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Varlam Shalamov and the art of defecation

With apologies to any readers of a sensitive disposition, this is an important subject. Pretty much every Gulag narrative makes mention of the primitive toilet facilities and prison cells and camps – the ubiquitous and foul-smelling parasha (slop bucket) and arrangements for its emptying – and there are plenty of references to feelings of shame at the lack of privacy they afforded, but most narratives draw the line there. This is hardly a surprise – a taboo surrounding bodily functions means that we frequently receive a strangely sanitized view of camp life which, for all the filth it depicts and disgust it may evoke, seldom in fact challenges the boundaries of taste.

Not so in the stories of Shalamov, where we read unflinching descriptions of the bowel movements and meagre fecal productions of the dokhodiaga (goner). But Shalamov’s matter-of-fact reflections on defecation are neither gratuitous nor random; they are connected specifically with the theme of writing. In his article ‘Les corps de la mémoire,’ Eric Lozowy notes that in the story ‘Perchatka‘ (Glove), the description of the medical assistant recording on a table the consistency and frequency of the author’s stools, in order to produce a diagnosis of dysentery or pellagra, are connected to the wider themes in the story of writing the illness and, in receiving a diagnosis, recovering identity as a writer. The documenting of the stools is also linked to Shalamov’s fundamental idea of the prose of the document, as expressed in his letters and essays.

In the little-known tale ‘Afinskie nochi‘ (Athenian Nights) – like ‘Perchatka’ from the final collection, and one of the last stories Shalamov wrote – this connection gains an additional dimension. At the start of the story, returning to life after the medical courses have given him a future, the author begins to think about camp existence:

In Utopia Thomas More defines four basic human feelings, the satisfaction of which leads to the highest bliss in More’s terms. In first place More puts hunger — the satisfaction of having eaten food; the second most powerful feeling is sexual; the third is urination, the fourth defecation.
It was precisely of these four feelings that we were deprived in the camp. (Shalamov, 2:410)

Thereby positing a grotesque body in Rabelaisian mode, Shalamov’s subsequent treatment of the breakdown of these feelings denies any carnivalesque interpretation that might suggest a celebration of life and the human. On the subject of defecation, to which he devotes most space, he writes:

Emptying your bowels is no easy task for a goner. Doing up your trousers in fifty degrees of frost is beyond your strength, and in any case a goner empties his bowels once every five days, refuting physiology, and even pathophysiology textbooks. The expulsion of dry pellets of faeces — the organism had wrung out everything that might maintain life.
No goner obtains any enjoyment, any pleasant feeling, from defecation. […] The cunning half-beast detainee uses defecation to gain a rest, a breather on the via dolorosa to the gold mine. The only ruse detainees have in the battle with the might of the state, with its million-strong army of soldier-escorts, social organizations and state institutions. The goner opposes this great power with the instinct of his own arse. […]
Attempts to have a rest, take down one’s trousers and squat for a second, for a moment, less than a second, to distract oneself from the torment of work, are worthy of respect. […] [N]ovices sometimes take this illegal form of rest, steal minutes of the working day from the state.
And then the escort intervenes, bayonet in hand, to expose the dangerous criminal malingerer. In the spring 1938 at the gold face of the ‘Partizan’ mine I myself was witness to a guard brandishing his bayonet at my comrade:
– Show your shit! It’s the third time you’ve sat down. Where’s your shit? – accusing a half-dead goner of malingering.
They didn’t find any shit.
The goner Serezha Klivansky, my university comrade, second violinist at the Stanislavski Theatre, was accused of sabotage, illegal rest during defecation in a sixty-degree frost, accused of holding up the work of the section, the brigade, the zone, the mine, the region, the state […].
There really was no shit in Serezha’s bowels; but there were urges ‘down below’. But you would have to have been a medic, and not a Kolyma medic, but someone from the capital, from the mainland, someone pre-revolutionary, to understand all that and explain it to someone else. Here was Serezha, waiting to be shot for the simple reason that there turned out to be no shit in his bowels. […]
My argument with Thomas More dragged on, but it was coming to an end. All these four feelings that had been trampled, demolished, crushed — their destruction wasn’t the end of life. They were all resurrected. After resurrection — only a distorted, ugly resurrection of each of these four feelings — a camp inmate sits above the ‘hole’, feeling with interest something soft crawling along his ulcerated bowel, painlessly, but gently, warmly, as if his faeces are somehow sorry to part with his gut. The faeces fall into the pit with a spatter, a splash — faeces float for a long time on the surface in the cesspit, unable to find their place: it’s a start, a miracle. (2:411-2)

Just when you wonder where the story is taking such contemplations – like several other tales in the final collection, it is quite loosely constructed in comparison with his earlier works – it changes direction completely:

More acute than thoughts about eating, about food, a new feeling appears, a new demand, completely forgotten by Thomas More in his crude classification of the four feelings.
The fifth feeling is the demand for poetry. (2:413)

With poetry thus defined as a physical need, Shalamov then discusses poetry evenings he organized with two other convicts at the hospital in Debin where he was working as a medical assistant in the late 1940s. And while the description of the three men reciting poetry to each other in the dressing station is both fascinating and charming, its relationship to the preceding matter, in a story whose title alludes to classical notions of art and culture, sticks most firmly in the mind.

