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In Memory of Fly the Cat

A newly translated short story by Olga Nekliudova, introduced by William Boyd.

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) spent a total of 18 years in the Russian forced labour camps known as the Gulag. A poet and writer, he did two astonishingly harsh stints there – charged with “counter-revolutionary activities” – between 1929 and 1951 when he was finally released. His slave-labour was principally in the gold mines of Kolyma – a region in the sub-arctic north-east of Russia – and the literary consequences of his incarceration are some dozens of short stories known as the Kolyma Stories (recently superbly translated into English by Donald Rayfield and published in two volumes by New York Review of Books: volume two is imminent)

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, another survivor of the camps, who coined the phrase “the Gulag Archipelago”, is probably the most famous of the many writers who were imprisoned. His One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) is the Gulag’s great literary monument – though it may soon be eclipsed by Shalamov’s extraordinary short stories as they begin to gain greater currency with these new translations. Shalamov writes with brutal, non-judgemental, deadpan realism. The absence of any kind of overt shock, horror or lamentation lends his stories an extraordinary and unforgettable potency.

Shalamov, by all accounts, never really recovered from his years in the Gulag. Photographs show a seamed, gaunt face, etched hard with bitter apprehension. He seems to have been an ornery and taciturn man who made few friends and whose rare friendships, with men and women, were soon under strain. Such was his pariah status as a released political prisoner that his daughter from his first marriage refused to acknowledge him.

In the years following his return to society he moved tentatively in Russian literary circles – Solzhenitsyn was an early champion. Shalamov was always under surveillance by the KGB but managed to publish several volumes of poetry before the first of the Kolyma stories appeared. Banned in Russia, the stories were published abroad in samizdat form and then in some French and German translations. It was an archivist in the Russian State Archive called Irina Sirotinskaya who unilaterally gathered together and preserved his stories – and without whom there would be no posthumous recognition of Shalamov’s place in 20th century Russian literature.


The unforgotten past: Varlam Shalamov. Credit: Sovfoto/Universal images group via Getty images

However, Shalamov’s health had been broken by the privations of camp life and he ended up in squalid circumstances in a rebarbative nursing home near Moscow where conditions were almost as bad as the Gulag. Diagnosed by a KGB-controlled commission as suffering from dementia, he was moved to a psychiatric hospital, where he swiftly succumbed to pneumonia.

The story printed overleaf, “In Memory of Fly the Cat”, was written by Shalamov’s second wife, Olga Nekliudova (translated here by Donald Rayfield), and its great value lies in its portrait of this deeply traumatised man trying to put his life back together again. It was written in 1965 when Shalamov had been liberated from his Gulag past for 14 years, yet in its allusions and oblique references it’s apparent that the suffering he endured still haunted and shaped him.

Donald Rayfield, during his researches, came across an online version of the story on a Russian website – it has never been published in print – and asked Nekliudova’s son, Professor Sergei Nekliudov, a distinguished ethnologist, if he could translate and publish it as a coda to his edition of Shalamov’s Kolyma stories. Time and economics made this impossible. Olga Nekliudova (1909-89) wrote stories for children and some were published in the Soviet era but only in Russian. This is the first time her work has been translated into English.

“In Memory of Fly the Cat” sheds fascinating new light on Shalamov’s post-Gulag life. In his Kolyma collections only dumb animals, rather than human beings, are the recipients of any affection, understanding or trust. Shalamov himself would have never written such a story. Its sentiment, its pathos, would have seemed reprehensible to him. But the fact that we have it is tellingly evocative. Paradoxically, with Shalamov as its subject (unnamed but very thinly disguised) and with the bleak knowledge of his background and biography, this apparently slight story of a man’s love for his cat called “Fly” (apparently a common name for black cats in Russia) is gravid with disturbing subtext. The death of an old, sick cat and the devastated reaction of its owner tells us more about the physical scars and the still-bleeding mental wounds inflicted by the Gulag than anything more explicit and horrific could have achieved. 

***

In Memory of Fly the Cat

There was a thunderstorm that night at the end of July. Both the skylights in the big room, which was both his wife’s room and their common living room, had been left wide open. The armchair by the table was soaked; the wind had ripped the portraits of grandmother and grand-father off the wall. The glass was shattered, and the ancient decrepit frames had fallen apart. Grandfather and grandmother were still intact, but, deprived of those black slatted frames, they seemed to have lost their old-fashioned charm and their place in this room and in the building. What could be done with them? He swept up the bits of glass and frame, and leant the portraits against the back of the sofa over which they had hung.

The two of them now looked as if they had come back from the next world to sit on a low-backed divan in this world. It occurred to him that this might well be a bad omen. At least the mirror hanging between the windows had not been smashed. It happened on the night that the cat vanished. They had lived here, just the two of them, since spring. His family was in the country. Occasionally he felt lonely and hurt because he was alone and had very few visits, but more often than not he was happy. He could work better like this. All these visits – short-lived, but bothersome – merely sidetracked him. He didn’t miss his kith and kin. He had with him the creature closest to his heart, the cat. She was black, which was why she was called Fly, and she was getting on. She was nearly nine. Fly had been ill the whole year so far, and each new illness seemed to bring her nearer to a final catastrophe. She had a litter that went badly; then she pierced her paw when she was making her way along the fence which the old lady next door had topped off with barbed wire to protect her “front garden”. They’d taken Fly for an X-ray and the lady vet had visited every day to give her an injection of penicillin. The wound developed a fistula which had to be painfully and slowly probed, but Fly understood she was being given treatment and took a liking to the vet. The paw healed and Fly went off again and had two kittens. One died of distemper; the other, Grisha, her favourite, was sent to live in the country. Fly found it hard to be separated from her last offspring. She had loved him for a long time.

