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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


The Gulag fantastic?

By Sarah J Young, on 2 April 2014

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the 'Road of Bones' highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the ‘Road of
Bones’ highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Sarah J. Young discovers unexpected affinities between the literature of the fantastic and the expression of trauma in Gulag writing.

I have just finished teaching a new cross-cultural course, Tales of the Unexpected, with my colleague Peter Zusi. A whistle-stop tour through the fantastic and supernatural from the Grimm brothers to H. P. Lovecraft, the course has been great fun, but beyond the appearance of Gogol (his Ukrainian folktale ‘Vii’) and Dostoevsky (the classic work of the Petersburg fantastic The Double), I didn’t anticipate it having much resonance with my research. It came as something as a surprise, therefore, to find echoes in a number of the texts we studied of ideas that relate to my current work on Gulag writing and particularly the short stories of Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982).

Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the hard labour camps of Kolyma, notoriously the harshest part of the Stalinist gulag, is renowned for stories that, while they are full of poetic nuances, express the brutality of that experience with unflinching realism. The curious echo of the opening line of Pushkin’s fantastic story ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the beginning of Shalamov’s story ‘On Tick’ (1956) may give us pause for thought, but ostensibly these tales have no relation to literature of the fantastic and supernatural. However, as I discovered, there are significant commonalities relating to ideas of language, writing and authorship that suggest Shalamov’s approach to his subject is similar to that of fantastic writers of earlier eras.

In Frankenstein, the developing consciousness of the creature creates the paradox of him telling the story of his life prior to language. As the eloquence and knowledge he acquires later shape his expression of his earlier experiences, the poetry of the creature’s uncomprehending gaze initially obscures, but ultimately emphasizes, the fact that even the concepts he does bring to bear in his descriptions were unknown to him at the time of the original experience:

Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up, and behold a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. […] No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes upon that with pleasure. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818 edn, book II, chapter III)

Shalamov’s story ‘Sententiousness’ (1965) features a reversal of this process, as convicts existing in inhuman conditions face the loss of human language:

My language, the course language of the coal face, was impoverished, as impoverished as the feelings that still survived around my bones. Reveille, go to work, lunch, end of work, lights out, citizen boss, may I address you, spade, pit, yes sir, drill rod, pick, it’s cold outside, rain, cold soup, hot soup, bread, ration, leave me a bit to smoke – I’d managed with a couple of dozen words for over a year. Half of them were curses. […] I didn’t look for other words. I was happy that I didn’t need to look for other words. I didn’t know whether these other words existed. I couldn’t have answered that question. (Shalamov, ‘Sententsiia‘)

His narrator (perhaps Shalamov himself, but this is seldom entirely clear), so weak and exhausted that he has been granted a temporary respite from work in the mines, describes a reawakening of language – and consciousness – that parallels the story Shelley’s creature tells:

I was afraid, dumbfounded, when in my brain suddenly – I remember this clearly – under the right parietal bone there appeared a word that was quite useless for the taiga, a word that not only my comrades, but I myself didn’t understand. I cried out this word, rising up on the bunks, turning to the sky, to eternity:

Sententiousness! Sententiousness!’

And I roared with laughter.

The loss and rediscovery of language is significant here because of the impossibility – evident in the creature’s tale in Frankenstein – of conveying those sensations in the language and concepts in which they were originally experienced. For Shalamov, faced with the imperative to bear witness to the suffering of the Gulag, this question is crucial, as it affects authenticity. As he notes in one of his memoirs:

And imperceptibly the intellectual himself loses everything ‘unnecessary’ in his language… Every story of mine is in this respect inevitably doomed to falsehood, to untruth. I never thought a single drawn-out thought [in the camps]. […] How do I return myself to that condition, and in what language can I write about it? […] I want the truth to be the truth of that very day, […] and not the truth of my world view today. (Shalamov, Vospominaniia: ‘O Kolyme’. ‘Iazyk’)

