The harsh taste of apricots

The publication of <em>Apricot Jam and Other Stories</em> by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us sharp

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Canongate, 375pp, £16.99

When he created Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the hero of the epoch-making One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made it clear that he was no stand-in for the author. Ivan Denisovich is not a writer, nor even a reader - when he happens to see a page of poetry, he does not recognise what it is, noticing only that the "lines [were] of exactly the same length, leaving a margin and starting each one with a capital letter exactly below the beginning of the last". Rather, he is a peasant-turned-soldier-turned-prisoner, a Soviet everyman whose nobility lies not in
elevation, but in endurance.

When a writer does turn up in the novel, briefly, he is a much more ambiguous figure: Vdovushkin, the hospital orderly whose poem Ivan glimpses. Ivan Denisovich has come to the infirmary at his labour camp hoping to be excused from working in the freezing cold. "I can't say where it is, I just feel poorly all over," he explains shyly.

Vdovushkin barely listens, brusquely telling Ivan to get back to work or risk being put "in the hole" for malingering. The orderly is much too absorbed in his real work: "He was copying out his long new poem."

In fact, Vdovushkin is not a medical man at all, but "a former student of literature, arrested in his second year of university". The camp's doctor has given him a sinecure so that he can keep up his writing. As a result, "Vdovushkin was now practising intravenous injections on ignorant prisoners and meek Lithuanians and Estonians, to whom it would never occur that a medical orderly could be nothing of the kind." As Ivan trudges back out into the frost to do heavy labour, he looks at the coddled poet and thinks, "Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?"

The collection Apricot Jam consists of nine short stories, only now translated into English, from the mid-1990s, more than 30 years after Ivan Denisovich had won renown for Solzhenitsyn as the most courageous and authoritative critic of the Soviet system. From the first story in the book, however, it becomes clear that his mistrust of literature - more exactly, of aestheticism and writerly privilege - had not diminished in the interim. The title piece introduces the technique that will be used in most of the stories, which the author called the "binary" method: each is made up of a pair of narratives, the second contrasting ironically with the first.

In "Apricot Jam", the first section takes the form of a piteous, half-literate letter from a dying worker, Fedya, to a "famous writer" whose reputation rests on his formulaic praise of the communist regime. "You say . . . that heroism is a part of our everyday lives and that the purpose and meaning of life is labour in a communist society," Fedya begins. He goes on to tell his life story, an example of the real "everyday life" led by Soviet citizens in the 1930s.

When he was growing up, his family's pride was an apricot tree, fruit from which his mother would use to make jam. However, their orchard, along with their "house with a galvanised iron roof and four horses", qualified them as kulaks, and they were deported to Siberia. Fedya alone escaped, resorting to crime before being arrested by the GPU secret police and joining the "Logistical Support Forces" - a euphemism for a slave labour battalion where he is worked almost to death. He is now writing from the hospital, where the doctor has declared: "This man is so exhausted and emaciated that if we can't improve his living conditions, I can guarantee he'll die within two weeks." He concludes his letter by begging the famous writer for a food parcel.

After this condensed version of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn moves in the second section to the villa of the Writer, known only by that capitalised honorific. We see him luxuriating in his warm house, eating apricot jam and delightedly describing to his visitors the letter he has just received. "His language doesn't follow today's rules, yet it has such compelling com­binations and use of grammatical cases!" he rhapsodises, quoting some of the letter's quaint solecisms. The Writer isn't going to reply, but he plans to make use of this worker's idiom in future books: "The point isn't in the answer. The point is in discovering a language," he concludes in the last line of the story.

With its unapologetic moralising and blunt irony, "Apricot Jam" is a perfect introduction to the stories in this volume. The binary method, as Solzhenitsyn handles it, is essentially a satirical device, designed to capture the doubleness - the double-facedness - of Russian life under communism. Solzhenitsyn was an earnest believer in the Soviet system until the Second World War, when he was arrested and sent to the Gulag for the crime of referring disrespectfully to Stalin in a private letter. And in his indictments of Soviet rule, what infuriates Solzhenitsyn above all is communism's failure to carry out its promises. He shows how a system premised on solidarity pitted men against each other in the most savage kind of struggle for survival.

