Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Gulag in Fiction

Like many people, I have relied upon nonfiction books such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History to help me understand one of the twentieth century's greatest moral catastrophes.  This past month, I dipped into several works of modern fiction to see what novelists could do to further explain the historical and moral meaning of Stalin's grand experiment with systematic cruelty and economic exploitation.  The first book, Martin Amis' House of Meetings is a powerful work of fiction predicted to some extent on the Amis family's historical antagonism to Stalinism, previously discussed in his memorable nonfiction account of Stalin's legacy, Koba the Dread:  Laughter and the Twenty Million.  For me, the best part of House of Meetings is that Amis gives the denizens of the gulag a great deal of agency.  That is to say, Amis' narrator is not merely a victim, but also a multidimensional character capable of inflicting both good and evil on those around him.  Amis' novel provides readers with a detailed description of the violence, brutality, and hunger associated with life in the gulag, but it also manages to tell a story of love and hate that is not completely subsumed by the coercive exigencies of prison life in Russia's inhospitable northern climates.  The protagonist of the House of Meetings is not a martyr, but a typical Russian who has been at one time or the other both an exploited person and one who has exploited others.  In fact, Amis is careful to tell us that his protagonist had raped Russian women in the course of his participation in the conquest of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.  Thus, Amis' protagonist has already been victim and the victimiser prior to his experience in the camp.  And both in the camp, and after the camp, the narrator will possess his moral Janus-head:  on the one hand, the narrator nobly protects his defenseless brother from camp villains, but on the other hand,  employs extreme forms of violence to do so. 

Perhaps the moral ambiguity of the narrator is fitting for a story of the gulag, where innocence quickly disappeared in a savage fight for existence against guards, the so-called "bitches" and "brutes," and other camp actors.  Certainly gulag characters deserve to be depicted as something other than passive recipients of communist cruelty.  Another excellent approach to the gulag was written by novel prize-winner, Herta Muller, an ethnic German from Romania whose own mother once survived a deportation to the gulag.  Muller's treatment of camp life is meticulous.  It's creative power stems from the fact that Muller has analyzed so many components of gulag life in such exquisite detail.  In fact, each chapter of The Hunger Angel explores an extremely specific facet of camp life, such as bread-hoarding, in order to depict or even create a complete universe of suffering for readers.  Like Amis, Muller does acknowledge that her protagonists were not purely the subjects of history.  As ethnic Germans, they had listened to German propaganda and felt a great deal of sympathy for the German Chancellor.  Although they had not personally committed any crimes against humanity, they had been typical of men and women in the 1930s had done little to resist the advancing tide of totalitarianism. More than that, they had not even realized Hitlerism was an evil.  And then again in the camps, Muller's subjects were thrown into a moral morass almost incapable of supporting the existence of heroes. 

A third creative approach to the gulag appears in Anthony Marra's wonderfully witty and wise collection of linked short stories, entitled The Tsar of Love and Techno. Although Marra's book isn't centered in the gulag, it does demonstrate the centrality of the slave labor system to twentieth century Russian lives.  Marra's short stories span seven or so decades, but in each case the gulag plays an important direct or indirect role in character story-lines.  Characters are either worried about being sent to the gulag in the Great Terror, struggling to survive the gulag, or living in its shadow.   Marra's book has much to recommend it.  Its dialogue is clever, its stories linked together in original ways, and its depiction of both Soviet and post-Soviet life spot on.  But perhaps the book's best quality is the way in which Marra, like the other authors mentioned in this post, gives agency to his characters without ignoring the tragedy of gulag life.  For Marra, the gulag seems to be both a microcosm of totalitarianism and also an explanation of both the demographic and moral state of modern Russia.  Although Marra ends his story by dwelling on the moral morass of the Chechen conflict, he seems to be saying that it wouldn't have been possible without the lasting effects of the authoritarian legacy of the Great Terror and its associated prison system.

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