreds upon hundreds of pages of text with turns of phrase and plays on words that can only be characterised as spectacularly inspired. How to describe the wonder that is Platonov's prose? It is a prose in which abstract concepts are routinely treated as concrete things; in which the close-up invariably comes where we would expect a long shot; in which familiar phrases and figures of speech always have enough unexpected words in them to bring the reader to a stop and to compel him to reread them. The literary device that perhaps gives The Foundation Pit its most distinctive flavour is Platonov's use of the official language of the Soviet government: he uses it not as it was used by Soviet bureaucrats, but as it might have been employed by a child-naively, to describe real things, to voice real needs, to express real feelings.

The lion's share of this, alas, is inevitably lost in translation. What Platonov is in Russian is known. What he might eventually become in English still remains to be seen. A new translation of The Foundation Pit, published by New York Review Books, gives some compelling indications of what that might be. Considering what translators of Platonov's work are up against, Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson have done an admirable job. The screws in their text could be tightened in a thousand places, but at least they are all in the right holes. Here is what their version of Platonov sounds like:

"Chiklin's constantly functioning sense of life was bringing him to sadness, all the more so when he caught sight of a fence beside which he had sat and rejoiced as a child, but now it was bent over and silvered with moss and long-ago nails were sticking out from it, being freed from the wood's cramped tightness by the power of time; it was sad and mysterious that Chiklin should have matured into manhood, forgetfully expended feelings, wandered about distant places and laboured in various ways while that old man of a fence had stood there motionless and, remembering him, had waited to see the hour when Chiklin passed by and stroked boards forgotten by everyone with a hand that was no longer used to happiness."

With such felicitous formulations as "that old man of a fence" and such memorable images as "a hand that was no longer used to happiness," one likes to hope that this text will be arresting enough to win Platonov readers who have no access to him in Russian and to serve as a serviceable foundation - rather than merely a hole in the ground, which is how one might describe earlier attempts to translate The Foundation Pit - for future translators of his work.

Ilya Bernstein is a poet and translator living in New York.