Varlam Shalamov

The Snake Charmer

We were sitting on an enormous larch that had been felled by a storm. In permafrost, trees can barely grip the inhospitable earth and it’s easy for a storm to uproot them and lay them flat on the ground. Platonov was telling me the story of his life here — our second life in this world. I frowned at the mention of the Jankhara mine. I had been in some bad and difficult places myself, but the terrible fame of Jankhara resounded far and near.

‘Were you in Jankhara long?’

‘A year,’ said Platonov quietly. His eyes narrowed, his wrinkles became more pronounced — before me was a different Platonov, suddenly ten years older.

‘But it was only the beginning that was tough, the first two or three months. They’re all criminals there. I was the only . . . literate person. I used to tell them stories, I used to “pull novels” for them, as the criminals say in their thieves’ cant. In the evenings I told them stories by Dumas, Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. In exchange they fed and clothed me and I worked less. In this place that’s the only advantage you get from being able to read and write — I suppose you’ve probably made use of it too.’

No,’ I said. ‘No. To me that always seemed the ultimate humiliation, the end. I’ve never told novels for soup. But I know what you’re talking about. I’ve heard “novelists”.’

‘Is that a condemnation?’ asked Platonov.

‘Not in the least,’ I replied. ‘A lot can be forgiven a hungry man — a lot.’

‘If I stay alive’ — this was the sacred formula that prefaced all reflections concerning any time beyond the next day — ‘I’ll write a story about it. I’ve already thought of a title: “The Snake Charmer”. Do you like it?’

‘Yes, I do. You just have to stay alive. That’s the important thing.’

Andrey Fyodorovich Platonov, a scriptwriter in his first life, died about three weeks after this conversation. He died the way many die — he swung his pick, lost his balance, and fell flat on his face against the rock. Intravenous glucose and strong cardiac medicines could probably have brought him back to life — he wheezed on for another hour or hour-and-a-half — but he was already silent by the time a stretcher was brought from the hospital. The orderlies carried the little corpse to the morgue — a light burden of skin and bones.

I loved Platonov because he didn’t lose interest in the life beyond the blue seas and the high mountains, the life we were cut off from by so many miles and years and in whose existence we hardly believed any longer — or rather we believed in it only as children believe in the existence of some distant America. Platonov, God knows how, even had some books, and when it wasn’t very cold, in July for example, he would avoid the kind of conversation that usually kept us all going — what kind of soup we had had or would be having for supper, would bread be given out three times a day or just once in the morning, would it be rainy or clear the next day . . .

I loved Platonov, and I shall try now to write down his story: ‘The Snake Charmer’.

The end of work is by no means the end of work. After the whistle you must gather your tools, take them to the storeroom, hand them over, form up in ranks, and go through two of the ten daily roll-calls to the accompaniment of the guards’ curses and the pitiless shouts and insults of your own comrades, comrades who are not yet as weak as you are, but who are tired like you are, who are in a hurry to get back like you are and who are made furious by every delay. Then you have to go through yet another roll-call, form up in ranks, and walk five kilometres to the forest to collect firewood — the forest nearby has long ago been felled and burnt. The lumber brigade prepare the wood, but the mineworkers each have to carry a log home. Goodness knows how the heavy logs are brought back, the logs that are too heavy even for two men to carry together. Trucks are never sent out for wood, and the horses are all too sick even to leave their stables. A horse weakens much more quickly than a human being, although the difference between its previous life and its present life is, of course, immeasurably less than it is for human beings. It often seems, and probably it is true, that man rose up out of the animal kingdom, that man became man, the creature able to think up such things as this archipelago and our improbable life here, simply because he had greater physical endurance than any other animal. What made an ape into a human being was not its hand, not its embryonic brain, not its soul — there are dogs and bears who act more intelligently and ethically than human beings. Nor was it a matter of mastering the power of fire — that too was secondary. Man had no other advantage at this time except that he turned out to be considerably stronger, he turned out to possess greater endurance — greater physical endurance. It’s inaccurate to say that a man has nine lives like a cat. It would be more true to say of a cat that it has nine lives like a man. A horse can’t endure even a month of our life here in winter, in cold quarters and with long hours of heavy labour in the frost. Unless it’s a Yakut horse. But then Yakut horses aren’t used for work. Nor, I admit, are they fed. Like deer, they hoof up the snow and drag out last year’s dry grass. Yet man does stay alive. Maybe he lives on hope? But no one here has any hopes. No one here, unless he is a fool, can live on hope. That is why there are so many suicides. No, what saves man is his sense of self-preservation, the tenacity — the physical tenacity — with which he clings on to life and to which even his consciousness is subordinate. What keeps him alive is the same as what keeps a stone, a tree, a bird or a dog alive. But his grip on life is stronger than theirs. And he has greater endurance than any animal.

Platonov was thinking about all this as he stood by the gate with a log on his shoulder, waiting for the next roll-call. The firewood was brought in and stacked, and the people, jostling and swearing, hurried back into the dark log barrack.