This gap between the time of the experience and the time of writing takes on physical form in the story ‘Glove’ (1972). Here, the narrator (called Shalamov in this instance), in hospital and suffering from pellagra, a disease of malnutrition, describes the skin on his hands becoming separated from his body into two intact ‘gloves’, one of which ends up in a medical museum in Magadan. In his thinking this uncanny phenomenon – perhaps the most fantastic-seeming moment in the Kolyma Tales – exemplifies the dual identity that results from the camps:

the skin grew again. Muscles grew on skeleton, bones suffered a little, bent after frostbite by osteomyelitis. Even a soul grew around these damaged bones, apparently. Even the fingerprints are the same on that dead glove and the present, living one which is now holding a pencil. A true miracle of criminology, these double-gloves. One day I’ll write a detective story with a glove-plot, and make a contribution to the genre. But now I don’t have time for detective stories. My gloves are two men, two doubles with the same fingerprint — a miracle of science. A worthy subject for reflection by criminologists the world over, by philosophers, historians and doctors. (Shalamov, ‘Perchatka’)

The combination of the identity of the fingerprints and the difference of the hand suggests a conception of bodily subjectivity that has, as the above quotation makes clear, particular implications for the writer. In the idea of two subjectivities inhabiting a single self, and the expression of the paradoxes of this through the theme of writing and the form of the narration, the connections to another of the texts on our course, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are obvious. In Stevenson’s story, Dr Jekyll’s awareness of his transformation comes from looking at the hairy hands that are so different from his own, while much of the plot revolves around the fact that the only feature Jekyll and Hyde share is their handwriting; as Jekyll’s final narrative notes, ‘of my original character, one part remained to me: I could write my own hand’.

These echoes of themes from both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde suggest that Shalamov perceives the breakdown of his identity in the camps as something monstrous, and that his own humanity is at risk through his encounter with the inhuman, a question that links to a wider conception of trauma. The linguistic and temporal gaps that creates an insurmountable obstacle to the expression of experience is one reason that extreme trauma – primarily related to the Shoah but relevant to discussions of the Gulag as well – is often described in terms of its ‘unspeakability’, because of the challenge it makes to the possibility of representation. More broadly, language as a human construct is viewed as inadequate to encounters with radical evil or experiences that evoke the inhuman. Here another connection with our fantastic course arose, as the idea of incomprehensible horror is central to H. P. Lovecraft’s entire mythical conception. As Rosemary Jackson states, in her classic study Fantasy: the literature of subversion (Routledge, 1981):

H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fantasies are particularly self-conscious in their stress on the impossibility of naming this unnameable presence, the ‘thing’ which can be registered in the text only as absence and shadow. [He] circles around this dark area in an attempt to get beyond language to something other, yet the endeavour to visualize and verbalize the unseen and unsayable is one which inevitably falls short, except by drawing attention to exactly this difficulty of utterance. (p. 39)

In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ the monster that ‘cannot be described’ and ‘the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene’ are frequently invoked. The author piles on frequently incompatible and contradictory – occasionally meaningless – adjectives that, whilst apparently over-describing, also emphasize a linguistic gap to express the inhuman. Both Shalamov’s technique, and the type of inhumanity he is describing, are very different, of course, but in the cross-over of genres, the question of being beyond human experience makes the comparison of Shalamov’s works with such texts a source of insight that is as potentially illuminating as it is unexpected.

Translations are by the author.

Sarah J. Young is a lecturer in Russian at UCL SSEES. She is currently writing a book on Russian narratives of hard labour, prison and exile. She blogs about her research at sarahjyoung.com.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

2 Responses to “The Gulag fantastic?”

  • 1
    The Gulag fantastic? | Sarah J. Young wrote on 7 April 2014:

    […] post was originally published on the SSEES Research Blog. Translations are my […]

  • 2
    Tim B-M wrote on 27 May 2014:

    Really intersting piece, Sarah. Thanks.

    There is another way of looking at this: in Lovecraft what is most horrible is often not its inexpressible and inhuman nature but rather the idea that the source of the horror might be human after all. There is an interesting line in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ to that effect. Similarly, in ‘Heart of Darkness’, what horrifies Marlowe most about his first encounter with the savages on the river-bank is not their apparently inhuman and inexpressible savagery, but the fact that the suspicion that they might be human like him. This might be a slightly different point that I am making, though.

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