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Shalamov’s Symbolism

Rebirth from Kolyma? Shalamov’s Cosmology of Alienation

BASEES Annual Conference, Cambridge 31 March-2 April 2007

It quickly becomes apparent when reading Shalamov that alongside the appearance of fragmentation engendered by the use of the short story form, there are also multiple unifying features. These are frequently linked to varieties of repetition, such as the appearance of recurring characters, images and themes, the re-telling of particular episodes, usually from a different point of view or giving a different context, and even the repeated utterance of specific phrases, which act as forms of incantation. These elements function in different ways, at times appearing in clusters, tying a group of stories together within a collection, and at times creating links between stories greatly distanced from each other by their positions within the collections. In today’s paper I want to examine the significance of one set of recurring symbolism, which forms a frame to two of Shalamov’s collections, Artist of the Spade and Resurrection of the Larch, and punctuates the rest of his work, to provide an overarching motif and create a tension with the fragmentary form.

In the opening paragraph of the story ‘Seizure’, the narrator, in hospital after his release from the camps, describes his disorientation as he experiences an epileptic fit: ‘Then hospital gowns, the corner of a building, the starry sky passed by, and a huge grey turtle rose up, its eyes gleaming indifferently; someone had broken through its ribs, and I was climbing into some sort of hole, clutching and pulling myself up with my hands, trusting only my hands.’1 The unexpectedness of this hallucinatory, primordial image of the giant tortoise is emphasized not only by its appearance in the modern setting of the hospital, but also by its prominent position, as ‘Seizure’ is the first story in Artist of the Spade.

We may view this bizarre image as an isolated oddity, simply a symptom of the illness, until we reach the final story in the same collection, ‘Train’, in which the narrator is making his way back to Moscow following his release. A lucky escape from an encounter with a criminal leads to the observation: ‘Patience and chance—that’s what saved and saves us. And chance came. Two whales, on which the convict’s world stands.’2 The reference to the whale here, although not surreal in quite the same way, seems equally unlikely, again in part because of the context, a story centred on that quintessential symbol of modernity, the railway. It reminds us of the image of the tortoise, and partially explains it, through the hint at its cosmological significance.3 Like the whale, the tortoise is one of the great creatures depicted in myths as bearing the universe on its back; in particular, it features in the creation myths of the Buryat and Altaic peoples of Central Asia and Siberia.4 Moreover, both the tortoise and the whale are frequently seen as containing the whole universe, and symbolizing the connection of the upper and lower worlds, of heaven and hell, or heaven and earth.5 With the tradition of representing Siberia as both heaven and hell going back in Russian literature as far as the Archpriest Avvakum’s Life, written by Himself, the images of the tortoise and the whale are perhaps particularly appropriate symbols for the Siberia of the Gulag and its survivors.6

These two images gain additional significance for two reasons. Firstly, as I have already suggested, they are both placed in emphatic positions. In the letter to I.P. Sirotinskaia that became known as the essay ‘On my Prose’, Shalamov wrote: ‘Like every novelist, I endow the first and final phrases with exceptional significance. Until my brain has found, has formed these two phrases—the first and the final ones—there is no story’,7 and it seems evident that in the ordering of the collections, the first and final stories played an equally important role (for example, Shalamov explains in a letter to Nadezhda Mandel’shtam that the story ‘Train’ has to end the collection Artist of the Spade 8).

Secondly, these two stories contain elements of fantasy so unusual and out of place in Shalamov that we have to pay them close attention. In particular, the picture of the narrator crawling through the hole in the tortoise’s ribs (not its back, as one might expect) may be suggestive of the idea of rebirth (including the hint of Adam’s rib), which we can associate with the narrator’s survival and return to Moscow, although in many ways it is a reversal of rebirth, as the narrator is climbing into rather than out of the tortoise. However, it does so in an almost laughable way, especially in the context of the horrors we read about elsewhere in Shalamov—and one should perhaps recall that Shalamov knew Freud’s work, and was—typically—rather dismissive of it, again placing a question mark against this overtly Freudian symbol. On top of this, the ‘indifferent gleam’ in the tortoise’s eye makes it seem, if anything, even more ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the reference to the whales shows us how limited and degraded the convicts’ world truly is: from the complexity of a universe to two basic values. Both symbols are in fact parodic and deflating, denying rather than affirming cosmic or universal significance, and rendering the notion of rebirth absurd. Meaning is thus implied, and simultaneously denied, destabilizing the text whilst appearing to provide a structuring principle, leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty.

