"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Robert Chandler


A reader who knows only a few stories from Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales may well think of Shalamov as a realist; he may even imagine the Kolyma Tales to be simply a factual account of Shalamov’s experiences. The events described in each individual story do indeed seem entirely real. Only when we read further, when we try to grasp the whole of this vast cycle of stories, do we begin to realize that its truth can never be grasped; we begin, at last, to sense the terrible unreality of the survivor’s world. Successive narrators suffer identical fates, their stories intertwine impossibly, and time stands still. This fusion of realism and the surreal is part of what endows Kolyma Tales with such extraordinary power.

Shalamov plays in several ways with a reader’s initial assumption that he is reading a memoir: one of the more obvious examples of his enjoyment of literary artifice is the way he names his characters. Some bear the names of historical figures - e.g. Pugachev; some bear the names of literary creations - e.g. Vronsky. Sometimes, a historical or fictional name is slightly distorted: the story 'On tick', for example, begins with a distorted quotation from Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'. The story 'Cherry-Brandy' is an example of something slightly different: the story bears the title of a poem by Mandelstam, it includes direct quotations from Mandelstam’s poetry, and it appears to be an account of the poet’s death. But Mandelstam's name is never directly mentioned; it is as if the poet has become anonymous, as if he has dissolved into his own archetype. The heroes of several other stories, on the other hand, are given the names of well-known Russian writers - Andreev, Zamyatin, Platonov - even though, in reality, these particular writers were neither arrested nor sent to the camps.

This play with names can be understood at a number of levels. To some extent, it reflects the reality of the camps: camp storytellers and members of the camp criminal fraternity, were sometimes given such nicknames as ‘Pushkin’ or ‘Shakespeare’. It is also reminiscent of the Divina Commedia, which is populated largely by literary, political and religious figures from mediaeval Italy; Kolyma thus becomes a C20 manifestation of Dante’s hell, and the individual characters are linked to the archetypal tragedies of Russian history. Dante himself, however, is always concerned not only with archetypes, but with specific issues; throughout all three canticles of the Commedia he argues with his characters about a variety of controversies. What I wish to discuss now is the possibility that in his story ‘The Snake Charmer’ Shalamov is engaged, in similar fashion, in an argument with Andrey Platonov. 

The story begins with the following paragraph:

We were sitting on an enormous larch that had been felled by a storm. In permafrost, trees can barely grip the inhospitable earth and it’s easy for a storm to uproot them and lay them flat on the ground. Platonov was telling me the story of his life here - our second life in this world. I frowned at the mention of the Dzhankhara mine. I had been in some bad and difficult places myself, but the terrible fame of Dzhankhara resounded far and near.

The image of the fallen larch prefigures the death, soon to be narrated, of this fictional 'Platonov'. It can also, tentatively, be read as a reversal of a recurrent image from the work of the real Platonov: that of a tree or plant clinging determinedly onto life despite the most adverse conditions. Soon after the introduction of the name ‘Platonov’, we hear of a terrible mine called Dzhankhara. It is probable that this name - as far as I can make out, there was no historical Dzhankhara - is a play on two different real names: Dzhelgala and Dzhan. Dzhelgala is the name of the notorious gold mine where Shalamov worked in 1943; Dzhan, of course, is the title of a short novel by Platonov. ‘The Snake Charmer’ was written in 1954, before the first publication of Dzhan. Shalamov, however, after being arrested for the first time in 1929, was released in 1931. Between then and 1937 he was allowed to live in Moscow and to work as a journalist. He would probably have heard that Platonov was writing a book called Dzhan; it is even conceivable that he saw a typescript or heard passages read out loud. This, however, is supposition. Shalamov is deliberately leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty: the reader can neither be confident that Shalamov has the real Platonov in mind, nor can he be unaware of this possibility.

Shalamov's narrator goes on to recount a conversation with this fictional 'Platonov'. 'Platonov', we learn, survived Dzhankhara because of his gift for storytelling. He told stories at night to the criminals; 'in exchange’ he says, ‘they fed and clothed me and I worked less'. The narrator asserts, with a severity which appears surprising, that he himself was never a storyteller: to him, that ‘always seemed the ultimate humiliation, the end.' He refuses, however, to criticize 'Platonov'. 'Platonov' continues:

‘If I stay alive' - this was the sacred formula that prefaced all reflections concerning any time beyond the next day - ‘I’ll write a story about it. I’ve already thought of a title: ‘The Snake Charmer’. Do you like it?’

‘Yes, I do. You just have to stay alive. That’s the main thing.’

Andrey Fyodorovich Platonov, a scriptwriter in his first life, died about three weeks after this conversation (...)

