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Andrei Platonov: Котлован (The Foundation Pit)

Another unusual and distinctive novel from Platonov that was not published in his lifetime. In many respects, it is similar to Chevengur, with its tale of rural people struggling with hunger and communism in the early days of the Soviet Union. Like Chevengur, it is easy to see why Soviet censors rejected it. It seems to be a satire, with its typical bureaucrats and party hacks and attempts by these to converts horses, a bear and even a fencepost to communism. But Platonov, unlike, say, Voinovich or Hasek, does not make fun or mock but tells his story with deadly seriousness. In fact, his characters, rather than being figures of fun, seem to have almost a mythical quality. Take, for example, the young girl, Nastya, who seems to be a symbol of communism. She waited, according to her, to be born till Lenin came to power. Her mother, who dies early on in the book, dies not from hunger or disease, according to Nastya, but because she was too bourgeois. All this could be seen to be parody or ridiculous but Nastya comes across, instead, as a believable and sympathetic character, who misses her mother, while condemning the bourgeois.

As in Chevengur, death is always prevalent. It is not just Nastya and her mother as well as other peasants who die but we see the kulaks shipped off on a raft”downriver”. However, the most poignant image of death is the stash of coffins found by the diggers of the foundation pit. These are owned by the peasants in the neighbouring village whose village is dilapidated and who have no crops but are determined that every inhabitant have his or her own coffin. The image of the coffins being dragged back to the village is a key one.

Oh yes, this novel is about a foundation pit. Voschev is a worker who is more concerned with thinking about the truth than working and loses his job. He drifts around till he finds the village where they are to dig a huge foundation pit for a communal house (their aim is to have all workers in the world living in the same huge building) and he joins in. Voschev struggles with his thoughts about the truth and comes to no conclusion but, of course, is condemned for doing so. Meanwhile, the workers, aided by the communised horses and bear, dig the pit, though too often they are interrupted to be given increasingly absurd lessons about communism. The pit is not finished and nor is communism. Platonov again tells a fascinating tale but you can see why it could not be published in the Soviet Union in his lifetime.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Flegon Press
First English translation Ardis 1973