Larches in a Gale: Individual Construction and Survival in Varlam Shalamov and Isaac Babel


Red Cavalry, Kazimir Malévichy, 1930

History, in its ceaseless forward movement, is something of a juggernaut, crushing beneath it everything and everyone in its path, indiscriminate and impersonal, an anonymizing machine antithetical to the individual experience. In times of war and strife, of mass suffering, the juggernaut’s path widens; hundreds, thousands, millions are swept under its wheels, crushed and forgotten. Individuals are rendered nothing more than numbers in tallies of the dead. In the face of such a relentless machine, the individual seems no more than an ant (or, as we shall see, a larch in a gale) and yet, throughout history and in the face of it, individuals have survived the juggernaut’s anonymizing power, constructing themselves to withstand its force. Not all of these are heroes; many are ordinary men, such as the narrators of Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” and Varlam Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer”—stories which, though set in different periods and contexts, both treat the confrontation between the individual and history. Set amid the Polish- Soviet war, Babel’s story treats the choices and actions of a young soldier trying to balance his individuality with his yearning for the group identity of his division. Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer,” on the other hand, takes place in the gulag and deals with the preservation of the individual in the face of the mass death in Kolyma. Unlike Babel, Shalamov defines the individual not through self-constructing choices or actions, but with the cultivation of a particular forward orientation towards life and time, and it is this temporal distinction—actions in the present versus orientation towards the future—that comes to define the ways in which these two authors conceive of the individual in the face of history.

Babel’s “My First Goose” raises the question of the individual as soon as Savitsky, the commander, points out the narrator’s status as an intellectual other and wryly comments, “Think you’ll fit in, do you?” (237). Despite the narrator’s determined response of “I’ll fit in” (237) and his dramatic attempts at making good on that statement, the subject of Babel’s story is not so much the suppression of the individual as he integrates with a group, but a celebration of him.

The turning point of the story comes when the narrator, desperate to pay the price of admission to the division, brutally kills the landlady’s goose in order to prove himself. The entire story builds up to to this moment, framed symmetrically with dialogue, which sets it off and points it out to the reader as pivotal. Babel deliberately does not allow the reader to understand the narrator’s motivations at this pivotal moment, instead presenting a brutal image of action as the narrator sees the saber, sees the goose and traps it. As the killing progresses, the narrator fades to the background as Babel places the actions themselves center stage; in the moment of the goose’s death, the subject of the sentences shifts from “I” to “the goose’s head,” which “cracked beneath my boot” (238). The disappearance of “I” as subject is highlighted by its omnipresence leading up to the moment of the death: “I saw,” “I trapped it and pinned it,” the narrator tell us. Though he has emphasized his ownership of his action in the moments leading up to the murder of the goose, in the moment of brutality itself, the narrator himself is not immediately present, but only peripherally so, in the form of the possessive “my” qualifying the boot. With the narrator as subject conspicuously absent, the action itself is highlighted as the reader’s perception of it is slowed. “Cracked” is immediately comprehended, but its circumstances must be lingered over a moment, forcing the reader to ask himself questions in order to construct the scene in the sudden absence of the guiding “I.” How has the goose’s head cracked? Under “my boot.” Whose boot? The narrator’s; he has cracked the head of the goose by stepping on it. Thus, Babel, in allowing the “I” to fade into the background, forces the reader to linger over the action. The brutal crushing of the goose’s skull becomes the center of the sentence, eclipsing the “I” and yet reflecting back on it, pointing to a construction of the individual via his actions and his choices.

That Babel’s narrator subscribes to this view is evident in the hints Babel gives the reader of his psychological state following the goose’s death and his acceptance into the group. He is torn between his feelings of “joy” at having become part of the group and a guilt signaled by the division in his last sentence between his dreams of women (the “right” sort of thoughts according to his group—the same group whose entry ticket is the “ruin[ing]” of “a young lady” (237)) and the guilt of his “heart, crimson with murder” as it “screeched and bled” (239). Whatever our judgement of the narrator’s action—or our idea of his own judgement—the action and his feelings about it are undeniably central to the story and his construction of himself (as well as our construction of him). We form one judgement of him after he kills the goose in order to fit in with the group, but that he has conflicting feelings about his action forces us to reconfigure him as an individual. Through this conscious ambiguity, Babel’s understanding of the construction of the individual via his actions becomes apparent.