The positioning of the two images at the beginning and end of the collection further undermines the rebirth motif and the possibility of meaning, because of their place in the chronology of the collections as a whole. Both stories refer to the period following the author’s release—they are the only stories in the collection to do so—and, most significantly, the final story, ‘Train’, about the journey home from Siberia, takes place before the opening story, ‘Seizure’. Thus while the stories within the collection may zigzag back and forth throughout the whole period of the author’s imprisonment, the stories which frame the collection specifically deny any progression in the narrative, in spite of the presence in the final story of the railway, with its connotations of forward, linear movement. Instead, a sense of circularity is created, trapping the reader; the only way we can go forward, as the image of the train suggests we must, is in fact to go back to the beginning of the collection and start again. Thus the symbolism of the tortoise and the whale is transformed to denote instead the imprisoning totality of the Gulag system, in all its colossal inescapability and incomprehensibility.9 Suggestions of rebirth are thus inseparable from the idea that the former prisoner will never in fact be completely free of the experience, but is instead trapped within the memories of it, and will continue repeatedly to relive it. The hints of the presence of an eternal world initially implied by the use of cosmological symbolism thus takes on a new, corrupted, negative meaning: not the possibility of life everlasting, but the fact of a never-ending, living nightmare.

Although the tortoise and the whale do not appear elsewhere in Shalamov’s work, the snake, which is frequently connected to both these creatures as a polyvalent, and thus ambiguous, symbol predominant in creation myths, is an important and recurring image in the Kolyma Tales. In the first place, it is ‘as different from all animal species as the human race, but at the opposite end of the scale’,10 and is thus perhaps a very apt comparison for the total alienation of the convict who has lost the sense of his own—and others’—humanity. Secondly, from its first appearance in the story ‘Snake Charmer’, the snake is strongly connected with the idea of story-telling, and therefore takes on a particular significance in relation to the discourse of witness testimony. The story is about an intellectual, Platonov, who survived in a notoriously brutal camp by telling ‘novels’ to criminals. The story-telling element is doubly emphasized by the presence of a frame narrative in which Platonov tells the narrator his plan to write the story ‘Snake Charmer’ if he survives; however, he dies a couple of weeks after this conversation, and the narrator decides to write the story for him.

The reference to the story-teller as snake-charmer is repeated in one of Shalamov’s Essays on the Criminal World, ‘How Novels are Pulled’,11 suggesting strongly the link found repeatedly in classical symbolism between serpents and art and inspiration,12 and this idea also features in two further, very important stories. In ‘First Tooth’ there is again a prominent metanarrational element, as two convicts discuss different possibilities of how to end the story, while the main impetus for the story itself is the narrator’s defence of a disturbed religious sectarian among the convicts, who is beaten for shouting ‘Dragons, dragons!13 — the myth of the dragon of course arising out of the uncanny image of the snake.

In ‘Glove’, the opening story of the final collection, the narrator, losing the skin on his hands as a result of pellagra, a disease of malnutrition, states, “I, like a snake, abandoned my old skin in the snow.’14 In this story, the central preoccupation is the narrator’s identity as a writer, and whether the transformed hand with its new skin is in fact the same hand that experienced the horrors of Kolyma. The old hand could not even hold a pen to write, but the right of the reborn hand to write about the old hand’s life is questionable. Again here, the notion of rebirth associated with survival is simultaneously proposed and undermined, but is now more firmly associated with the figure of the writer and the question of how to bear witness to this experience.

Snakes appear in various other guises in the six collections, such as in a description of a wheelbarrow gangway in a mine (‘Wheelbarrow II’) and, significantly, as a comparison for the winding mountain road which gave its name to the dreaded execution camp at Serpantinka, in ‘Aleksandr Gogoberidze’, thus connecting snakes definitely with the idea of destruction in addition to the creative connotations they are given elsewhere.

