The Eternal Story

I’m currently reading Varlam Shalamov’s Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, the second volume of his short stories regarding his time spent in the brutal Kolyma camp system in the Russian Far East during the late 1930’s to the mid 1950’s. It is a work of terrifying beauty and brutality, of the eternal story:

For how many years, distorted by winds, frosts, turning to follow the sun, has the larch stretched out every spring its young green needles to the sky?

How man years? A hundred. Two hundred. Six hundred. A dahurian larch is mature at three hundred years.

Three hundred years! A larch, whose branch, whose twig is on a table in Moscow, is the same age as Natalia Sheremeteva Dolgorukova and can remind us of her lamentable fate: about the vicissitudes of life, about fidelity and firmness, about inner staunchness, about physical and moral torments, which in no way differ from the torments of 1937, with the raging nature of the north, which hates humanity, the mortal danger of spring floodwaters and winter blizzards, with denunciations, the coarse arbitrary bosses, deaths, quarterings, husbands broken on the wheel, brothers, sons, fathers, all denouncing each other and betraying each other.

Isn’t that an utterly eternal Russian story?

After the rhetoric of that moralist Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s rabid preaching came wars, revolutions, Hiroshima and concentration camps, denunciations, and executions by shooting.

The larch tree displaced all scales of time and shamed human memory by reminding it of the unforgettable.

– From the short story entitled The Resurrection of the Larch in the new collected edition of Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield. New York Review of Books, 2020.

Three Books of a Kind

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!