Babel’s narrator is engaged in the process of self-construction in “My First Goose”—a process which he has by no means completed at its end. The story begins with the narrator’s almost sexual envy of Savitsky and the stature and brutal grace which he seems to possess by nature—an envy  that becomes evident in the detailed description of Savitsky’s chest, smell, and legs. This envy signals a hyper-awareness of self in the narrator, which further serves to foreground Babel’s theme. The centrality of this project of self-creation to the story awards it something of a heroic status. In the face of the effacing wave of history—represented in this story by the group of interchangeable Cossack soldiers, to which the narrator must submit, while attempting to maintain his individuality—it is the achievement of heroic individuality in self-creation through action which preserves the individual. A man must always be making himself, must always be acting and considering his actions, if he is to stand against the tide of time and history.

In light of Babel’s construction of the individual via his actions, choices, and self- analysis, it becomes interesting to note how little emphasis Shalamov places on these in his individuals. The question of whether or not to “pull novels” for soup seems as if it might be the essential question of the text—mirroring the ethical question of Babel’s, but it is put aside almost immediately after it is raised. “[Novel-pulling] always seemed the ultimate humiliation,” the narrator  responds to Platonov’s question whether he’d ever engaged in it, before assuring his friend that this is “not in the least” a condemnation, for he understands that “a lot can be forgiven a hungry man” (323). Whereas “My First Goose,” in its ambiguity and emphasis on action, choice, and psychological impact, invites the reader’s judgement and consideration of the ethics involved, Shalamov sidelines the issue, placing the emphasis on the fact of the storytelling, which itself permeates the tale.

“The Snake Charmer” begins with the narrator and a companion in the gulag, Platonov, sitting on the trunk of a fallen larch. The fallen tree makes the reader immediately aware of an “inhospitable” world where  death and destruction are normal facts of life: “In permafrost […] it’s easy for a storm to uproot [trees] and lay them flat on the ground” (323), says the narrator. In the tree, the reader immediately is given an image of an individual felled by arbitrary forces far greater than himself, as part of a very normal course of events—so normal that it, in its fallen, destroyed state, has become a seat, hardly worth remarking upon. This, then, is the fate of the unprotected individual in the face of history: the everyday, unremarkable detritus of a storm. One is compelled to recall the moment when, in another of Shalamov’s stories, Lend-Lease, the narrator mistakes frozen bodies sliding down the rocky side of a hill into a mass grave for “logs that had not yet been hauled away” (433). It is no coincidence that a fallen tree, Shalamov’s symbol of an individual death caused by the machine of history, becomes the setting for the story’s first story: that of Platonov’s life in the gulag—the story which he hopes to write down (and has already titled), the story which the narrator does write, and the story which we are reading (which is given Platonov’s title). This triplicate framework emphasizes the fact of the storytelling itself: as art, as document, and as transmission of Platonov’s individual experience. It soon becomes clear that it is through storytelling (in all its guises) that Shalamov simultaneously constitutes the individual and his shield against the force of history.

The connection between story-telling and preservation is most immediately  revealed  by the fact that storytelling is literally the method by which Platonov preserves his life at Jankhara, as he “pulls novels” for the camp’s illiterate thugs. Shalamov, though, explores and deepens the connection through his layered framing of the story: “The Snake Charmer” issues directly from the impulse of its narrator to bear witness to Platonov—to an individual—and thus to preserve him and his story. Platonov, the narrator tells us, stands out in the gulag because he still believes in a world beyond Kolyma—believes in it concretely, as a place in which to set his plans for the future. Because of this outlook, Platonov is something of a symbol of impossible hope in the gulag, a power given to him by the hope born of his impulse to write his story in the world outside Kolyma. In this sense, storytelling is as essential to Platonov’s survival in the camp with the narrator as it was when he was at Jankhara. Platonov  qualifies his wish to write his story with  a condition—“if I stay alive” (323),  which demonstrates the future-oriented—and therefore fundamentally hopeful—attitude, which sets  him apart from the rest of the prisoners (324). For Platonov, the double impulse to document, to tell his story, and to create himself through the creation of his story preserves his individual identity in the face of the destruction and death wrought by history. Thus, Shalamov presents us with two portraits of the individual: on the one hand, there is Platonov, constructed by his impulse to tell his story, to create and to document, and therefore defined by his relation to a future in which he will write and in which his story will be read, and on the other hand, there is the anonymous individual, the individual without individuality, the fallen larch, the body rolling down the hill into the mass grave, a body locked irrevocably into the here and now of Kolyma.