This duality of the creative and destructive aspects of the snake is foregrounded towards the end of in Resurrection of the Larch, in the stories ‘Waterfall’ and ‘A Taming Fire’, where a further cluster of references, in an altogether different context, appears, developing a new layer of associations. The stories are unusual for two reasons. In the first place they stand out because of their apparently positive evocations of the natural world—there are perhaps only half a dozen other stories in the whole of the six collections which deal solely with nature, and there are no others placed side-by-side in this way. Secondly, both stories refer to the same phenomenon, and nowhere else do repetitions of this type occur in adjacent stories. The phenomenon in question is the appearance on Kolyma of magical, gigantic mushrooms following the torrential summer rains. Watching them grow before his eyes is almost an hallucinatory experience (for the reader as well), and in both cases the narrator emphasizes the bizarre quality of the mushrooms by comparing them to snakes: ‘In forest glades, frightening people, unnaturally enormous boletus mushrooms rise up with slippery snake-like skins, multi-coloured snake-like skins—red, blue, yellow…’15; ‘…monstrous, slippery, colourful boletus mushrooms with cold slippery caps there were growing. The mushrooms seemed cold, like cold-blooded living creatures, like snakes—like whatever you want, only not mushrooms.’16

Juxtaposing the snake reference here to the mushrooms brings together all the connotations of both images, and creates an even greater proliferation of meaning than that already associated with the snake in particular. Among other things, uniting these images confirms the ambiguous nature of mushrooms as symbols; in themselves they represent both sustenance (even food for the gods) and poison, but now they are also connected to the idea of temptation,17 which leads the narrator astray in the latter story, and almost causes his death, whilst at the same time giving a moment of freedom. Mushrooms further suggest not only the destructive power of the nuclear explosion18 (an image to which Shalamov refers more than once as another of the twentieth century’s greatest evils), but also the idea of resurrection, in the notion they evoke of life appearing out of death; for Siberian Tungus tribes, as well as in parts of Eastern Europe, mushrooms represent the reincarnated souls of the dead dropped back to earth from the moon.19

Both snakes and mushrooms have particular associations with water, and when the two are combined, the power of water in the stories grows, with around fifty repetitions of the words ‘rain’ and ‘water’. The baptismal connotations of the destructive flood waters in the forest emphasize the notion of rebirth/regeneration already raised by the mushrooms which the water brings to life, again endowing the imagery with a strong sense that creation is only found in the potential for destruction.

The snake imagery in ‘A Taming Fire’ is not confined to the strange mushrooms the narrator sees growing, but is also raised in relation to the destructive power of fire: ‘A bright yellow flame would scamper through the dry grass, which would shake and stir as if a snake were crawling through it. But there are no snakes on Kolyma.’20 This reference further broadens the scope of the story’s symbolism and the possibility of multiple meanings, whilst again highlighting specifically the unity of the properties of destruction and resurrection inherent in all its components—fire and water (an alternative title for the story, incidentally), mushrooms and snakes. To complete the circle, back in ‘Glove’, the hand which shed the old skin is described as being not only snake-like, but also fire-like: ‘Wasn’t that fire of new skin, the pink flame of ten candles on a frostbitten hand, a miracle?’<21 The hand becomes not only a serpent capable of the act of creation, but equally a phoenix rising from the ashes. However, through the additional layers of meaning these symbols have attracted, the works created by this hand may also be so full of potential meaning as to deny meaning altogether.

Following ‘A Taming Fire’, in the final story of the collection, the one which gives it its name, ‘Resurrection of the Larch’, and itself reaffirms the resurrection motif, the narrator asserts: ‘We invent symbols for ourselves and live by these symbols.’22 In the previous story, which acts as the point of intersection for all these related symbols, perhaps more so than anywhere else in Shalamov, we see the development and fruits of this process. It shifts the focus of the stories from the materiality of the actual experience of the convict on Kolyma to the idea of memory, and the role of the imagination in reconstructing that experience in a literary text. This change, and the move towards the examination of inner life suggested by the contact with the natural world described in these stories, is affirmed by the narrator’s statement in ‘A Taming Fire’, ‘But there are no snakes on Kolyma.’ The imagery they contain is given fantastical status—rather like that of the tortoise and the whale, and the universes they support in the previous collection—and can only be a product of the imagination. This is not the unadorned reality of Kolyma, but the partially invented world of the snake-charmer, who must tell stories in order to survive.

Andrei Siniavskii, turning his own experience of prison in the 1960s into literary texts (I am thinking here not only of Voice from the Chorus but also Strolls with Pushkin), suggests that the convict, cut off from normal life, must become alert to the cycles of the natural world in order to find freedom and be transformed into a writer.23 For Siniavskii-Terts, this transformation seems to be a wholly positive process, a release from the darker aspects of imprisonment into a new creative (and created) identity. In Shalamov, on the other hand, contact with the natural world may have its positive side, but, in particular as it relates to the inner world of the convict, it always simultaneously contains strong elements of the uncanny, and the threat of chaos and total destruction, rather than freedom. Above all, the ever-expanding constellation of meaning surrounding the polyvalent image of the serpent is significant because it connects the possibility of creation specifically to the fact of destruction. It suggests ways in which the survivor, unable to escape this limbo of rebirth-reliving, can come back to life to some extent through the act of bearing witness, but at the same time reflects the dangers of attempting to do so. In this context the snake-charmer is not a privileged or powerful figure, but is in fact in the most vulnerable position, as this essential process of self-rejuvenation through writing-reliving may result not in catharsis, but in the final demise of the survivor.

