Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

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.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is now available from Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

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

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Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger

 

Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger
Chuck Parsons

(University of North Texas Press, $29.95)

 John R. Hughes is often considered one of the Texas Rangers’ “Four Great Captains,” alongside William Jesse McDonald, James A. Brooks and John H. Rogers. (Chuck Norris, as Walker, Texas Ranger, figures nowhere in this equation.)

Before Hughes became a Ranger in 1887, he tracked down and killed several thieves who had stolen horses from his ranch and and some neighbors’ ranches.

This well-written biography by Western historian Chuck Parsons describes how Hughes intended to be a Texas Ranger for just a few months after he signed up. But he stayed on and eventually served almost 30 years, chasing horse thieves, sheep thieves, fence cutters, train robbers, bank robbers and others.

Hughes also helped provide security for three presidents who visited Texas: William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Porfirio Diaz of Mexico.

The Ranger tried to keep a low profile, but writers hailed him in newspaper and magazine articles, particularly after he retired. And novelist Zane Grey dedicated a novel, The Lone Star Ranger, to Hughes and other Rangers.

Chuck Parsons has written several other books, including The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas.

Si Dunn

Will Rogers: A Political Life

Will Rogers: A Political Life
By Richard D. White Jr.
(Texas Tech University Press, $29.95)

Oklahoma’s Will Rogers was at the peak of his international fame as an entertainer when he and pilot Wiley Post were killed in a 1935 Alaska plane crash.

Yet, as this intriguing political biography shows, Rogers was much more than a popular homespun humorist, radio commentator and media celebrity.  He was also a political commentator with virtually open-door access to the White House and Capitol Hill.

A strong isolationist, Will Rogers wanted America to stay out of foreign wars. Yet, he also was an ambassador without portfolio and sometimes was sent to foreign countries to help repair troubled diplomatic relations or observe and report on military conflicts.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his famous Sunday night radio “fireside chats” to sell his New Deal to a Depression-ravaged America, Will Rogers’ show aired first, and the entertainer often previewed what the President was about to say.

Richard D. White Jr.’s other books include Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long and Roosevelt the Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner, 1889-1895.

The author is a professor of public administration at Louisiana State University. 

Si Dunn