(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Set somewhere in the early 1930’s, The Foundation Pit seems to have all the components of the canonical construction novel: a huge project, Party activists, marching pioneers, collectivizing peasants, a random assortment of workers come together to build the foundations for a bright Communist future. Although the novel follows the digging of the foundation pit and the collectivizing of a nearby village, it is worlds apart from anything resembling Socialist Realism.

As the novel begins, Voshchev arrives at the outskirts of a provincial Russian city. Fired from his machine-shop job for “pensiveness in the midst of the general tempo of labor,” he has gone in search of a plan for life—life as a whole, that is, since his own life is not a puzzle to him. He lives merely because, like any other creature, he happened to be born. As he makes his way to the city’s center, his loneliness and isolation never leave him but instead grow as he watches the construction projects rising all around him. He has the uncomfortable sense that when humans put together a building, they manage to fall apart themselves. He wanders back to the empty lots and wasteland at the city’s edge and, more or less by accident, joins the crew of an enormous construction project.

Although the project is enormous, the crew is not: A motley assortment, they all sleep in a garden shack converted into barracks. They are digging a foundation pit for no ordinary apartment building, though, but for an enormous all-proletarian “home,” a true communal residence unlike the separated, fenced-off houses of the old city. The building is the brainchild of Engineer Prushevsky, who, suffering from the same puzzled melancholy as Voshchev, comforts himself with the resolution to die in the near future.

Hereafter, the novel simply follows the course of the digging, and the life of the crew itself, the “artel”—Chiklin the tireless laborer, Safronov the Party activist, Pashkin the trade-union secretary, and Zhachev the sadistic cripple, who takes it upon himself to wreak revolutionary vengeance by bullying and robbing anyone who seems bourgeois. As plans progress, Engineer Prushevsky and Chiklin discover something in common—a lost sweetheart, daughter of the former owner of a nearby Dutch tile factory. In the ruins of that same factory they discover a ragged woman and a small child. The woman, whom they take to be that same girl from their youth, dies of starvation. They take the girl with them, and she becomes their mascot, the symbol of the young proletarian future.

More than that, she becomes their oracle, the...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)