Monday, August 07, 2017

`There Was No Need to Search -- Just to Reject'

`There Was No Need to Search -- Just to Reject'

The most convincing literary account of dying I know is a story, “Cherry Brandy,” written by Varlam Shalamov as part of his Kolyma Tales (trans. John Glad, 1994). From the first sentence, Shalamov slips seamlessly inside the consciousness of the dying man, and out again:

“The poet was dying. His hands, swollen from hunger with their white bloodless fingers and filthy overgrown nails, lay on his chest, exposed to the cold. He used to put them under his shirt, against his naked body, but there was too little warmth there now. His mittens had long since been stolen; to steal in the middle of the day all a thief needed was brazenness.”

Shalamov writes with cool, artful realism, without melodrama or preaching. He observes, almost clinically. He was a poet before he wrote fiction. Details are precious. Though fiction, his Kolyma stories blur the distinction with the purely documentary. (The so-called “nonfiction novels” of Mailer and Capote seem childishly self-absorbed in comparison. Historians have cited Shalamov’s stories in studies of Stalin’s Russia. He spent seventeen years in the Gulag.) Shalamov renders the lassitude of illness, protracted hunger and a mental state surpassing mere despair:

“He spent a large part of his days thinking of the events that filled his life here. The visions that rose before his eyes were not those of his childhood, youth, success. All his life he had been hurrying somewhere. It was wonderful now that he did not have to hurry anywhere, now that he could think slowly. And in a leisurely fashion he began to think of the great monotony of death.”

The poet is Osip Mandelstam, who died in a transit camp near Vladivostok in December 1938. The title, “Cherry Brandy,” comes from a poem Mandelstam wrote in 1931. Glad supplies a translation, presumably his own, that begins: “So who cares? I don’t, of late, / Let me tell it to you straight: / Life is candy, cherry brandy, / Ain’t that dandy, sweetie-pie?” (To this non-Russian reader, the translation sounds inadequate.) The poet tells us he believes in the “immortality of his verse,” and that “only in verse did he find anything that seemed new and important to him. His past life had all been fiction, a book, a fairy tale, a dream; only the present was real.” Shalamov confirms everything we have learned about Mandelstam’s poetic practice, a sacred duty:

“Even now stanzas rose easily, one after the other, in a sort of foreordained but at the same time extraordinary rhythm, although he had not written them down for a long time, and indeed could not write them down. Rhyme was the magnet with which he selected words and concepts. Each word was a piece of the world and lent itself to rhyme, while the whole world rushed past with the speed of a computer. Everything shouted: `Take me!’ `No, me!’ There was no need to search – just to reject.”

The sadness of the story’s conclusion is unbearable. His final words are “When later?”, followed by: “He died toward evening.”  One is reminded of Isaac Babel’s final words before the court that condemned him to death: “I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.”

Here is the  final paragraph of “Cherry Brandy”: “They wrote him off’ two days later. For two days his inventive neighbors managed to continue getting his bread ration. The dead man would raise his hand like a puppet. So he died before the recorded date of his death – a not insignificant detail for future biographers.”

[A new translation of Shalamov’s stories by Donald Rayfield, translator of Dead Souls and biographer of Chekhov, is scheduled for publication next year.]