On life in a Soviet Gulag labour camp in the Russian Far East:
We were all sick of the barracks food. . . Any human feelings – love, friendship, envy, charity, mercy, ambition, decency – had vanished long along with the flesh we had lost during our prolonged starvation. The minuscule layer of muscle that was still left on our bones, and which allowed us to eat, move, breathe, even saw beams, fill barrows with spadefuls of stone and sand, even push a barrow up an endless wooden ramp in the gold mine, had only enough room for resentful anger, the most lasting of human feelings.
– From the short story entitled Field Rations in the new collected edition of Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield. New York Review of Books, 2018.
In Kazan and Poltava provinces, the governors had nervous breakdowns. Others lost their head. “You risk your life, you wear out your nerves maintaining order so that people can live like human beings, and what do you encounter everywhere?” complained Governor Ivan Blok of Samara. “Hate-filled glances as if you were some kind of monster, a drinker of human blood.” Moments later Blok was decapitated by a bomb. Placed in a traditional open casket, his twisted body was stuffed into his dress uniform, a ball of batting substituted for his missing head.
‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
Whilst in the beautiful, brash and busy capital today I found another Soviet writer (and book) to add to my slowly amassing knowledge of Russian writers. I now greedily grasp ‘The Foundation Pit’, by Andrey Platonov, in my hands and eagerly await spending quality time reading this much maligned author’s work. The novel was wrote in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s but not published in Russia until the 1980’s due to political and ideological upset caused by the themes of Platonov’s novel and previous writings. ‘The Foundation Pit’ describes the lives of a group of soviet workers ‘who believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future’, but are, of course, misled. In particular it questions the moral authority of the individual, of the collective and of the state, with characters stating their ambivalence towards life itself.
“Wasn’t Truth merely a class enemy? After all the class enemy was now capable of appearing even in the form of the dream and imagination!” (Platonov’s The Foundation Pit).
Honestly I am already 30 pages in and I do not want it to end. Since discovering the very much valued work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Sholokhov on my father’s bookshelves I have reached deep into the well of beauty that is Russian literature, but my thirst is not yet sated and I am not sure it ever will be. Visits to the University and local council library have yielded such gems as Anna ‘Karenina’ by Tolstoy and Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’, but my most treasured reads so far have to Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Cancer Ward’ and Sholokohov’s Don epic. I have yet to try Dostoyevsky, but ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is always on my mind. In the mean time I am sure Platonov will keep me busy.
Here I present some of my favorite books of 2012 (and a few from before). You’ll notice they are mostly travel/history books in one form or another, often about places outside of my home country. Reading for me often opens up the mind, and I tend to gravitate towards travel as this opens up the realms of history and prehistory for the writer, something I’m particularly keen in. However I am keen on a good novel, so please let me know if you come across any, and I am always open to reading about travel writing, no matter where in the world. I’d heavily recommend you take a look at the blurbs of the books as they are awfully interesting, and I’m happy for any suggestions to add to my pile. I’ve put ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy on this list, but I’ve only just managed to hunt down a copy from my local library after having to hand back in my University copy unfinished. Rest assured though that Oblonsky, Levin, Vronsky and Anna will live long in my imagination. Click the links to learn more about each book.
‘Timequake‘ (1997) by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (not pictured).
‘The Stranger‘ (also known as The Outsider, or L’Etranger in the original French version) (or.1942) by the French author and philosopher Albert Camus (not pictured).
Of course this is just a selection of some of my favourite recent books that I have come across. Every time I enter a library I feel honoured to share the same space as so many great works of literature and art. The beauty of the written word never ceases to amaze me, whether it is from a novel, a poem or a piece of travel writing. It can open up new ways of thinking about every day events, or provide new views on events or people you thought you knew. It can move you to the edge of tears, or terrify you to point of horror. The sign of a truly great book is one that keeps you hooked, long after you should have been asleep after a busy day.
I shall forever have treasured and fond memories of volunteering in a Oxfam book and music store, and mulling over which book I should buy next when my shift ended. One of the pure joys of books is passing them onto friends once you have finished it to lend it out or give it to someone else to enjoy. I haven’t included any brief synopsis’ of the books here because I want you to take a minute or two to click the link and have an explore, and see what you think is interesting.