The force of storytelling is always forward to the future, even when its content is the past. A story is told so that it will be remembered, so that it will be retold. It is written so that it will be read. What is preserved in stories is preserved for the future, and thus, the construction of the individual via his impulse to create and to document is a future-oriented one, which Shalamov validates in his triplicate story:  even though Platonov dies, his story does not die with him. The unnamed narrator realizes the importance of the future-thrusting power of storytelling in the face of the individual-effacing power of history. Through his “love” (324) for Platonov and the hope he represents, the narrator realizes he must bear witness to his life, to his hope, and to his succumbing to death and the forces of history, so that Platonov does not become just another anonymous body, like the larch of the opening, killed by the inhospitable earth. The narrator, in writing Platonov’s story, inherits his creative impulse and acknowledges and validates the connection between story-telling and survival, which he had symbolically dismissed at the story’s opening when he declared that telling novels for soup “always seemed the ultimate humiliation” (323) to him. His decision to tell Platonov’s story indicates his understanding of the power of storytelling to preserve, for, though death and the hard earth may have conquered Platonov, through the narrator and Shalamov, Platonov the individual remains upright amidst history’s swirling tides, his individuality preserved against the anonymous fate of another number in the measures of mass death. Storytelling has charmed the snake of history.

Thus, though Shalamov defines his individual by his impulse to tell stories—to create and document, whereas Babel constructs the individual through choice, action, and self-analysis, the split in their conceptions boils down to their understanding of time, which can be traced back to the differences in the histories faced by the individuals in these two stories. Babel’s “My First Goose” takes place in a time of war. Its narrator, a green soldier eager to prove himself and yet uncertain of his ability to do so, is engaged entirely with his present. It’s a commonplace to say that a soldier in battle lives only in the present, but Babel shows it to be true in a larger framework than that of the heat of battle. Each moment in the story is a choice for the narrator: should he sit with the group, or apart; should he acknowledge the pork, or not; should he speak courteously to the old woman, or rudely; should he violate his integrity for acceptance into the group, or should he accept his loner status. War’s time is immediate, constructed of choices to be made, actions to be taken. Naturally, then, in the face of the force of history represented by war, by masses of anonymous soldiers who have relinquished their choice in favor of following the group blindly, the individual must be constructed by his choice and his action—the language of his present moment. To survive in the face of the history of war, the individual must actively make and remake himself in the present through constant choice and action.

There is a marked contrast between Babel’s heroic individual of war’s present and Shalamov’s gulag-bound individual defined by the futurity of his storytelling. Shalamov’s individual, a prisoner in the gulag, faced with the anonymizing machine of a history of mass death can do no more than survive in the present. His choices are immaterial in the gray world of Kolyma where he is nothing more than a number in a column of either the still living or the dead. Time in Kolyma is all the same: an eternal present, meaningless in itself without the hope of a future. Thus the individual who would face history in Kolyma and survive must live for and define himself by the future as Platonov and the narrator do with their storytelling, but also as Platonov does on a daily basis at a minute level. The narrator recounts how Platonov would “ke[ep] us all going” with questions: “what kind of soup. . . would we be having for supper, would bread be given out three times a day or just once in the morning, would it be rainy or clear the next day…” (324). In the gulag’s gray, eternal present Platonov strives to create futurity—or at least its illusion. In a belief in the future there is hope. And in the soul-destroying sameness of Kolyma’s present, it is hope for the future—manifested through the forward-thrusting creative impulse to tell stories and to document the individual—that preserves the individual in the face of history. Shalamov’s individual is not Babel’s heroic self-construction, but as frail and damageable as a shallow-rooted larch in a gale. It is only through an investment in the future through stories that this individual can preserve himself and be preserved—both in the sense of life-after-death in documentation and in the sense of self-preservation-in-life, as Platonov’s hope to create and to document acted as a talisman of hope and self-identity for him.

Methods for survival in the face of the juggernaut of history, then, depend on the particular history being experienced. In war, the individual is constructed by being through constant action in the present. In the gulag, being is only possible through hope in the future; to be entirely in the present is not to be at all. Despite the differences in the situations they describe and the constructions of identity those settings necessitate, both Babel and Shalamov believe in the ability of the individual to survive history’s anonymizing force. Platonov lives on in the narrator’s story, the narrator in Shalamov’s. Babel’s narrator, though he has joined the group, has not lost his ability to think, to choose, to act. Thus, despite their essential differences dependent on historical moment, there is one other factor central to both Babel’s and Shalamov’s constructions of the individual: the will. Without the will, the individual is nothing, he can be nothing. Babel’s narrator and Platonov are both characterized by the will to live and the will to create themselves (in story for Platonov, through constant self-analysis for Babel’s narrator). The will allows them to hope, to think, to act, to document, and to tell stories. And with these, they, as individuals, can overcome present circumstances (whether in the present or the future), to overcome history.

  1. One imagines that the kind of soup given to the prisoners wouldn’t vary much, if ever (one also imagines Shalamov’s Kolyma existing in an eternal grayness of flat cloud cover where the sun never dares to shine), making Platonov’s brave attempt at creating the illusion of futurity even more poignant and essential to the construction of his individuality.

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