Shalamov: connections

One of the most intriguing aspects of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is connections between the stories. These take a large variety of forms. Within the six collections, there are clusters of stories that are linked in different ways: by chronology (‘The Lawyers’ Plot’ and ‘Typhoid Quarantine’; ‘June’ and ‘May; ‘Chasing Engine Steam’ and ‘The Train’), location (such as the group of stories in Resurrection of the Larch set in Vishera, and relate to Shalamov’s first period of imprisonment), or name (‘Wheelbarrow I’ and ‘Wheelbarrow II’). At times clusters of stories are linked by the development of a theme. Close to ‘The Green Procurator’, which details several tales of escape from the camps, there are a number of other stories in which escape also appears in some form, such as ‘Diamond Spring’, ‘An Echo in the Hills’ and ‘Berdy Onzhe’, leading towards the final two stories of the collection, ‘Chasing Engine Steam’ and ‘The Train’, which relate to permanent escape through release, although the connection posited between legitimate and illegal escape suggests that the former may easily prove to be just another instance of the latter. The first four stories in the same collection, Artist of the Spade, develop from the initial theme of memory: ‘The Seizure’ ends with the words ‘I wasn’t afraid of memories’; the next story, ‘Epitaph’ memorializes the dead; ‘How it all began’ gives a wide-angle background to those events; and ‘Handwriting’ brings us close up to one set of procedures leading to death. Adjacent stories also at times develop a set of recurring imagery, as in the symbolism of fire, water, snakes, and stone that I discuss in my paper Rebirth from Kolyma.

Connections are also apparent between stories that are separated across different collections, whether due to the appearance of recurring characters (especially the author’s alter-egos Andreev, Krist and Golubev), locations (the cell in Butyrka in 1937, various hospitals, Moscow after release), incidents (the same medical assistants’ course is covered in ‘Courses’, ‘The Exam’; events described in ‘Glove’ also feature in ‘The Raid’), objects (a scarf, photographs), themes (immortality, reification, story-telling) and images (temporary paths, motifs derived from creation myths) and even phrases (‘If you don’t believe it, take it as a fairytale’). At times, as I suggested in a previous post, the use of similar titles for very different stories (‘The Procurator of Judea’ and ‘The Green Procurator’; ‘First Death’,  ‘The First Chekist‘, and ‘First Tooth’) suggests connections which may be illusory, but the repetition draws us into comparing the stories and trying to discover the hidden links.

What is interesting about this is that there are so many suggestions of connections between the stories, from the overt and concrete to the feint and elusive, that you develop a mindset that in seeking these links, questions linear reading and instead favours multiple orderings and re-readings in different, potentially endless, combinations, with all the shifts of meaning and changes of ending they entail. This is remarkable, I think, because Shalamov’s stories do not at first glance does not appear to be doing anything particularly innovative in their narrative form, a few unusual frame narratives aside. Compared to, say,  Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (a very different type of work, I know, but bear with me), which wears its narrational originality on its sleeve, Kolyma Tales looks pretty ordinary. Yet though there are many (linear and non-linear) ways of reading Hopscotch, the primary hopscotching variant and its ultimate indeterminacy of meaning/ending is absolutely under the author’s control, which to my mind, at least, makes it a rather determined indeterminacy. The fact that the hopscotching order is given in a table leads me to question it even more; what type of chaos is it that can be tabulated in this way? A very fixed, specific, and ordered one. Again, indeterminacy appears to be at a minimum. (Disclaimer to any Latin American specialists out there: it’s a long time since I read it. But if you think I’m barking completely up the wrong tree, I’d be very interested to hear why.)

This is not to say that Shalamov’s stories in some way represent ‘true’ disorder. The author was very concerned about the ordering of the stories, and it is clearly significant in a number of ways, including the presence of mini-collections within the larger ones, and the role of the stories which begin and end the collections. But the indeterminacy, whilst not overt, proliferates not because of the author’s guidance — this does not stretch beyond the hints provided by repetitions in the texts — but depends entirely on the reader; you only discover the potential re-readings and different combinations upon reading, and the more you re-read, the more aware you become of the possibilities the stories present. Although some connections are suggested, there is no fixed plan at work, less still an order in which connected stories should be read, so the factors governing the indeterminacy tend to multiply, along with the possible variations and overturnings of meaning.

This is significant because Shalamov is clearly not interested in narrative games and is not constructing his text in this way in order to indulge either himself or the reader in some sort of intellectual exercise. He does it rather to draw the reader further into the world of the stories so that you can contemplate and feel their meaning on a deeper level. He is often considered — not unreasonably — to be a writer whose primary objective was to have a particular emotional effect on the reader, and pretty much everything in the stories can be viewed in that light. This is one of the things that makes him so difficult to read — it’s a shocking, emotional experience. The implication of this is that there is little room for the reader’s interpretation, and that all meaning is on the surface, yet our experience of reading Shalamov suggests that he is more complex than that. It is the connections between the stories which extend them beyond their immediate confines and in doing so, change the dynamic in order to privilege the reader in constructing the meanings of the interaction between the individual units and the larger whole.

In my next post I’ll explore what this means in practice and give some illustrations of how the connections between the stories work.

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