What emerges is therefore not a playful alter-ego like that of Siniavskii’s buoyant creation Abram Terts, but rather a non-ego in a primeval world, in which identity and meaning are constantly subverted, reworked and effaced, creating a constant sense of dislocation for both writer and reader. For Shalamov, the result is the fractured form of his short story collections, where recurring incidents, characters and images undermine the stability of the text through constant shifts of meaning. For the reader, it leads to an acknowledgement of the inability truly to comprehend and share the horror of that experience; we, thankfully, perhaps, must remain alienated from it, and the snake, coiling around the stories, stands, finally, as an image not only of that world and its recreation in narrative, but also of the alienated reader.


1 «Потом замелькали халаты, угол дома, звездное небо, возникла огромная серая черепаха, глаза ее блестели равнодушно; кто-то выломал ребро черепахи, и я вполз в какую-то нору, цепляясь и подтягиваясь на руках, доверяя только рукам.» Varlam Shalamov, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Terra-Knizhnyi klub, 2004), 1, 409

2 «Терпение и случай—вот что спасало и спасает нас. И случай пришел. Два кита, на которых стоит арестантский мир.» Shalamov, 1, 651.

3 This is not, in fact, the first appearance of a creation myth in Shalamov’s stories; in ‘Children’s Pictures’, in his first collection, a different story is retold, relating specifically to the creation of Siberia: «Я вспомнил старую северную легенду о боге, который был еще ребенком, когда создавал тайгу. Красок было немного, краски были по-ребячески чисты, рисунки просты и ясны, сюжеты их немудреные. После, когда бог вырос, стал взрослым, он научился вырезать причудливые узоры листвы, выдумал множество разноцветных птиц. Детский мир надоел богу, и он закидал снегом таежное свое творенье и ушел на юг навсегда. Так говорила легенда.» Shalamov, 1, 107-8.

4 Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 1017.

5 The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, pp. 1018, 1097.

6 See in particular the essays in Between Heaven and Hell: The Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture, ed. Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993)

7 «Как и всякий новеллист, я придаю чрезвычайное значение первой и последней фразе. Пока в мозгу не найдены, не сформулированы эти две фразы—первая и последняя—рассказа нет.» Shalamov, 6, 491.

8 Shalamov, 6, 412.

9 Siniavskii also uses the whale image in this sense, in Voice from the Chorus.

10 The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 844.

11 Shalamov, 2, 102.

12 The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 851.

13 Shalamov, 1, 620.

14 «Я, как змей, сбросил в снегу свою старую кожу», Shalamov, 2, 284-5.

15 «на лесных полянках поднимаются, пугая людей, неестественно огромные маслята со скользкими змеиными шкурами, пестрыми змеиными шкурами—красные, синие, желтые…», Shalamov, ‘Waterfall’, 2, 270.

16 «…заросли чудовищных скользких разноцветных маслят с шляпкой скользкой и холодной. Грибы казались холодными, холоднокровными, живыми существами, вроде змей,—чем угодно, только не грибами», Shalamov, ‘A Taming Fire’, 2, 273.

17 See Nathaniel Golden, Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales”: A Formalist Analysis (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004), p. 174.

18 Jack Tresidder, ed., The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Myth, Art and Literature (London: Duncan Baird, 2004), p. 331.

19 The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 687.

20 «По сухой траве пробегало светлое, желтое пламя. Трава колебалась, шевелилась, как будто там пробежала змея. Но змеи на Колыме не водятся», Shalamov, 2, 273.

21 «Тот огонь новой кожи, розовое пламя десятисвечника отмороженных рук разве не был чудом?», Shalamov, 2, 284.

22 «Мы придумываем себе символы и этими символы живем», Shalamov, 2, 277.

23 Abram Terts (Andrei Siniavskii), Sobranie sochinenii v 2 t. (Moscow: Start, 1992), 1, 364, 388.

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This work by Sarah J. Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at sarahjyoung.com.

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