Some of the greatest literature of the Soviet era is only now becoming available in fine English translations. Sally Laird finds similar themes reverberating in new Russian writingby Sally Laird / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the last few months three new translations of Russian novels have arrived on my desk. Two of them are examples of what came to be known in the late 1980s as “delayed literature”: works written decades earlier but left unpublished in Russia until the advent of glasnost. The third is the work of one of the most talented writers of the “post-Soviet” era, Victor Pelevin. Reading these novels in a row, I was struck by the story they tell of what has happened to Russian souls, and bodies, this century.
Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) is less well known to English speakers than his contemporaries Babel, Bulgakov or Pasternak. Yet he is every bit their equal as an artist, and wrote with extraordinary prescience about the times he lived in. His book, The Foundation Pit, is the most eloquent literary account I know of the meaning of collectivisation, the more astonishing for having been written contemporaneously with the events it describes.
One simple reason for our neglect of Platonov may be that his work is so difficult to translate. Neither a straightforward realist nor satirist, he incorporated into his writing the acronyms and circumlocutions of Soviet Newspeak, lending to even the simplest words an off-key, haunted intonation. In their translation, Robert Chandler and Geoffrey Smith have skilfully captured the disturbed beauty of Platonov’s language.
The Foundation Pit (first published in Russia in 1987) was written in four winter months between December 1929 and April 1930, when the campaign for collectivisation and “dekulakisation” was at its height. It tells of a group of men who have been set the task of constructing a huge, communal dwelling place for the collective workers of the future. They set about digging the foundation pit for the building, a pit that grows wider and deeper as plans for the imaginary home become ever more ambitious. “Activists” are called in to speed up the tempo of collectivisation; by the end of the novel the peasants have been prised from their original homes and the kulaks shipped down-river on a raft. But the “all-proletarian home” remains unstarted; there is nothing to show for it but the huge, grave-like pit. Among the several dead, meanwhile, is a little girl, Nastya, whom the workers had adopted as an emblem of future happiness. The novel ends with her burial.