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 the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
‘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.’
I won’t be posting here for a while as I’ve got to have some hospital surgery carried out, I head in tomorrow for blood tests and X-rays before the surgery on Wednesday. However I have picked my reading wisely for the time I shall be bed bound, so here is a quick list of what I’m taking with me*:
Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body by Ann Oakley (a re-read).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (a re-read).
Notes from the Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The Human Bone Manual by Tim White and Pieter Folkens.
Disability in Medieval History by Irina Metzler (if I can!).
I can’t help but feel I am missing a good travelogue or another novel I can get my teeth in, but The Road and Notes from the Underground are two books I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Although the reading list does look decided depressing, I shall relish the hours lying down in bed adsorbed in the comfort of a good writer and lost in a world that they have created. It is perhaps no surprise to see that at least two Russian authors have made the list, but with a new Stephen King novel out I may be doing some asking for that as a cheeky gift! I have included a few re-reads in the list above, but we shall see if I get those read again.
I shall need to call upon my stoical strength again, but I look forward to writing back here once I am well enough. Photography by author, taken with a Pentax S1a camera.
* I’ll also be taking a stack of CD’s with me because I am doggedly old fashioned, and, of course, a stack of paper to write letters to friends and to keep notes.
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.