31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 8: “A Piece of Flesh” by Varlam Shalamov; Donald Rayfield, trans.

From Kolyma Stories

Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov

Russian short-story writer and poet Varlam Shalamov was, along with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the great chroniclers of the Soviet Gulag. The latter author had an influence on Shalamov and offered to collaborate on the three-volume history The Gulag Archipelago, though as Donald Rayfield points out in the introduction to Kolyma Stories, this potential partnership was scuppered by Shalamov’s developing distaste for some of Solzhenitsyn’s beliefs: “Shalamov clearly disapproved of Solzhenitsyn’s adherence to some of the Christian values of the nineteenth century and to some of the ethics of Soviet society, particularly the faith in the redemptive power of manual work.”

That Shalamov was entirely antipathetic to Stalin’s reign in general, and the labour camps of the Gulag in particular, is unsurprising given the author’s own experience. The Trotskyist son of a Russian Orthodox priest, he was kicked out of law school for his political ideology and later sentenced to fifteen years of forced labour in various camps around the Kolyma River basin in northerneastern Siberia.

“Whereas Solzhenitsyn writes in the Tolstoyan literary tradition, Shalamov continues the legacy of the 1920s avant-garde,” states Anastasiya Osipova. “A man of inexorable anti-authoritarian instincts, an atheist, and a member of the ‘left’ anti-Stalinist opposition (his first arrest in 1929 took place in an illegal printshop, where he was allegedly printing Lenin’s deathbed rebuke of Stalin), Shalamov never renounced his core revolutionary ideals and refused to equate Soviet rule with Stalinism.”

This obviously made him a target under Stalin’s regime; it also lent him a sensibility that was absolutely unflinching and unsentimental when it came to describing the experience of the camps. While his stories are classified as fiction, many of them are veiled autobiography and the characters he included in them were modelled on actual people he encountered during his imprisonment. This is probably what lends his work such potent immediacy, even to an English-language reader in the early 21st century.

“I am convinced that the camps – all of them – are a negative school,” Shalamov writes in a nonfiction fragment quoted by Rayfield. And elsewhere in the same piece: “I realized that one can live on anger.”

If there is a pervading emotion running throughout Kolyma Stories, it is anger: anger at a totalitarian state and at a society that barters ethics for self-preservation. Though as Rayfield argues, this almost fanatical devotion to a particular set of ideological blinders could result in contradictions: “For all that Shalamov suffered, he never renounced revolutionary killers when they were prompted by idealism and prepared to pay with their own death. And although he declared that he would never accept a post in which he collaborated with the system of forced labour … he was … responsible for the suicide of a young man whom he refused to allow to go on washing floors in the hospital and dispatched to hard labour back in the mines.”

But in his fiction, Shalamov remained absolutely unwavering about the dehumanizing nature of the Gulag and the degradation foisted upon those who were incarcerated there. The 1964 story “A Piece of Flesh” starkly dramatizes the misery and danger inherent in camp life and what some people were willing to undergo to garner even a small reprieve from the torture of forced manual labour. The story is a relative outlier in that it is not told in the first person, nor does it include one of Shalamov’s own fictional alter egos. It focuses on Golubev, a prisoner who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to buy himself a reprieve from being sent to work in one of the hard labour camps.

Golubev had heard from a camp surgeon that a man who had been sent to certain death in such a camp could have saved himself if he had suffered a medical ailment: “If he’d had an attack of acute appendicitis, he’d still be here,” the surgeon says. Six months later, when Golubev’s own turn to be shipped off arrives, he fakes an attack of appendicitis and the same surgeon has him transported to the camp infirmary, where he removes the organ in question.

This is the piece of flesh in the title, a “blood-soaked offering” that had been “thrown at the feet of the almighty god of the camps: to appease the god.” Though the omniscient narrator questions whether this blood sacrifice was in fact made to appease the camp god “or to deceive him.” And Shalamov is clear that the god of the camps is vengeful and will exact his penalty regardless of the lengths to which a prisoner goes to try to avoid such an eventuality.

In hospital, Golubev is placed in a ward with a gangster who has an innovative plan for avoiding his own day of reckoning: whenever his time for discharge comes up, the criminal, known as Kononenko, kills a fellow prisoner and is remanded to stand trial once again. “He would be arrested, a new case would be opened, he would be tried again and get an extra twenty-five years to add to the many hundreds of years he already had to serve. After the trial Kononenko would do his best to get into the hospital ‘for a rest,’ and then he would murder again, and the whole process would start anew.”

The story opens with a reference to a succession of famous Shakespearean villains: Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet’s usurper uncle Claudius, and Shylock, the last of whom is the obvious source for Shalamov’s title. “Life repeats Shakespeare’s plots more than we think,” says the omniscient narrator, setting up a story about bloodletting, murder, and the viciousness of an authoritarian state. Golubev has a perfectly healthy appendix removed; the organ is vestigial and inessential to physical life, though for the prisoner, it is absolutely paramount – “vital, active, and lifesaving.”

The camp prisoners go to extraordinary lengths to extend their time in hospital or to escape hard labour. Golubev recalls prisoners who would scoop dirt off the floors and pack it into their wounds to keep them open and festering as a means of buying more time away from work and the beatings of camp administrators. A fellow patient in the hospital ward with Golubev nicks his finger and puts blood in his urine bag to trick his captors, and the hardened criminal Kononenko has no qualms about taking innocent lives to preserve his own skin. (In contrast to the bloodthirsty roster of Shakespearean characters, Kononenko’s preferred method is not overly gory: he strangles his victims with hospital towels.)

Golubev survives the killer’s plans as a result of a last-minute intervention from the camp authorities; an irony that offers no one any sort of redemption. Indeed, redemption is in short supply in the Gulag: even those who live do so only to face yet another day of suffering and misery. If there is honour among thieves (and this was one category of prisoner Shalamov had no sympathy for), it exists in Golubev’s refusal to rat on Kononenko, perhaps because he knows that the gangster’s fate is worse than anything he could conceive, perhaps out of a sheer refusal to assist the camp administration in any way whatsoever.

Golubev’s final words in the story – “Go fuck yourself” – are a suitable summation of the inhumanity and lack of compassion that pervades the camp. As a writer, Shalamov has little time for pleasantries or for making things palatable for his reader. His stories are valuable for their unvarnished look at an evil system that is only a few degrees removed from us in history and in circumstance.

31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 8: “A Piece of Flesh” by Varlam Shalamov; Donald Rayfield, trans.