In its new avatar, Hardnews goes beyond chasing news and writing analysis on contemporary issues, which it will continue to do in the coming weeks, but it would also look at exploring works of those authors who fought isolation, censorship and tyranny of fascism. This is the first part of a long essay by Amit SenGupta on the stirrings of a free mind in difficult and grave circumstances .
“It is demonstrable,” Pangloss would say, “that things cannot be other than they are. For, since everything is made for a purpose, everything must be for the best possible purpose…It follows that those who say that everything is good are talking foolishly: what they should say is that everything is for the best.”
“That seems to be the way of things. Everyone takes, everyone gives. Life is like that.”
“Ah, but if you are without possessions, how can you give?’
“Everyone gives what he has. The soldier gives strength, the merchant goods, the teacher instruction, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”
“Very well and what can you give? What have you earned that you can give?’
“I can think, I can wait, I can fast.”
“Is that all?
“I think that is all.”
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
While Candide, walking through a million grotesque journeys of barbarism, mass murders and murder by stealth, most brutal forms of violence against women, slavery, human depravity, cunning, betrayal, imprisonment and tragedy, finally finds some kind of a fake replica of his Peruvian El Dorado, the only El Dorado of its kind for Voltaire in the entire world somewhere in Latin America protected and insulated by gigantic mountains, Siddhartha finds his beginning in the end, listening to the river, waiting for the stone to become stone, soil, dust and emptiness, vanishing into the river.
Ivan Denisovich, finds nothing of this sort, indeed, he is not in search for such salvations at all. No. Not even in a labour camp, albeit a death camp, in Stalin’s Siberia.
One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich: In this thin obscure book, forgotten among the other epical narratives by the author, including the Gulag Archipelago, one of my five eternally favourite books, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, celebrates the stoic idea of digging in as ultimate virtue, the pitching of the existential life-affirming instinct against all odds, in slow motion amidst the dark and nasty shadows of infinite brutality, degradation, humiliation, dying and death, like a minute-to-minute revelation and ritualism of realism, and the song of the road: Pather Panchali.
His protagonist is not a defeatist, neither a visionary or a prophet, not even a revolutionary, but his aspirations and ambitions are not rising sky-high to finally make a skyfall; he is neither James Bonds nor Candide that rides on the fortunes of everything that is not bad at all, and who expects things to turn out well, and hopes that all that happens is for the good. He is not even Siddhartha, the final boatman on a river with shores, who does not believe in words anymore, nor teaching or preaching like the Buddha. Nothing of the sort.
Others survived, not because of a ‘revolutionary dream’, but due to the normative protocol of a daily grind and daily discovery, that life is more precious than death, that even in a gutter, there can be a blue and vermillion Van Gogh kind of flower glowing in full starry night bloom.
It is like if you have fish bones for food, and nothing else, no bread, no fish, not even rotten potatoes, you simply chew the fish bone, for as long as you can, since you have nothing else to chew. If you have only your gaze, and there is nothing but the abyss, so do nothing but gaze forever into the abyss, and don’t believe in what Fredrich Nietzsche said, because if you gaze too long at the abyss, indeed, the abyss will not gaze back at you.
On the contrary, the abyss might hide in its infinite black hole of sadness and wisdom, a new design and mapping for the ‘great escape’ to freedom; freedom from money and the mundane and the moronic, freedom from slavery and the desire to have slaves, the insatiability of relentless desire and forever power, the concentration or labour camps, the dungeon of a chained prison, the dark alley of a poverty-stricken ghetto, the mediocrity of your profession, and the comfort zone and suffocating stagnation of the institution of marriage and a happy middle class life, with a Television soap opera or ‘breaking fake news’ as bonus.
In the case of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, the protagonist in Stalin’s labour camp in Siberia, where the author of the book spent 8 years first and then in internal exile in Soviet Russia until he was arrested and exiled in 1974, the abyss is some kind of a home without a hearth, a shelter without warmth, a condemnation and exile without the fear of death and dying. Does he like it, is it for the best? Not really, but he is not going down so easily. And he is digging in, like Irish hunger strikers with a death wish. The only difference is he does not celebrate the death wish. He wants to live. At any cost. And find happiness too, if possible, and why not?
Here, therefore, it is not the end of imagination. It is just that, don’t give up. Shukov will not give up. Each day, in his life in the labour/death camp.
Tens of thousands died in these labour camps, feverish, sickly, jaundiced, their bodies limp and emaciated with hunger and hard labour, their skin shrunken like the hollow of their eyes, their dying a slow death as inevitable as the freezing cold and the freezing morning after of hard labour yet again. Most of them were ‘fixed’ or ‘condemned’ in these death camps for no obvious reason except for the compulsive and cruel mass purges of the Stalinist era, including of the top leaders of the Soviet Communist Party and the Red Army, including the soldiers and officers of the victorious Red Army which defeated the fascists, including the relatives of the millions who died in the cold defending their motherland, including in Leningrad and Stalingrad, in Poland and Germany, and elsewhere.
Shukov himself was captured as a prisoner by the Germans; he was quickly branded as a spy by the Stalinist regime. If he refused to be branded as a spy, he would be instantly shot.
He chose to survive, in the labour camp in Stalin’s Siberia.
Despite that, they all loved the Soviet Union, they hailed the great sacrifices made in the fight against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. And, yet, actually, many cried in the camp, when Stalin died, their saline tears frozen like Orhan Pamuk’s snow, or the salt of the desert.
It is like if you have fish bones for food, and nothing else, no bread, no fish, not even rotten potatoes, you simply chew the fish bone, for as long as you can, since you have nothing else to chew.
Others survived, not because of a ‘revolutionary dream’, but due to the normative protocol of a daily grind and daily discovery, that life is more precious than death, that even in a gutter, there can be a blue and vermillion Van Gogh kind of flower glowing in full starry night bloom. Here, therefore, it is not the end of imagination. It is just that, don’t give up. Shukov will not give up. Each day, in his life in the labour/death camp.
This is how the thin book by Solzhenitsyn ends, but, surely, the book never ends, because Shukhov’s journey is yet incomplete, like that of Candide of Siddhartha:
“…Alyosha returned. Impractical, that’s his trouble. Makes himself nice to everyone but doesn’t know how to do favors that get paid back.
“Here you are, Alyosha,” said Shukhov, and handed him a biscuit.
Alyosha smiled. “Thank you. But you’ve got nothing yourself.”
“Eat it.” (We’ve nothing but we always find a way to make something extra.)
Now for that slice of sausage. Into the mouth. Getting your teeth into it. Your teeth. The meaty taste. And the meaty juice, the real stuff. Down it goes, into your belly.
The rest, Shukhov decided, for the morning. Before the roll call.
And he buried his head in the thin, unwashed blanket, deaf now to the crowd of zeks from the other half as they jostled between the bunk frames, waiting to be counted. Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favour from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fiftythree days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
The three extra days were for leap years…”