Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.
Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.
The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.” He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.
In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”
In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.”
Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.
In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be ”better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.
Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates.
Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.
Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when ”[t]he word ’privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”
If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.
This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.
– Si Dunn