My Mummy’s Bones

Gaby Wood

Towards the end of The Foundation Pit, our wandering hero pours a miscellany of inanimate objects onto the desk of the local Communist Party ‘activist’ and asks him to make an inventory of his findings.

He had been round the village collecting every wretched cast-off object he could find, all the forgotten bits and pieces that had no name or identity, so Socialism could avenge them. All these decrepit and long-suffering bits of scrap had once touched the flesh and blood of village labourers; these things were imprinted for ever with the sufferings of lives that had been spent doubled over in toil, lives expended without conscious meaning only to come to an inglorious end somewhere out in the rye stubble. Without fully realising what he was doing, Voshchev had parsimoniously gathered up in his bag the material remains of the lost people who, like him, had lived without truth and who had perished before the final victory.

The activist gives the objects to a little girl as toys, but not until she has marked a piece of paper confirming receipt of them. She takes the form, slowly draws a hammer and sickle on it, and hands it back.

Voshchev is an accidental hero, not quite an idiot savant, since there is nothing he knows, more like a questioning simpleton, a folk-tale bumbler lost in the metaphysical limbo of Russia in the process of collectivisation. He has been sacked from his factory job for thinking too much. He stands on a deserted road and the town ‘peters out’ in front of him, but he has nowhere else to go, so he sets off into the wilderness, ‘expecting the world to become a matter of common knowledge’. But he tires quickly, ‘the moment his soul remembered it had lost touch with truth’. He heads towards a town he can see in the distance, and sleeps in a ‘workers’ barrack’, where a dimmed lamp lights ‘unconscious faces’ and ‘devastated bodies’, men ‘all as thin as if they were dead’. In the morning he explains to them that his body gets weak without truth. The workers don’t see what he wants with truth anyway, and Voshchev, hopeful, supposes they must know everything. He stays with them, to dig a pit for the foundations of a building which is to house ‘the whole of the local proletariat’. ‘You don’t happen to know how the world was constructed, do you?’ Voshchev asks the engineer in charge of the ‘All-Proletarian Home’. He doesn’t happen to know. ‘But that’s something you should have learnt – you’re meant to be educated.’ ‘We were just taught about dead bits of this and that,’ the engineer replies. Various workers and officials appear and disappear in the course of the story, the construction workers attempt to convert poor and middle peasants to the proletariat, and sniff out rich kulaks in order to ‘liquidate’ them. They hear that the hammerer in the forge has been working for nothing on rich farms ‘almost since the beginning of time’, and has not even been registered as a member of the collective farm: they set out immediately to deliver him from oppression. The hammerer turns out to be a bear. The bear joins the group on a walk around the village and roars when he arrives at the house of a kulak ripe for liquidation, but at night, after this session of ‘kulak-bashing’, he gets into a frenzy. He hammers away madly in the forge, using up all the materials, burning his own fur and singing and groaning so loudly he keeps the whole collective farm awake. Voshchev, full of empathy, takes the bear to the collective farm’s headquarters, the OrgHouse. ‘I’ve brought him along to testify that there’s no truth,’ he announces. By the end of the book, Voshchev has no more of a clue about the future: like a weary child at the end of a day’s shell-collecting, he has only amassed a series of forgotten objects.

The childlike aspects of Voshchev – the fairy-tale quest (sparked off by the harsh absurdity of a Soviet sacking), the simplicity of his desires and the inevitability of his disappointment – work in counterpoint to the behaviour of the heroine, Nastya, a bona fide child, found and hailed as ‘an element of the future’. Nastya’s appearance is fortuitous and absurd, in a Groucho Marx sort of way (‘Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report – run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it’). The group are discussing installing a wireless, to keep the ‘backward masses’ from ‘hoarding gloomy feelings’. One of the comrades scoffs: ‘we’d be better off if someone took a little orphan girl by the hand and brought her along.’ Safronov, the most officious of the workers, decides this is a good idea. ‘It is essential, comrades,’ he announces after some thought, ‘that we should have here among us, in the guise of a child, a leader of the future proletarian world.’ They have no actual child in mind, and when Nastya does arrive, she is more of a leader than they could have imagined. From her mouth issues perfect Soviet-speak, precociously assimilated. She is carried around everywhere, protected and listened to; she becomes their messiah and mascot.

