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Shalamov’s titles

One tends to spend a lot of time focusing on the first and final sentences of Shalamov’s stories, because the author did attribute particular importance to them. But recently, I’ve also been thinking about his titles. Consisting largely of one or two words, most of them are strikingly commonplace. Some, such as ‘The Parcel’, ‘Rain’, and ‘Berries’ (just to glance at the first dozen stories in Kolyma Tales) give some indication of their content. Frequently, however, the title and the story appear to bear only a tangential relationship to each other, even, perhaps especially, when the whole story turns on the title.

This is certainly the case for one of my favourites, both in terms of story and title: ‘The Snake Charmer’ — a title that can’t help but intrigue, I think. Here the narrator/Shalamov tells the story of Platonov, a convict who worked as a ‘novelist’, telling stories to criminals in return for food and protection at a particularly terrible camp. In the conversation which opens the story, Platonov says that he is going to write the story of that experience and call it ‘The Snake Charmer’, but immediately after this we are told that Platonov died three weeks later, and that the narrator has decided to write the story for him, because he loved him. As the narrator/Shalamov takes over the role of story-teller for Platonov, the image of the ‘snake charmer’ comes to stand for story-telling in general, but the image itself is not repeated in the story. Rather, it is introduced only in order to tell the story, or perhaps the other way round, the story exists purely to establish the image. Either way, an interesting reversal is created, where the frame narrative is not a means of contextualizing the story it contains, but instead becomes the whole point.

Another case in point is ‘The Procurator of Judea’, in which a doctor newly arrived in Magadan breaks down when he has to treat the frozen survivors from the hold of a steamship transport; seventeen years later, the doctor cannot remember the incident. The title of the story only becomes clear in the final paragraph, when we read: ‘Anatole France has a story, “The Procurator of Judea.” In it, seventeen years later Pontius Pilate can’t remember Christ’. The title, and the final line referring to it, again reconfigures the story, so that it is about memory and its loss, rather than the actual events of that transport. This also has the effect of emphasizing the process of dehumanization and marginalization (although the latter seems like far too mild a word) of the convicts. Not only are the physically destroyed, but they are displaced within the story that describes their own fate — we can see all too clearly that they are just an unspecified number of faceless victims, destined for anonymous mass graves.

The title ‘The Procurator of Judea’ is significant in other ways as well, because elsewhere Shalamov also uses titles which suggest the story will have a religious theme, only for that to be belied by the story itself (see ‘The Apostle Paul’ and ‘Evening Prayer’), and he also has a tendency to use similar titles, often with recurring words, which create links between the stories that are very different in terms of content and theme (compare ‘The Procurator of Judea’ to ‘The Green Procurator’), but I shall save discussion of those features for another time.

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  1. Sarah J. Young » Blog Archive » Shalamov: connections

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