Literary men, in his experience, were too often on the "winning" side of this struggle, enjoying privileges - literally eating their apricot jam - while the common people suffered. Thus, the way for literature to redeem itself was not to preserve inwardness and aesthetic delicacy, but to commit to the struggle for justice: to document abuses and honour expressions of comradeship and sacrifice.

Those themes are hammered home in Apricot Jam. The stories cover several phases of Russian life in the 20th century, but no matter the background, Solzhenitsyn offers parables of solidarity battling with corrosive selfishness and official hypocrisy. "Ego" is titled after the nom de guerre of its protagonist, Pavel Vasilyevich Ektov, an officer in a peasant revolt against the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. In the first half of the story, Ektov is a "staunch democrat", appalled by confiscations that are ruining the countryside: "Human life in general had lost its normal, reasoned flow: it was no longer the activity of reasonable beings; under the Bolsheviks it had become diminished and disfigured, something that moved in mysterious, roundabout ways or by cunning and ingenuity."

In the second half of the tale, however, Ektov's solidarity with his fellow rebels is destroyed by the Bolsheviks' threats against his wife and child. By agreeing to betray his comrades in order to save his family, he is reduced to a true ego, a mere self, which to Solzhenitsyn is the definition of misery: "He despised himself . . . One could not go on living in such darkness, one could no longer be a man."

Every normal kind of human connection, Solzhenitsyn shows, was shattered during the post-revolutionary years. In "Nastenka", we meet two young women with the same name. The first Nastasya is a priest's granddaughter who betrays her religious faith by becoming sexually promiscuous, while the second is a teacher who betrays her love of literature by feeding her students ideological formulae about Pushkin. ("He expressed the mindset and ideology of the mid-level land­owners during the incipient crisis of Russian feudalism . . . It seemed more like some form of algebra than literature.")

The one place where solidarity of a kind could be rediscovered under communism was at the front, during the Great Patriotic War. Two long stories, "Adlig Schwenkitten" and "Zhelyabuga Village", draw on Solzhenitsyn's experiences in the Red Army, each using a clipped, realistic style to evoke what it was like to serve in an artillery unit in combat. Only in battle is the prevailing mistrust of Soviet society dispelled: "Who amongst us isn't simple and innocent at heart?" reflects the narrator of "Zhelyabuga Village". "Until the war, I had never rubbed shoulders with people like this. Thanks to the war, I came to know them and to be accepted by them."

Yet the reader knows the moment is coming when the binary will kick in and the soldiers' sacrifices will be wasted or dishonoured by the party. In "No Matter What", the idealistic lieutenant Pozushan berates his troops for stealing potatoes from the mess hall. He knows they are starving, but implores them to think of the common good: "Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what you are doing? The Germans
are in Stalingrad." But when he goes to report the offence to his own superior officer, he finds Major Fatianov luxuriating in "half a pot of creamy hot millet, enough to serve four, and heavily buttered, too". "You cannot change human nature even under socialism," the major sighs; but Solzhenitsyn's sympathy is with those who did want to change it, and found in socialism not a key, but the lock.

The end of communism, in Solzhenitsyn's view, was hardly an improvement. Much has been written about the way he gradually lost influence with his countrymen after his return to Moscow in 1994. Several of the stories in Apricot Jam show him trying to get his bearings in Yeltsin-era Russia: "Fracture Points", in particular, offers a pair of sketches of Soviet citizens trying to adapt to life under a corrupt and criminal capitalism. Yet the ailments that Solzhenitsyn finds in the Russia of the 1990s are essentially the same as the ones he found in the 1920s and 1940s.

Under capitalism, like under communism, the elite enrich themselves at the expense of the common people. Trust in the system is a sure recipe for humiliation. In the second half of "No Matter What", a delegation of local people implores a visiting deputy minister to cancel
a hydroelectric project that is poisoning their river. But the smooth, sympathetic bureaucrat won't lift a finger: "After all, he knew the lay
of the land in the halls of power. If a decision is adopted, and even reconfirmed, there is no changing it any way, no matter what. All will proceed according to plan."

On this despairing note, Apricot Jam concludes, with Solzhenitsyn refusing, as he always did, to ignore the corruption and suffering before his eyes.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is "Why Trilling Matters" (Yale University Press, £20)

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?