I loved Platonov because he didn’t lose interest in the life beyond the blue seas and the high mountains, the life we were cut off from by so many miles and years and in whose existence we hardly believed any longer (...) Platonov, God knows how, even had some books, and when it wasn’t very cold, in July for example, he would avoid the kind of conversation that usually kept us all going - what kind of soup we had had or would be having for supper, would bread be given out three times a day or just once in the morning, would it be rainy or clear the next day...

I loved Platonov, and I shall try now to write down his story: ‘The Snake Charmer’.

In only 15 lines, the surname 'Platonov' is mentioned four times, and the name 'Andrey' once; we also learn that 'Platonov' used to be a scriptwriter and that his patronymic is Fyodorovich. By now the initially uncertain evidence for a connection between ‘Platonov’ and Platonov has become overwhelming: the real Platonov wrote several film scripts, and Fyodorov, the C19 philosopher, can be seen as a spiritual father of Platonov’s. Shalamov, in fact, goes to surprising lengths to emphasize the importance of ‘Platonov’s’ name and surname. Towards the end of the story there is an exchange, quite unnecessary to the plot, between Fedya, the boss of the criminal fraternity, and one of his henchmen; Fedya asks ‘Platonov’s’ name and receives the answer ‘Andrey’. It is also worth remarking that the narrator, after introducing ‘Platonov’, could easily have presented the story in ‘Platonov’s’ own words; instead, he tells the story himself. This choice of narrative strategy allows the surname ‘Platonov’ to be repeated forty times in less than six pages.

There may also, incidentally, be some irony around the choice of patronymic: it is unlikely that the tough-minded Shalamov would have had much time for Fyodorov and his philosophizing about the physical resurrection of all our forefathers. Nevertheless, Shalamov’s narrator makes it clear that he felt more than respect for ‘Platonov’: in the context of the loveless world of Kolyma Tales, the repeated words, 'I loved Platonov' are startling.

But why, if Shalamov respected and loved Platonov, did he transport his fictional counterpart to Kolyma and subject him to humiliation at the hands of the camp criminals? The answer, I think, leads us to one of Shalamov’s central themes, his belief that the tradition of liberal, humanistic Russian literature had given birth to terrible delusions; this tradition, he believed, was responsible for the catastrophe of 1917. And he understood that his criticisms of the tradition would carry more weight if they were levelled at one of its finest representatives - like Platonov - rather than at a lesser writer. 

The first of Shalamov’s criticisms is that Platonov is too ready to indulge in loose talk about ‘the soul’. Shalamov prepares the ground for this theme in the first paragraph of the story; this is why he alludes to Platonov’s Dzhan. Dzhan is a Persian word that has been adopted by the Turkic languages of Central Asia; its meaning is ‘soul’. The Dzhan, according to Platonov, are able to survive because they have not - in spite of everything - lost their souls. Platonov makes this explicit in a passage from the penultimate chapter:

It was their shared name, given to them long ago by the rich beys, because dzhan means soul and these poor, dying men had nothing they could call their own but their souls, that is, the ability to feel and suffer. The word Dzhan, therefore, was a gibe, a joke made by the rich at the expense of the poor. The beys thought that soul meant only despair, but in the end it was their dzhan that was the death of them; they had too little dzhan of their own, too little capacity to feel, suffer, think and struggle. They had too little of the wealth of the poor.

In ‘The Snake Charmer’ Shalamov cruelly makes his ‘Platonov’ a mouthpiece for an entirely opposite way of thinking. It is as if the camps have re-educated the historical Platonov, forcing him to adopt what Shalamov believes to be a more truthful vision:

It often seems, and probably it is true, that man rose up out of the animal kingdom, (...) simply because he had greater physical endurance than any other animal. What made an ape into a human being was not its hand, not its embryonic brain, not its soul (my emphasis - R.C.) (...) what saves man is his sense of self-preservation, the tenacity - the physical tenacity - with which he clings onto life (...) What keeps him alive is the same as what keeps a stone, a tree, a bird or a dog alive. But his grip on life is stronger than theirs. (...)

Platonov was thinking about all this as he stood by the gate with a log on his shoulder, waiting for the next roll-call. 

Shalamov’s second criticism of Platonov is that his humanistic leanings threaten to lead him into a kind of moral blindness. The following passage comes from the last page of ‘The Snake Charmer’. Fedya has just asked the exhausted ‘Platonov’ to tell him a story; 'Platonov' is wondering how to respond: 

Should he become court jester to the Duke of Milan - a jester who was fed for a good jest and beaten for a bad one? But there was another way of looking at it all. He would teach them about real literature. He would enlighten them. He would awaken in them an interest in art, in the word; even here, in the lower depths, he would do his duty, fulfil his calling. As had long been his way, Platonov did not want to admit to himself that it was simply a matter of being fed, of receiving an extra bowl of soup not for carrying out a slop bucket, but for other, more dignified work. More dignified? No, he wouldn’t really be an enlightener - he would be more like someone scratching a criminal’s dirty heels. But the cold, the beatings, the hunger...

