Sunday, February 04, 2018

`To Find Adequate Words to Describe It'

Nothing is easier to romanticize than suffering, from a distance. It requires no effort or imagination. How pleasant to think it ennobles the sufferer. We know suffering is almost certainly inevitable, and it must be a comfort to believe it will make us better people. Varlam Shalamov would disagree. After years of cold, hunger and hopelessness, his narrator in “Sententious” (trans. John Glad, Kolyma Tales) says: “What remained with me to the very end? Bitterness. And I expected this bitterness to stay with me till death.”

He has been moved to a lower-security camp within the Gulag. He chops wood for boiling water. The food is better and slightly more plentiful. “We were totally indifferent,” he writes, parodying Marxist gospel, “about the dialectic leap of quantity into quality. We weren’t philosophers but workers, and our hot drinking-water betrayed none of the important qualities of this leap.” Prisoners can even use guns to hunt grouse, but our narrator says, “I ate, indifferently stuffing into my mouth anything that seemed edible -- scraps, last year’s marsh berries.” In this, Shalamov’s zeks resemble Beckett’s diminished creatures, reduced to barely human essentials. Andrei Sinyavsky said of Shalamov: “He writes as if he were dead.” Heat for a prisoner means the prisoner lying beside him. “My language,” the narrator says, “was the crude language of the mines and it was as impoverished as the emotions that live near the bones.”

Shalamov, who spent fifteen years in Soviet forced labor camps, mining gold and coal, dedicates “Sententious” to Nadezhda Mandelstam. She writes in Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974) writes:

“. . . I could not form a visual image of the camps—this only came when I read [Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of] Ivan Denisovich. Shalamov was annoyed at me over this: the camp described here, he said, was one in which you could quite happily have spent a lifetime. It was an improved postwar camp, nothing like the hell of Kolyma. This was confirmed by other people who went into the camps and prisons at the end of the thirties, but none of them have been able to find adequate words to describe it.”  

[Donald Rayfield’s 776-page translation of Kolyma Stories, the first complete edition of Shalamov’s fiction available in English, will be published this spring by New York Review Books.] 

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