[28 November 2011]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
Once you inhabit a world in which the regime dictates movements and feelings and politicises thought and action, then the moral landscape is utterly ambiguous and the concept of personal responsibility can be lost. The warm, jewel-like hue of something as simple as apricot jam becomes a fetish object to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in this context, epitomizing all the desire and appetite in life for sweetness, succulence, plenty; in other words what was missing under Soviet rule.
Indeed, simplicity, sweetness, warmth, and satisfaction are qualities and states of being that all the characters in this collection of short stories manage to lose and sadly for most of them, never regain.
These stories are written in a ‘binary’ mode, as Solzhenitsyn termed it. That is, he juxtaposed and paired contrasting narratives, characters with the same name, and Revolutionary and post-Soviet tales. It’s not a rule he sticks to strictly, but rather, an opportunity to make comparisons between shifting and transient states. One of the most powerful qualities that these stories exude is the ruthlessness that post-Revolutionary Russia imposed in creating a population which could be shuttled from one province to another, causing no end of upheaval to ordinary lives.
His characters are so mobile that the reader finds it exhausting on their behalf. Men, women, and children are made nomadic as first Revolution and then Civil War strike their country and make them, in the name of freedom of the workers, an indentured people who must do as they are told – or else.
Really touching stories emerge in that blunt and matter-of-fact way that Solzhenitsyn creates, in order to convey the magnitude of cruelty and suffering. I was particularly moved by the dual narratives of ‘Nastenka’. Two women of the same name navigate the sometimes impossibly bleak waters of the post-Revolutionary state. The first Nastya has brief interludes where she works as a prostitute to support her daughter, in total contradiction to what was supposed to be achieved by the glorious revolution. Solzhenitsyn never lost sight of the fact that ruination was the product for most Russians and that the class distinctions were never removed, they just changed.
The ‘Apricot Jam’ of the title is a fleeting memory for one character, but an emblem of privilege in the contrasting narrative. It occupies a place of honour in a glistening bowl on the tea table of the writer who has a state-approved reputation. Solzhenitsyn’s significant contribution to 20th century political fiction demonstrated that time allowed the dissident writer opportunities for contemplation and construction of narratives that handle minute, personal detail. His Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich laid bare the harrowing experiences of those suffering the gulag system of imprisonment. The Soviet Union managed a unique and specific form of punishment. In writing The Gulag Archipelago he exposed the ‘other’ state within the vastness of the Soviet Union; that of the lives and suffering of those sent away to the margins as much for something concocted as real crimes.
The power and meticulous construction that we have come to expect of this political writer and Nobel Prize winner is certainly not absent. It will be a satisfactory exploration for those familiar with the scale of his work that encompasses intimacy and vastness. This collection is human and moving, as well as hard-hitting and historically relevant. For those who might be new to his work, this is a suitably challenging, but manageable read, and well worth it.