Ivan Chistyakov – The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
by
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.
Image result for stalin writing

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.

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The Last Outpost 

Watching Olivier Assayas’ (2014) The Clouds of Sils Maria the day after Carrie Fisher died, it seemed to throw a poignant coincidence and reminder that only the world of the screen can offer. It almost felt as if I had meant to leave watching this film, not going to watch it in the cinema even though I had wanted to, and knowing that it was on a streaming service, and delaying watching it until now, just like I had with all of the Star Wars films. But the coincidence wasn’t because Assayas’ film was about an ageing actress worrying about her standing in the world and cinema, instead, it was the odd way that it made me think about Carrie Fisher when I had no connection with the films that made Fisher famous – Star Wars. Yet here I was thinking about her and what her death possibly meant.

2016 was a year that seemed replete with deaths of global stars. Rickman, Prince, Bowie to name a few, names synonymous with fans around the world, and now, Princess Leia had joined them. Social media is flooded with outpourings of adoration at times like this, and these are people who have inevitably figured in the lives of millions, immortalised in their roles and their personas. They, unlike the rest of us, have the opportunity to live on, through their art and performance, but it as at these moments of passing that we realise these people who we invest our time and attention to via watching or listening to , are only made of the same stuff as we are. Perhaps then this is why we’re fascinated with celebrity deaths. At first it strikes in us the crippling fear that these people are not just fantasy, they are ‘real people’. It’s as if one moment these events allow us actually to consider for a moment that death happens to us all, but at the same time we’re still participating in the unreality of the media and still rejecting the truth of the matter by participating: namely, that we all die.

Clouds of Sils Maria didn’t particularly ‘tell’ me anything about this, but it was strangely correlating with the world now, both mine and globally. It stars Juliette Binoche as Maria, an actress who has been asked to play a role in a stageplay that she has already been in before. This time however, she has been asked to play the role of the older person rather than the younger one she previously played. She stars opposite Kristen Stewart (Val) who acts as her PR manager, and has a remarkable ability to deftly balance all the screens that mediate Maria’s life; text, phone, email, voice-call, video call, Val is the person who connects Maria with the world. In the opening scene on a train, Maria is seen reading a newspaper which seems a representation of Maria’s way of being informed about the world, archaic compared to Val’s wizardry with the screens.

Maria initially though is on the way to give a speech about Wilhelm Melchior, the reclusive writer of the play, and has yet to be asked to play the older role. Melchior dies and it is after the speech she is approached. The young role has instead  gone to Jo-Ann  (Chloe Grace Moretz) a brattish child-star who has appeared in a major Hollywood franchise. Maria sets to find out about her new co-star watching videos via the internet of her pugnacious interviews with the press. Val and her then watch Jo-Ann in the franchise film and Maria (quite predictably) derides it whilst, Val sees its qualities (when they actually meet her, she is extremely polite).

While the film may appear to be oozing self-referentiality, the fact that Melchior dies, I think propels it beyond that. Now, this is more than the, as Hamlet says, ‘the play where-in we’ll catch the conscious of the king’. We see Maria and Val rehearse for the play in Melchior’s home which look like lucid moments between acting and rehearsal and for a moment you’re wondering if they are rehearsing for the play or actually acting as the characters Assayas assigned them as in his film. Val says to Maria ‘an interpretation of life can be truer than life itself’; indeed it can and often is, but that ‘truer than itself’, is an exaggeration, and exists within a realm, out of time with reality, like all fiction is. The realist paintings of the 19th century, were depicting real life, but that reality was only realer than life itself.

Image result for the clouds of sils maria couch

In recent years there has been a trend or an emergence of fictions that have protagonists that are paired, or are reflected off another character. Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most prescient example as the first book of her Neopolitan Series My Brilliant Friend (2014) is exactly that; a young girl reflecting on a relationship she feels inadequate in, in which she reflects on her friend’s brilliance, yet she is the writer of (and there is a brilliant irony where she remarks of her friend that she is a better writer than she is, despite her ‘writing’ the novel). These ‘other’ characters seem to act as a reflection, a mirror, not quite fantasy but certainly represent what the other wishes they could be. There is a wry, but poignant moment when Maria sits above Val, as Val lays back on a couch. It almost looks like Maria trying to analyse herself through Val, explore, project, retain her youth in Val. This is the persistent irony, the younger knows more about the world than she does, and so when they go on a walk together Val, tells her to ‘follow her lead’. Val has the map, but does Maria have the territory? It would appear not, as they have a disagreement (one of many) and Val ambiguously disappears. Does she return? Or has Maria finally let go? Is this for her benefit? 

As we know, it was Val who has control of the screens for Maria– cinema is not the only screen any more – you are no longer the centre of attention in the world of cinema. Assayas’ naturally promulgates the cinematic one but he doesn’t seem to be proclaiming this to be the death of cinema. Notice the frequent fade to blacks which seem indicative of the fact that demise and disappearance, of ourselves and others, is imminent and inevitable and it is no longer dramatic. It is akin to your smartphone, switched off many times throughout the day. Instead Assayas’ film seems to be trying to teach us, in the most unpreachable way that there are actually things bigger than the screen, even the cinematic one: there is more to life than it. Maria is only learning what her younger films stars will have to learn, what we all will have to learn.

The screen promises immortality and immediacy; we can all feel touched by those stars, like they have all entered our lives and have been with us at particular moments in time. David Thomson, in what can be described as a sort-of biography of cinema in his book, The Big Screen (2012) says at times everybody felt that they had or could have spent a night with Marilyn Monroe. I think to The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955); all males who watch a film could be Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) and spend a weekend with Monroe who is only given the title of ‘The Girl’ as if to emphasise the fact. Sherman can scarcely believe it either.

Image result for tom ewell the seven year itch

Zadie Smith’s novel  Swing Time (2016) follows a similar to model to Ferrante about a girl who bedazzled by her friend’s brilliant talents ironically ends up working for her childhood pop-star idol. Here is Smith talking about the narrator’s moment she begins to work for Aimee:
“I was still a child when my path first crossed with Aimee’s – but how can I call it fate? Everybody’s path crossed with hers at the same moment, as soon as she emerged she was uncontained by space and time, with not one path to cross but all paths…”
What is living contact any more? The narrator seems more believing of the fact that she is working with a worldwide pop star than she ever does to be friend’s with Tracey. But the screen can never truly tell us how to connect; no matter how much a film tries to depict a non-fantastical, ‘realistic’ relationship, it will never be real. It is as Val says, truer than life itself. 

And so, here I was, back thinking about Carrie Fisher, made famous in a set of films that I have no real concern for: i haven’t even seen all of them. Certainly it speaks about the intrusiveness of the spectacle but I was giving it the consideration that it spoke about something much greater than that. In her last few months, Fisher had released some memoirs and spoken about her affair with Harrison Ford during the making of Star Wars. It was there for us all to see. All along Fisher along with Ford had been trying to tell us that there were things greater than the world inhabited by celebrity and the media, they had been trying to step outside of the screen. It was in that moment when Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back looks to be going to his death, and Princess Leia tells her that she loves him. The next line is apparently ad-libbed by Ford. What does Ford say? Maybe it wasn’t ad-libbed depending what side of the screen you’re on.

Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be a simple one: watch all those Star Wars films.