What is significant here, first of all, is the common movement from the internal to the external, which gives both memory and writing physical dimensions – as we also see in the letter from 1971 that was published as the essay ‘O moei proze’ (On my Prose), where everything must forced out (vytalkivaetsia) from the brain like a contraction of the heart muscle (6:497). It emphasizes the writing of his ‘new prose’ as a purely internal process – this is not a subject for the muses – and designates the memory and the narration of the labour camp experience as excrement, precious as affirmations of both the life and the disease, but nevertheless the waste product of that existence. Placing the source of literature within physical being renders the former ambivalent, all the more so as the status of the body from which it emerges is equally uncertain. The image in ‘Perchatka’ of the skin being shed ‘like a snake’ (2:284) – a symptom of pellagrous dermatitis – relates evacuation to the outer rather than the inner body, to suggest that the body is turned inside out by the physical hardship of the camps, and that the skin is ridding itself of the destroyed person, rather than the person of the damaged skin.

Moreover, ‘Afinskie nochi’ posits a connection between the sublime and the farcical,  as the poetry evenings that focus on the lyric poets of the early twentieth century are parodied in Klivansky’s abject ‘performance’ before the guards. The reference to his former job at the Stanislavski Theatre implies that the unsuccessful act of defecation is his emotional memory, which again suggests the loss of inner being, in both the physical and emotional senses. Shalamov here brings together the most rarefied with most material aspects of humanity to affirm the co-existence of both extremes of experience – an unusual moment in the stories, which more often deny the possibility of anything positive arising out of the camps. But that is not to imply an entirely rosy view. Just before sketching the scene with Klivansky, Shalamov asserts that there can be no comedy in the camp theme (2:411), so the black humour of the anecdote reinforces the humiliation of the private becoming the public – another way in which the inner is turned outwards – by subverting the reader’s sense of empathy with the victim, reduced to his physical (mal)functions and further victimized because of these.

I would suggest that defecation for Shalamov becomes not only emblematic of the physical condition of prisoners, but also, because of the expulsive movement, central to the problem of literature produced as a result of the camp experience. Such writing comes not from without, through the descent of poetic inspiration (it is notable in the story that although they are all writing poetry, the three convicts read others’ works rather than their own, creating a separation from their present situation), but solely from within. But can the corrupted and broken body from which it is expelled produce other than a deformed literature? It probably depends what one means by that, but for me one of the reasons Shalamov is such an extraordinary writer is the bravery with which he faces and incorporates both the deformation, and his own reflections upon it, in his stories.


Eric Lozowy, ‘Les corps de la mémoire. Écriture et corporalité dans l’oeuvre de Chalamov’, Zagadnienia rodzajów literackich/Les Problèmes des genres littéraires, 43.1-2 (2000), 99-113

Varlam Shalamov, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Terra, 2004)

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  1. XIXVEK’s response to my post, looking at the Thomas More reference in Shalamov, is wondering and really worth reading. Here’s the comment I posted on that blog:
    Many thanks for this response. My (rather poorly expressed) point about Rabelais is simply that Shalamov is projecting a different type of grotesque body from the way it is usually considered. In Return from the Archipelago, Leona Toker tries to incorporate this difference by describing the Gulag body in terms of the opposite of the carnivalesque, positing a Lenten trope. I don’t think this works, not least because it attempts to Christianize Shalamov, which to me seems unwarranted, at least in relation to his prose (his poetry may be a different matter, but she is talking about his prose, and in any case grotesque bodies are not a prominent subject of his poetry), but also because the whole idea of the Lenten does not really seem to tell us anything significant – and it’s notable that within work on Gulag narratives, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else engage with it.
    On the other hand, even if unsuccessful, it is one of the very few attempts to conceptualize the type of grotesque body Shalamov projects. In the work that has been done, as far as I know, the Thomas More connection has not been addressed at all. It is indeed an odd and distorted view, and I don’t think I’ve got a complete handle on what he’s doing here yet (perhaps he didn’t either; the looseness of many of the stories in the final collection convey a sense of the author trying to conceptualize the experience, and not altogether succeeding). To some extent I think it’s simply about the perversion of the camps – the feeling that returns is ugly and distorted, and the possibility of happiness is gone forever (and therefore, so much for the Socialist Utopian project as a whole). Moreover, if everything remains distorted, then ideas are too, and the treatment of More is a necessary result of that. So we’re back to the problem of writing, and how one encapsulates that experience whilst remaining true to the feelings associated with it.

  1. Thomas More in a labor camp « XIX век

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