I’ve written before about the idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ which means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me. I had a very difficult childhood, and I would fantasise a lot about getting away, but at no point did I ever not want to be here. Quite the opposite: I would often cry in bed at night because I was so scared of dying. There’s something very funny about that, in a way…some kid weeping…begging…please give me more of this excruciating, this horrible life!
Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviours. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. A few years ago my cat fell out of a window and smashed his legs and split the palette in his mouth in two, but rather than lie down and succumb to what must have been a strong desire to give in he actually managed to drag himself out of the way of immediate danger and under a car. His instinct for survival was, you might say, absurdly strong, but there it was, urging him to protect what was left of his pain-wracked body. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.
Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labour camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meagre rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.
“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].
Translation: ‘goner’ or ‘doomed.’
If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?
On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering, does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasised by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.
I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.
In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasise just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.
Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.
I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.