Later, someone set a dog on her, and she was no longer strong enough to defend herself or to run away. The dog bit her ears and neck. That brought her very near to death.

Finally came a fungal skin infection. Her fur was all patches and bald spots, such an unpleasant sight that everybody avoided her. The woman next door had hammered nails around the edges of her kitchen table to stop people using the telephone from leaning on the table, so that, if they did, they would stab themselves in the hand or the elbow. Fly, however, kept leaping on to the table, avoiding the nails.

Once, when Fly’s owner was away, the neighbour and the old women she called her friends put on their glasses and examined Fly’s give-away bald patches. They clasped their hands in horror: “Mange! It might be ringworm! My God! We’ve got to get rid of her!” That was when her owner came back. He yelled, “Get away from my cat,” and snatched her out of the old women’s clutches.

“Your cat is sick,” one of them said in a saccharine voice. “I reckon she has mange, mange! It’s dangerous!”

“Rubbish,” he shouted. “There’s no sign of mange!”

He went to his room, cursing and clutching Fly. She had to be anointed with iodine, and he tried to do so, but couldn’t manage on his own. On the rare days that his wife came to see him they did apply the iodine, and Fly recovered. Soon after that came the first attempt on her life. At night, when she was wandering outside, someone lashed her back with a whip.

At five in the morning her owner, badly worried, came out to look for her. Almost on the verge of death, she crawled up to him on her belly. She recovered once more, but miscarried, since her kittens had been killed in her womb.

His wife came and told Fly’s owner, “She’s going to be killed, whatever you do. It will be the same as happened to Liza. You’d better bring her to the country, or I’ll take her myself.” The offer was refused. Fly’s owner believed he was all-powerful and that the neighbours regarded him with respect and a certain amount of fear. He believed that these people, who despised animals and anyone who looked after them, respected his affection for Fly. She had lived here for eight years, very much loved until the old women saw her fungal infection. That was when a decision to kill her was taken and an attempt was made, but Fly
recovered after a time.

Fly disappeared on the night of 28 July. When the storm came, when grandfather and grandmother fell off the wall, when he had an absurd and degrading dream, when his wife dreamed of her relatives, missed them badly and heard their voices. Fly’s owner woke up and couldn’t find her anywhere. Mad with grief, he rushed to the veterinary clinic, to see the vet who had treated Fly. Had she been taken there? Had she met her end during a round-up of strays? “There haven’t been any round-ups,” said the vet who had treated Fly. But he felt that she knew something. She was not just a local vet now, she was in charge of the clinic: she advised him to go to the morgue. To have a look at the place where they kept cats found in the street for three days. The cats were killed on the fourth day if nobody came to pick them up: he went there. Among the small creatures whose life was to be terminated in gas chambers, painfully and without good cause, there were infants. The condemned were kept in boxes as restrictive as picture frames… The spectacle was unbearable for anyone with the slightest hint of compassion, and he found it hard to endure. Fly wasn’t there. But she wasn’t among the corpses, either.

He went home with the faint hope that she had just wandered off, as she had previously: then he saw close to the house a workman digging a trench for the water pipes. He had seen him in the morning, but hadn’t thought to ask him. Now he
approached, and the workman turned to face him.

“I buried a black cat here.”

Fly’s owner felt fear, and then could take no more. “I shan’t believe you until I see her. Dig her up.”

“I’m not going to. Honestly, there’s no point.”

Another workman came out of the boiler room. “Is it the cat? It’s buried over there. You dig if you want to, old man.”

He was handed a spade. Weeping and cursing, he dug, and he remembered the past, distant and at the same time close, always pressing on him, a time when he used a spade to fight and overcome the earth’s resistance, when he dug graves…

Cursing and weeping, he went on digging. The boiler-room workmen and the man who’d been digging the trench for the water pipes looked on. At first they were laughing. Then they tried to talk him out of it. Finally, when the hole was about half a metre deep, they showed him the exact place where Fly had been buried.

He gave them enough money for a half-litre bottle of vodka, and they dug Fly up. The man he had first talked to did the digging. This man was amazed, he felt sorry, he felt indignant, but he sympathised. Had he wanted to, Fly’s owner could have found out whose hand had done this. But he asked no questions, because he was afraid what he might do. Finally a small black head was visible…

Holding Fly in his arms, he went into the building. She had been shot in the head, and the earth had taken the shine out of her fur. He laid her on his bed and sat on the floor next to her, weeping… He spent that day with her. He wept and remembered everything from the very beginning, when she first appeared in their house, a little black kitten, caught around the garbage tip.

By the time his wife came back from the country, Fly had been buried and everything was tidied up, but grandmother and grandfather were still sitting on the sofa, framed now in cardboard that was yellow with age.

His wife wept for Fly, for the cat’s violent death, for her own inability to punish the killer. She wept because her husband had lost the creature closest to him and would now be even more lonely and isolated. She also wept for fear: she thought that this was not the end, that it was just the beginning, that the misfortunes hadn’t stopped coming, that this was only the start, that the family would fall apart and their home would be destroyed.

Fly’s owner stood in silence, thinking of his unforgotten past, where neither life nor death had any value… 

Translated by Donald Rayfield.

We are grateful to Olga Nekliudova’s son, Sergei Nekliudov, for permission to publish this story

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control