‘Now who might you be, my little girl?’ Safronov asks when the orphan Nastya is brought to the collective farm by Comrade Chiklin. ‘What did your mummy and daddy do?’

‘I’m nobody,’ said the little girl.

‘How can you be nobody? Surely some sort of principle of the female sex must have fixed things so you could get yourself born under Soviet power?’

‘But I didn’t want to be born – I was frightened my mother would be a bourgeois.’

‘How did you get yourself organised, then?’

    The girl hung her head in confusion and fear and began to pull at her shirt; she knew she was in the presence of the proletariat and so she was on her guard, remembering what her mother had kept on telling her so long ago.

‘But I can tell you who’s the boss.’

‘Who?’ asked Safronov, pricking up his ears.

‘Lenin – and after him comes Budyonny. Before they were around, when there was only the bourgeoisie, I wasn’t born because I didn’t want to be. But as soon as Lenin came along, then so did I.’

‘Well, my girl,’ Safronov managed to say. ‘Your mother must have been a conscious woman! And if kids can forget their own mothers but still have a sense of comrade Lenin, then Soviet power really is here to stay!’

Nastya is like a precursor to Raymond Queneau’s Zazie. She is a mini-trailblazer, a spoof pioneer, insisting on getting rid of ‘the baddies’, and shouting ‘Scum!’ whenever kulaks are mentioned. But after their hard day’s kulak-bashing, she develops a fever and wants to go back to her mummy. The holiday’s over. The workers take it in turns to look after her, to breathe on her and keep her warm. They explain that her mother is dead, nothing but bones. ‘I want her bones then,’ she insists. ‘I’m so unhappy,’ she repeats deliriously, ‘bring me my mummy’s bones!’ By the morning Nastya has stopped breathing. Chiklin feels ‘an urge to dig’. He goes out to the foundation pit, but the soil is frozen, so he has to cut it up and ‘prise it out ibs’. He digs and digs, trying not to think, trying to forget himself. For 15 hours he digs Nastya ‘a special grave’, and lays her down in it. The future was meant to be built, but it is buried instead, and the foundation pit becomes a grave for the child who was to have socialism as her ‘dowry’.

The Foundation Pit was written in 1930. It was never published during Platonov’s lifetime, and first appeared in print in the United States in 1978 (it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987). This edition is a new translation. The book is reminiscent of Gogol (Platonov has been compared to Leskov and Bulgakov, twinned with Pilnyak and Babel), but it is written in such apparently simple language that every twist comes as a surprise. Platonov is known for his linguistic subversiveness, for embedding his satire in the language itself. In Less than One (1986), Joseph Brodsky likened a page of Platonov to

a great department store with its apparel items turned inside out ... His every sentence drives the Russian language into a semantic dead-end or, more precisely, reveals a proclivity for dead-ends, a blind-alley mentality in the language itself ... reading Platonov, one gets a sense of the relentless, implacable absurdity built into the language and that with each new – anyone’s – utterance, that absurdity deepens.

Platonov, Brodsky tells us, ‘speaks of a nation which has in a sense become the victim of its own language; or, to put it more accurately, he tells a story about this very language, which turns out to be capable of generating a fictitious world, and then fells into grammatical dependence on it.’ The world emerges from the language and the language comes to stand for the world – so much so, in fact, that it becomes a parody of the world, a parody of itself. This is the cyclical nihilism of The Foundation Pit. The surroundings in the novel are never evoked, only implied, a kind of dead nowhereland. The characters are rarely fleshed out or even described. Their speech often consists of phony bureaucratese, circular thoughts and abrupt reminiscences. Words are made up or intentionally misused (‘OrgYard’, ‘OrgHouse’, ‘deadstock’, ‘you prejudice!’); people are called ‘elements’. The book is perhaps best considered as a novel-length folk tale, a parable: sparely narrated, crudely sophisticated, full of harsh nonsense.