Trying to justify his own behaviour to himself, ‘Platonov’ nearly slips into a dangerous romanticism, with regard both to the criminals and to his own position in relation to them. It is important, however, to note that ‘Platonov’ does not quite succeed in his attempt at self-delusion. As in his other argument with himself, he eventually comes round to what Shalamov sees as a more truthful view. 

We know that Shalamov greatly admired The Foundation Pit when he read it in samizdat in the seventies. It is easy to imagine that he would have admired The Locks of Epifan, along with other works that Platonov published in the late twenties. It is equally easy to imagine Shalamov looking askance at Platonov's stories from the late thirties and the war years; he would probably have considered them sentimental. From the evidence of ‘The Snake Charmer’, Shalamov seems to have considered that, just as the fictional ‘Platonov’ tried to delude himself about his reasons for telling stories to the criminals in the camps, so the historical Platonov may have deluded himself about his reasons for telling, or trying to tell, the stories required by the criminals who held power in the Soviet Union as a whole. 

A reader may well feel that no one, not even a man who suffered as much as Shalamov, has the right to make such judgments. ‘The Snake Charmer’, however, is only one fragment of the complex mosaic of Kolyma Tales; it cannot be fully understood unless juxtaposed with a later story, Pain, which explores similar themes in greater depth. The hero of Pain, Shelgunov, has been brought up according to the noblest traditions of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Like ‘Platonov’, he becomes a storyteller to the camp criminals; like ‘Platonov’, he wants to survive. Unlike ‘Platonov’, however, he slips irreversibly into self-delusion. His will to survive, co-opting his liberal belief in the possibility of spreading enlightenment, blinds him to the enormity of the evil represented by the criminals. And he pays dearly for this willed blindness: his illiterate criminal ‘protectors’ trick him - just for fun, or perhaps out of jealousy - into writing a letter that leads his own wife to commit suicide. Pain, perhaps the most tragic of all Shalamov’s stories, explains why the narrator of ‘The Snake Charmer’ chose to keep his distance from the camp criminals. Shalamov himself, apparently, attributed his own survival not only to good luck and an unusually strong constitution, but also to his refusal to compromise; it was only after reading Pain that I began to understand what might have led him to say this. Shalamov is, in effect, saying that he would not have survived if he had lost his soul; as we have seen, however, he preferred to avoid such language.

Shalamov and Platonov portray worlds in which an extraordinary degree of cruelty is seen as commonplace. In other respects, however, these two great writers are antithetical to one another. While Platonov takes us deep inside both the bodies and souls of his characters, Shalamov portrays his characters from the outside. And while Platonov makes the reader identify even with a mass murderer, Shalamov warns that evil is evil and it is wisest to keep as far away from it as you can.

Shalamov has drawn our attention to something so important about Platonov that it is difficult to remember that, at the time of writing ‘The Snake Charmer’, he had almost certainly not read Platonov’s most important works. His argument with Platonov is, of course, an age-old argument that can never be resolved: how should we behave when confronted with evil? By attempting to understand evil, we risk growing over-tolerant, over-ready to accept it; if, however, we refuse to attempt to understand it, we risk slipping into self-righteousness, into imagining that evil always lies out there rather than in here. The heroes of Chevengur are sometimes so endearing that the reader can easily forget they are mass-murderers; the world of Kolyma Tales, though still more brutal, is less morally ambiguous. I can understand how Marina Tarkovskaya, who once told me that she finds Platonov too painful to read, has written that Kolyma Tales is a book, like the Bible, that should be read by everyone. At the same time, I am moved not only by the unique open-mindedness and open-heartedness of Platonov’s own work, but also by Shalamov’s portrayal of a Platonov he twice tells us he loved, a Platonov who ‘didn’t lose interest in the life beyond the blue seas and the high mountains’.


[First Published in Esssays in Poetics (Keele University), Autumn 2002, vol. 27; a Russian translation is included in the article 'Platonov v prostranstvakh russkoi kul'tury' in Tvorchestvo Andreya Platonova, vol 3 (Sankt Peterburg: Nauka, 2004), p. 170-86]

I wish to express my gratitude to the following: Maria Dmitrovskaya, for her encouragement, without which I would not have started this article, and for her countless helpful suggestions; Nathaniel Wilkinson, who has greatly deepened my understanding of Shalamov and from whom I have borrowed many of the ideas, and even words, in the first paragraph; and Igor Golomstock, who first drew my attention, nearly 30 years ago, to the Kolyma Tales. Hafiza Andreeva, Paul Gallagher, Eric Lozowy, and Elena Mikhailik have all helped with particular difficulties. Quotations from 'The Snake Charmer' are from the translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Nathaniel Wilkinson in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics). Quotations from 'Soul' are from the translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson and Eric Naiman in Soul and Other Stories (NYRB Classics).