Wednesday, February 08, 2017

`Sixty Years Later We Behold Yegor's Grandson'

Kultura was a Polish émigré journal published from 1947 to 2000 by Instytut Literacki, first in Rome and then Paris. Among its contributors were Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Witold Gombrowicz, Marek Hłasko and Józef Czapski. Its co-founder was Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, best known in the U.S. for A World Apart (trans. Joseph Marek, 1951), his account of the two years he spent in a Soviet concentration camp on the White Sea. Grudziński took the title for his memoir from The House of the Dead, by another writer who spent time in a Russian prison camp:

“Here there is a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own manners and customs, and here in the house of the living dead — life as nowhere else and a people apart. It is this corner apart that I am going to describe.”

In 1970, The Free Press published Kultura Essays, a selection of literary and political pieces from the journal, edited by Leopold Tyrmand. Included is work by Czapski, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Aleksander Wat and three essays by Grudziński. One of them is “Yegor and Ivan Denisovich,” and at least one of the proper names in the title ought to be familiar to most readers. In 1962, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir, and the world changed. Two translations into English were published in 1963, and I first read the Max Hayward/Ronald Hingley version a few years later (three other translations followed). Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to ten years in a forced labor camp in the Gulag. He was captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans during World War II, and the Soviets wrongly convict him of spying, as they did thousands of other Russian soldiers. The book was turned into a memorable film in 1970, with Tom Courtney in the title role.

Less familiar, for Grudziński’s purposes, is another Russian book about prison – Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. It’s based on the 4,000-mile journey by train, horse-drawn carriage and river steamer he made to the katorga, or penal colony, Sakhalin Island, north of Japan. There he spent three months interviewing convicts and settlers. The resulting book has been read as a crusading documentary on the appalling conditions in which Russian prisoners lived. That’s accurate, but here’s what Chekhov wrote in a letter to his friend Ivan Leontiev-Shcheglov shortly before leaving Moscow in April 1890:

“I am not going in order to observe or get impressions, but simply so that I can live for half a year as I have never lived up to this time. So don’t expect anything of me, old fellow; if I have the time and ability to achieve anything, then glory be to God; if not, don’t find fault with me.”

Dr. Chekhov was thirty years old and already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1904. Grudziński writes: “It is almost unbelievable how much he managed to accomplish in such a short time. He visited all the prisons and settlements, he made a census of the island, he recorded dozens of conversations, and single-handed he initiated investigations like those undertaken nowadays by university teams of skilled investigators and survey specialists. He was only forbidden access to political prisoners.”

Grudziński reads Sakhalin Island as an encrypted indictment of Czarist Russia: “In fact, the mixture of expedition report, official inventory, statistical yearbook, and investigation encompassing the fields of psychology, sociology, medicine, and law contained in his book about Sakhalin could not fool the reader, though it might deceive the censor.”

Only Chapter 6 in Chekhov’s book carries a title, “Yegor’s Story.” Grudziński, the former Gulag prisoner, concentrates on Yegor, a forty-year-old peasant with “a simple-hearted, seemingly half-witted face.” He writes: “For Chekhov the humble anguish of Yegor was a condemnation of society.” After a section break, he continues: “Sixty years later we behold Yegor’s grandson or great-grandson in the penal colony, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.”

I first read Sakhalin Island almost nine years ago when I found a copy in Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. This is a beautiful, fully annotated edition translated by Brian Reeve and published in 2007 by Oneworld Classics. It includes photographs, a biography of Chekhov, a bibliography, a selection of his letters pertaining to Sakhalin and the book’s first chapter printed in Russian. It’s one of my favorite books. The great Irish essayist Hubert Butler writes in “Materialism Without Marx: A Study of Chekhov,” published in 1948 and collected in Independent Spirit (1996):

“His book Sakhalin Island, the result of this journey, has only recently been translated, because it is in conflict with the accepted Chekhov legend. It is not wistful, resigned and full of subdued melancholy. It is blazing with certainty and indignation, and because of that, in spite of its tragic contents it is perhaps the most hopeful and optimistic of all his writings. He believed that it was worthwhile to be passionately indignant about remediable injustice and that to remedy injustice was not the task of the statistician, the trained welfare officer, the experienced committeeman, it was the task of every man of sensibility and integrity.”

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