Andrei Platonov was born Andrei Platonovich Klimentov in 1899. He grew up in an industrial settlement on the margins of the southern Russian town of Voronezh, where his father worked on the railways. As a child, Platonov was a tinkerer: he learnt Esperanto, wrote poems and attempted to invent a perpetual motion machine. He and his father both had patents for their various inventions. Platonov worked in an insurance company, in a pipe company, as an engineer’s assistant. As a teenager, he fought in the Red Army during the Civil War. He wrote for Voronezh newspapers, studied electrical technology at the local polytechnical institute and got a job with the Regional Land Administration. In 1921 he wrote a pamphlet on electrification, and later became a central figure in the attempt to modernise the Russian countryside. By the mid-Twenties he was giving readings of his poetry and publishing short stories in the journals Red Virgin Soil, October and New World. His first collection of sketches and stories, The Gates of Epiphany, appeared in 1927. The title story is about an 18th-century English engineer who arrives in the Russian countryside to build a canal joining ‘the most mighty rivers of the empire into one continuous waterway’, for which he is to be paid handsomely by the Tsar. The work is gruelling and doomed; it becomes clear that there will never be enough water for the canal to be navigable. The engineer plods on nevertheless, and ends up, as he knows he will, imprisoned in the Kremlin, awaiting death. The executioner arrives: ‘for a moment the engineer saw the blood in his own astonished and darkening eyes, and then he collapsed in the arms of the howling executioner.’ The satire was not lost on the Party, and when Platonov published his short story ‘Vprok’ (translated as ‘Benefit’, ‘Profit’ or ‘For Future Use’) in 1931, Stalin scrawled ‘scum’ in the margin. Platonov had begun writing Chevengur, his only long novel, in 1927 (it was published in the US in 1978, in the Soviet Union in 1989). In the mid-Thirties he found supporters, including Georg Lukács, on the board of the journals Literary Critic and Literary Overview. He was able to publish criticism and sometimes used his real name, Klimentov, as a pseudonym. However, he came under constant attack (even a parable he had written for a children’s paper prompted an accusation in Pravda of ‘rotten pacifism’), and by 1949 he was on an official list of people to be ‘unmasked’ and ‘crushed to the end’. There have been rumours that he ended up as a stage-hand, a street-sweeper and, most pointedly, a janitor in the House of Writers in Moscow. He certainly got a job at the Children’s Literature (Detskaya Literatura) publishing house. There he translated Bashkir folk tales into Russian, and wrote retellings of Russian fairy tales which proved extremely popular. He died of tuberculosis in 1951.

Folk tales seem to have been more than just a refuge for Platonov. There was a real continuity between his earlier writing and the tales he wrote when he was no longer able to publish original work. Earlier writers had also reworked folk tales: Gogol retold Ukrainian folk tales, Pushkin turned Russian ones into verse. From 1855 to 1864 the ethnographer Aleksandr Afanasiev published Russian folk tales in serial form; and with titles like ‘The Dead Body’ and ‘The Peasant and the Corpse’, these tales share some of Platonov’s off-hand gore. Many of Afanasiev’s characters are recognisable in Platonov’s fiction: an executioner who appears ‘out of nowhere’, several wild and clever bears, a wise little girl very like Nastya, the recurrent simpleton Ivan the Fool, reminiscent of Voshchev. In a letter to Platonov, Gorky wrote: ‘for all your tenderness towards people they are always described ironically, turn out to be “characters” or “halfwits”.’

Brodsky describes Platonov’s ‘surrealism’ as ‘impersonal, folkloric and, to a certain degree, akin to ancient – or for that matter any – mythology’. The irony of Platonov’s having ended up at Detskaya Literatura is not in the image of a crushed writer reduced to retelling other people’s stories, but in the continuity, in his being placed in a world very like one of his own invention. In The Foundation Pit Nastya and Voshchev embody hope and its attendant hopelessness, map out a new world where nobody can answer the questions of children and fools. It is a world, if you like, without any adults, and the OrgHouse of Children’s literature, however open to magic and whimsy, must have stood in a similar relation to the larger machine.