Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
Ivan Chistyakov (translated by Arch Tait)
Granta: 249pp; £14.99 rrp.
In Martin Amis’ novel Times Arrow, the narrator rather than he moving through time, is being moved through time, and is so unwitting that he does not realise that he is going backwards, from his death to his birth. At one point, the narrator despairing at not being able to make any sense of the regressing world he is in remarks “There’s probably a straightfoward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness.”
I weirdly found Amis’ novel asking similar questions to the book in question here; a non-fiction diary of a prison guard during the time of the Gulag. Amis’ work is partly set during the Holocaust and the ‘straightforward explanation’ that Tod T. Friendly seeks above is of course a pun, reflective of Amis’ narrative device, but paired with Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries, show that even the straightforward, sequential explanation is not necessarily any more enlightening. Time in both book’s cases is something of a master. The introduction to Chistyakov’s work by Irina Scherbakova called the labor camp at the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) “an enormous machine of repression” – in the diaries we see that time is one of its tools.
The publication of the diaries have been partly assisted by funding from English PEN. Scherbakova, in her interesting introduction, calls on other notable Gulag occupants such as Grossman, Shalamov, and of course Solzhenitsyn to provide context to the diaries. Chistyakov doesn’t necessarily share company with these artists as an artist, but of the little we know about his time before BAM, we’re told that he is was a ‘cultured Muscovite’; a picture on the inside jacket of the book shows him painting, and indeed, his prose is not that of somebody who has neglected the literary arts. So within this machine of repression, along with everything elae you’d expect, there certainly seems to be something artistic repressed within Chistyakov.
Sometimes he strays into the poetic (“Telegraph wires iced up and looking like threads of fire in the sun”). But it seems that any poetic descriptions are incidental or unconscious, leaked out, which Chistyakov even admits sometimes. What do words matter or represent in times like this? Amis often summoned inspiration from the works of Primo Levi for his two novels centred around the holocaust (the already mentioned Times Arrow and the more recent The Zone of Interest) which Amis concedes, are contrary to his zipping, imagistic prose and it is that kind of dialectic that persists here. Amis’ second set of memoirs Koba the Dread centred around his contention with the ‘indulgence of communism’ by intellectuals during the Soviet era, particularly his own father’s, Kingsley. In the opening he quotes Robert Conquest, the Soviet Historian, who writes: “’We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty lives were lost for, not ever word, but every letter in this book’ That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The books is 411 pages long.” Chistyakov was never to know the final statistics of the regime, but it is as if he’s knowledgable of Conquest’s equation: “Went to Phalanx 11 and my head is in such a muddle I don’t feel like writing anything. Sky overcast” Chistyakov writes. There is something painful locked within that simple description of the sky.
What we have here is the loss of the life before the life. Amis records in Koba the Dread, the sheer brutality of the regime, and which we’re already acquainted with in works by Grossman et al. Chistyakov though, perhaps because he is enlisted as a prison guard, articulates a different kind of brutality. Scherbakova in the introduction says that:
“he almost comes to a Kafkaesque understanding of his powerlessness in the face of an inhumane state machine which erases the boundary between freedom and unfreedom. He rises to tragic irony when he writes about the ‘historical inevitability’ of the camps”.
I certainly wouldn’t want to stray down the path of gerrymandering over whether it’s Kafkaesque ( or Orwellian for that matter) but there is a kind of perverse bureaucratic element to Chistyakov’s accounts.
Chistyakov must oversee the construction of BAM. I’ve written before about how the train recurs through Russian fiction, from Dostoevsky, to the more recent Hamid Ismailov, but we’re back again on the railway, except this isn’t a piece of fiction and the irony is all the more tragic. Maybe Scherbakova was further inclined to allie Chistyakov with Kafka because of that sometimes, intentional or not, irony. Here is an entry from January 22nd 1936:
” January is passing, but then there will be February, then March. Spring and Summer will fly by. Why are we always in such a hurry? Where do we think we are going?”
Building a railway wondering where they are going; it’s interesting that Chistyakov uses the pronoun of ‘we’ at this point. But the dates almost become arbitrary, and the verb of ‘think’ within his question even loses its possibility. Physically and mentally, the future becomes foreclosed, despite reading entry after entry, noted day after day.
And so at times the diaries are as if born out of modernism. Unlike Alfred J Prufrock’s mysticism with time, the second holds no time for decisions and revisions. A second at BAM is a second flat. The imaginative and literary capacity, again, is completely repressed, the sky is simply overcast. Chistyakov asks “what good things can I write about? Perhaps the white bread roll the political instructor brought? I write a monthly report for BAM that isn’t without an element of fiction?” It is, as Scherbakova writes a ‘historical inevitability’, one thing after the next without any other implication, absurbly and deadeningly utalitarian. Whilst many of what we sometimes crassly call ‘freedoms’ is taken from him, what makes this as imprisoning experience for Chistyakov as it is for the prisoners, is that he is ‘doing time’ as well. He knows that there is no difference; overseeing the running of the prison is the same as being in the prison, and whilst this is no great revelation, the worrying thing for Chistyakov is that it’s even harder to escape it as a guard. The prisoner’s desire is to escape (he even writes that he may have to become a prisoner to get out) , but what is Chistaykov’s desire, or thing to fantasise about? There is no opportunity or energy to use his impulse to play with time that being creative would. He is eternally moving forward, but going nowhere; he may fantasise about the past, but if he does, he rarely writes it.
His sentence is unending. One of the ways you can chart both the physical and psychological affliction is how Chistyakov details his physical movements, trudging in mud through the phalanx or making his away along the construction of the track: “You lurch along the track with thoughts you can’t dispel”. Simple statements like “life passes” have a melancholic despair to them, and you’re on Chistyakov’s anti-journey as well. There is no enlightenment at the end of the tunnel. And I return again to Scherbakova’ s moniker, the “enormous machine of repression” which doesn’t look like the palest of overstatements, both psychoanalytically and more generally.
One can only wonder then, if like Prufrock, Chistyakov saw his own ‘moment of greatness flicker’, and pass him by. Prufrock’s was a love song: there is no love here and there is only time. Whatever desire there is diminishes, and we’re left with the solitary, individual at the behest of a great, enormous system. Amis in Koba the Dread quotes Stalin when he said “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem”. We don’t know the fate of Chistyakov, and depressingly, perhaps he was aware of this, sometime after the completion of these diaries. It is at the very least a reminder that rarely is the straightforward entailed with a straightforward explanation.