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Varlam Shalamov
Translation by Sarah J. Young 
'Translating Shalamov' by Sarah J. Young in 'Cardinal Points'

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Varlam Shalamov

We are superstitious. We demand miracles. We invent symbols for ourselves and live by these symbols.

A man in the Far North seeks an outlet for his sensitivity — still not destroyed, still not poisoned even by decades of life in Kolyma. A man sends a parcel by airmail: not books, not photographs, not verse, but a larch twig, a dead twig of living nature.

This strange gift, dried out, blown by the currents of aeroplanes, crushed and broken on the mail train, a light brown, coarse, bony northern twig of a northern tree, is placed in water.

It is placed in a jam jar filled with evil chlorinated, antiseptic Moscow tap water, water that itself, perhaps, is also glad to dry out everything living — deadly Moscow tap water.

Larches are more serious than flowers. In this room there are many flowers, bright flowers. Here bouquets of cherry, bouquets of lilac are placed in hot water, the stems split and dipped in boiling water.

The larch stands in cold water, water that has scarcely been warmed at all. The larch lived closer to the Black Creek than all these flowers, all these sprigs — the cherries, the lilacs.

The woman who lives here understands this. The larch understands it too.

Submitting to passionate human will, the twig gathers all its strength — physical and spiritual, for a twig cannot be resurrected from physical forces alone: the Moscow warmth, the chlorinated water, the indifferent glass jar. In the twig, other, mysterious forces are awakened.

Three days and three nights pass, and the woman is woken by a strange, elusive smell of turpentine, a weak, faint smell, a new smell. In the coarse wooden bark there had appeared, emerged clearly into the world new, young, living, bright green spines of fresh pine needles.

The larch is alive, the larch is immortal, this miracle of resurrection cannot but be — for the larch was placed in the jar of water on the anniversary of the death in Kolyma of the woman's husband, a poet.

Even this memory of the dead plays a role in the reanimation, the resurrection of the larch.

This delicate smell, this dazzling green are important sources of life. Weak, but living sources, resurrected by some mysterious spiritual force, sources hidden in the larch that have now appeared to the world.

The smell of the larch was weak but clear, and no force in the world could have dampened that smell, nor extinguished that green light and colour.

For how many years — warped by the winds and the frosts, twisting in search of the sun — had the larch every spring stretched its young green needles into the sky?

How many years? A hundred. Two hundred. Six hundred. The Daurian larch reaches maturity at three hundred years.

Three hundred years! The larch, whose twig, whose shoot is now breathing on a Moscow table, is the same age as Natalya Sheremeteva-Dolgorukova, and can recall her sorrowful fate: the vicissitudes of life, fidelity and constancy, spiritual fortitude, physical and moral torments that differ not at all from the torments of nineteen thirty seven — the torment of nature's fury in the North, with its hatred of man, with its mortal dangers of spring floods and winter storms, the torment of denunciations, the crude despotism of the authorities, the deaths, the quartering, the breaking on the wheel of a husband, a brother, a son, a father, who denounced each other and betrayed each other.

Is this not the perennial Russian narrative?

After the rhetoric of the moralist Tolstoy and the furious prophecies of Dostoevsky there came wars, revolutions, Hiroshima and concentration camps, denunciations, shootings.

The larch dislocated time-scales, put human memory to shame, reminded one of the unforgettable.

The larch that saw the death of Natalya Dolgorukova and saw millions of corpses — immortal in the Kolyma permafrost; the larch that has seen the death of a Russian poet, this larch lives somewhere in the North, in order to see, to cry out, that nothing has changed in Russia — neither people's fates, nor human evil, nor indifference. Natalya Sheremeteva told all, recorded everything with her sad strength and faith. The larch, whose twig revived on a Moscow table, was already alive when Sheremeteva went on her via dolorosa to Berezov, so similar to the path to Magadan, across the Okhotsk sea.

The larch oozed out, literally oozed out its smell, like juice. The smell changed into colour, and there was no boundary between the two.

The larch in the Moscow flat breathed so as to remind people of their human duty, so that they would not forget the millions of corpses — the people who perished in Kolyma.

This weak, persistent smell was the voice of the dead.

In the name of all these corpses the larch dared to breathe, speak and live.

Strength and faith are needed for resurrection. Shoving a twig in water is far from all it takes. I too placed a larch twig in a jar of water: the twig dried up, became lifeless, weak and brittle — life left it. The twig departed into non-being, disappeared, did not revive. But the larch in the poet's flat revived in a jar of water.

Yes, there are sprigs of lilac, sprigs of cherry, and there are romances that tug at the heart strings; but the larch is not a subject, not a theme for romances.

The larch is a very serious tree. It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil — no, it wasn't the apple tree, nor the birch! — the larch was the tree standing in the Garden of Eden before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise.

The larch is the tree of Kolyma, the tree of the concentration camps.

In Kolyma birds don't sing. The flowers of Kolyma — bright, hasty, crude — have no smell. The short summer — in the cold, lifeless air — brings dry heat and freezing cold at night.

In Kolyma only the mountain dog rose smells, with its ruby-red flowers. There is no scent from the pink, crudely-fashioned lily of the valley, nor the huge violets, the size of a fist, nor the sapless juniper, nor the evergreen dwarf pine.

And only the larch fills the forest with its elusive smell of turpentine. At first it seems like the smell of decay, the smell of the dead. But if you look and inhale this smell more deeply, you will understand it is the smell of life, the smell of resistance to the North, the smell of victory.

Besides, the dead in Kolyma don't smell — they're too atrophied, too anaemic, and anyway they're preserved in the permafrost.

No, the larch is a tree unfit for romances, you won't sing or shape this twig into a romance. It speaks of a different depth, another layer of human feelings.

A man sends a Kolyma twig by airmail: but it was not of himself that he wanted to remind people. He was sending a memento not of himself, but a memento of those millions who were killed, tormented, who were discarded in communal graves to the North of Magadan.

To help others create a memory, and release one's soul of this heavy burden: to see the worst and find the courage not to tell, but to create a memory. A man and his wife adopted a little girl — a convict girl whose mother had died in prison — as if, in their own personal way, to take on some sort of obligation, fulfil some sort of personal duty.

To help one's comrades — those who remained among the living after the concentration camps of the Far North...

To send this coarse, slender twig to Moscow.

Sending the twig, the man did not comprehend, did not know, did not think, that it would be revived in Moscow, that, in its resurrection, it would smell of Kolyma, that it would break into blossom on a Moscow street, that the larch would prove its strength, its immortality — the six hundred years of the larch's life is practically immortality for man — or that the people of Moscow would touch with their hands this rough, plain, coarse twig, would look at its dazzling green needles; that they would look at its rebirth, at its resurrection; that they would inhale its smell, not as a memory of the past, but as living life.


Translation by Sarah J. Young

© Copyright  Sarah J. Young. Translation from Russian
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