Aleksandr Solzhenicyn, Varlam Shalamov, and the Cat in Between

Elena Mikhailik, University of New South Wales, Australia

When Aleksander Solzhenicyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Varlam Shalamov sent him a warm letter full of praise. He had only a few misgivings, mostly concerning prison camp trivia. For example, he was bothered by the presence of a cat--a hospital pet. "In a real prison camp," Shalamov wrote, "that cat would have been eaten long ago."

In fact, in his own stories a cat, a pet of the surgical ward, twice meets its end in the pot. This reference to "reality" invites us to look deeper into the situation. In which way is the prison camp of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich unreal? The story faithfully portrays the conditions in the special "political" hard labour camps and is based on Solzhenicyn's personal experience. However, if we consider the poetics of the story we find evidence suggesting that Solzhenicyn is presenting the location of One Day ... as a quintessential prison camp--while at the same time giving the readers to understand that the matters could be and are much worse.

It has long been argued that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich--a stem cell of the Gulag Archipelago--presents the prison camp life as a set of painful, terrifying, often unbearable, but essentially human experiences which the reader could share with the character without stepping out of the boundaries of his own personality and culture. The shock is conveyed through details and numbers. Like Jonathan Swift describing the difference in scale between Gulliver and the Lilliputians by quoting the number of Lilliputian cows Gulliver ate for dinner, Solzhenicyn first assigns a value to a day (in fact, a happy day) in a life of an ordinary prisoner and then multiplies it by an appropriate figure. "There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch." Originally One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was called Shch-854: One Day in the Life of One Zek. We are going to suggest that in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and then in the Gulag Archipelago Solzhenicyn builds a translation system that permits him to describe the universe of the prison camps in a language almost completely external to that universe. This way Solzhenicyn manages to both evoke and contain the lethal presence of the prison camps.

If Solzhenicyn wrote the camps into the culture, Shalamov in his Kolyma Tales undertook an attempt to write them out of culture. The study of Shalamov's poetics shows that in his stories he presents the prison camps as a separate entity, existing under conditions where the human body or any of its emanations or constructs, be it memory, culture, personality or cause and effect relationship, cannot function properly. For Shalamov, the reality of the prison camps lies in their absolute hostility to life. In the Kolyma Tales the corrosive experiences of Kolyma are packaged in a multi-layered, highly efficient, subversive structure designed to make the reader a sharer, not in life but in its decomposition. At the same time it projects the futility of ever translating the prison camp universe into the human language--for only the dead can embrace that universe's categories, and they are silent. The cat dies - along with everybody else.

In the end, the fate of a cat hangs on the authorial choice of medium--the all-encompassing cultural discourse versus the untranslatable prison camp metalanguage.