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Shalamov’s connections illustrated

And so, back to Shalamov. What I’m going to do is just take one story and show how the connections move out through the collections from there. My intention is more to show just what the connections are than to interpret them. You can start this process at pretty much any point, but I thought I might as well start at the beginning, with the opening story of the first collection, ‘Through the Snow.’

For those of you who don’t know the story (if you haven’t read Shalamov, I would very strongly recommend him), it’s a very brief (less than 250 words), lyrical  piece about roads being trampled down through deep snow by five or six men shoulder to shoulder, moving alongside a path cut ahead of them by a single man. There are no references to convicts, or labour camps, or any of the horrors we read about in some of Shalamov’s other stories. It ends with this curious and evocative phrase about who will use the new road, drawing us into the collection: ‘And the tractors and horses will carry not writers, but readers’ (А на тракторах и лошадях ездят не писатели, а читатели).

The image of the temporary road and the final sentence are the two most prominent features of the story, and I’ll trace how they link to other stories. I’ll take the writers and readers with which the story ends first, because there is an immediate connection when you turn to the next story, ‘On Tick.’ The opening line of this story, ‘They were playing cards at the horse-driver Naumov’s’  (Играли в карты у коногона Наумова), as has been noted many times, strongly echoes the opening line of Pushkin’s story ‘The Queen of Spades’: ‘Once they were playing cards at the horseguardsman Narumov’s’ (Однажды играли в карты у конногвардейца Нарумова) — I’ve used as literal a translation as possible to show the similarity in English, as in Russian it really jumps off the page at you.

To go straight from the reference to writers and readers in ‘Through the Snow’ to such a blatant pastiche of possibly the most famous Russian short story, by Russia’s national poet, fixes the literary theme in the reader’s mind, and this is then developed in various ways in subsequent stories throughout the collections, forming threads which connects back to the final sentence of the first story. The use of writers’ names for characters in certain stories — Zamiatin appears in ‘A Day Off,’ and the main character in ‘Snake Charmer’ is called Platonov — emphasize the suggestion of writing as a theme and creates one such thread. This is particularly the case in ‘Snake Charmer,’ a story about story-telling in the camps, which is also linked to a similar tale, ‘Pain,’ in which an intellectual who becomes a ‘novelist’ (story-teller) for the criminals  ends up being viciously deceived by them. (The idea of a story-teller being a snake charmer is also referred to in ‘How Novels are Spun.’) Another thread is formed via the image of Osip Mandelshtam, directly so in ‘Cherry Brandy,’ which imagines his death from starvation in a transit camp in Vladivostok, and indirectly, with references to his widow Nadezhda in the dedication of ‘Sententious,’ and as the ‘poet’s widow’ to whom the narrator sends a larch twig from Kolyma in the powerful, moving story ‘Resurrection of the Larch’ (a personal favourite). Then there are stories in which poetry is the central activity and theme. In ‘Athenian Nights’ the narrator and a couple of fellow prisoners in a camp hospital hold poetry recitals, and poetry is seen as a basic human activity. ‘The Path’ describes a temporary path through the forest that opens up in the summer months, which Shalamov/the narrator uses as his ‘study’ (rabochii kabinet) where he writes poetry, until he discovers someone else has been there.

This brings us to the second feature of ‘Through the Snow,’ temporary paths. ‘The Path’ acts as a seasonal mirror to ‘Through the Snow’ (and like that first story, it also opens a collection, this time Resurrection of the Larch), and emphasizes the connection between the image of temporary paths to the theme of writing. Temporary paths appear all over the place in Shalamov, from the farcical story retold in both ‘Glove’ and ‘The Raid’ of attempts to build a road through a swamp to a hospital, which involves everyone, patients and hospital staff, prisoners and free workers alike, throwing rocks into the swamp, to the the path disappearing in the flood in ‘A Taming Fire,’ to references to cartographers mapping Kolyma in ‘Graphite.’ There are echoes of that cartographic work as part of the development of the camp system in Kolyma in ‘Alexander Gogoberidze,’ in the mention of the execution camp ‘Serpantinka’: ‘What a name! The road snakes through the hills like a ribbon. So cartographers gave it that name.’ And we’re back to snakes, and my paper on Shalamov’s symbolism gives an interpretation of that cluster of imagery in Shalamov’s stories.

So, from from the very briefest of his stories, and one that has no plot or characters, we have more or less direct connections to a minimum of 15 other stories, and one could no doubt find other links as well. Each of the stories I’ve mentioned then has its own network of connections. ‘Glove,’ for instance, makes great use of the image of fingerprints, which connects it to ‘Dominoes’ and ‘The Green Procurator.’ The figure of the priest in ‘A Day Off’ is very much related to the German pastor Adam Frisorger in ‘The Apostle Paul’ — both stories are very much about the difficulties of maintaining faith in the face of the harsh conditions of the camps and human cruelty. Frisorger then also appears in a number of other stories… The point is that this is potentially an endless task. Most of the tales have large numbers of connections of different types, spreading out across the selections, and even ‘Through the Snow’ can demonstrate how complex this process is. Finding a way of mapping these connections is currently top of my digital wish-list.

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  1. keith kaplon

     /  July 28, 2011

    Enjoy your site and translation “Resurrection of the Larch” very much.

    Do you know of any translations of Shalamov’s poetry into English?

  2. I’m afraid I don’t, but will let you know if anything turns up.

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