When his eyes had got used to the dark, Platonov saw that by no means every worker had gone out to work. In the far corner, on the upper bed-boards, where they had taken the only light — an oil-lamp with no glass — seven or eight men were sitting in a circle round two other men who had their legs crossed like Tatars and were playing cards across a dirty pillow they had placed between them. The smoky lamp trembled, its flame lengthening and rocking the shadows.

Platonov sat down on the edge of the bed-boards. His shoulders and knees ached; his muscles were trembling. Platonov had been brought to Jankhar only that morning, and this had been his first day’s work. There were no free places on the boards.

‘Any moment now the game will break up,’ thought Platonov, ‘and I’ll be able to lie down.’

The game up above finished. A black-haired man with a moustache and a long nail on the little finger of his left hand rolled over towards the edge of the boards.

‘Well then, let’s have a look at that Ivan Ivanovich over there!’

Platonov was woken by a prod in the back.

‘Hey you — you’re being called.’

‘Well, where is this Ivan Ivanovich?’ came the voice from up above.

‘I’m not Ivan Ivanovich,’ said Platonov, screwing up his eyes.

‘He won’t come, Fedechka.’

‘Won’t he now?’

Platonov was pushed out into the light.

‘Hope to live?’ Fedya asked him quietly, rotating his little finger with its long dirty nail in front of Platonov’s eyes.

‘Who doesn’t?’ answered Platonov.

A powerful punch in the face knocked him off his feet. Platonov picked himself up and wiped off the blood with his sleeve.

‘That’s no way to answer,’ Fedya explained affectionately. ‘I’m sure that’s not the way you were taught to answer at college, Ivan Ivanovich!’

Platonov remained silent.

‘Bugger off now,’ said Fedya. ‘Go and lie down by the shit bucket. That’s your place now. One squeak from you — and we wring your neck.’

This was no empty threat. Platonov had already seen two men being strangled with towels — in settlement of some ‘thieves’’ score. Platonov lay down on the damp, stinking planks.

‘Brothers, I’m bored,’ said Fedya, yawning. ‘Someone might at least give my heels a scratch.’

‘Mashka, hey, Mashka, come and scratch Fedya’s heels.’

Into the strip of light emerged Mashka, a pale, pretty ‘thief’ about eighteen years old.

He pulled off Fedya’s worn yellow shoes, carefully slipped off his torn dirty socks and, smiling, began to scratch Fedya’s heels. Fedya was ticklish; he was giggling and shaking.

‘Get lost,’ he said suddenly. ‘You can’t scratch. You don’t know how to.’

‘But Fedya, I . . .’

‘Get lost, I said. Scraping and clawing at me like that. No finesse.’

The onlookers nodded their heads sympathetically.

‘In Kosoy, now, I had a Yid. He knew how to scratch. Brothers, did he know how to scratch! An engineer.’

And Fedya plunged into his memories of a Yid who had once scratched his heels.

‘But Fedya, Fedya, what about the new boy? Don’t you want to try him?’

‘Huh,’ said Fedya. ‘His sort don’t know how to scratch. Still, you can bring him along.’

Platonov was brought out into the light.

‘Ey, Ivan Ivanovich, you look after the lamp!’ Fedya ordered. ‘And at night you can put wood on the fire. Yes, and in the morning you can empty the slop pail. The orderly will show you where.’

Platonov remained obediently silent.

‘In exchange,’ Fedya explained, ‘you will receive a bowl of soup. I don’t eat that swill anyway. Right, now go and sleep.’

Platonov lay down in his former spot. The workers were nearly all asleep, huddled up in twos or threes for warmth.

‘I’m bored,’ said Fedya, ‘the nights are too long. If only someone here could pull novels. In Kosoy, now . . .’

‘But Fedya, Fedya, what about the new boy? Don’t you want to try him?’

‘That’s an idea,’ said Fedya, coming back to life. ‘Bring him along.’

Platonov was brought along.

‘Listen,’ said Fedya, almost ingratiatingly. ‘I got a little carried away just now.’

‘That’s all right,’ Platonov said through clenched teeth.

‘Listen now. Can you pull novels?’

A light gleamed in Platonov’s dull eyes. He could — and how! In the investigation prison, his whole cell had been spellbound while he told the story of Count Dracula. But they had been people. Whereas this lot? Should he become court jester to the Duke of Milan — a jester who was fed for a good jest and beaten for a bad one? But there was another way of looking at it all. He would teach them about real literature. He would enlighten them. He would awaken in them an interest in art, in the word; even here, in the lower depths, he would do his duty, fulfil his calling. As had long been his way, Platonov did not want to admit to himself that it was simply a matter of being fed, of receiving an extra bowl of soup not for carrying out a slop bucket, but for other, more dignified work. More dignified? No, he wouldn’t really be an enlightener — he would be more like someone scratching a criminal’s dirty heels. But the cold, the beatings, the hunger . . .

Smiling tensely, Fedya waited for an answer.

‘Y-yes, I can,’ said Platonov, and smiled for the first time on that difficult day. ‘I can pull novels.’

‘You darling!’ said Fedya more cheerfully. ‘Come on then, climb up here. And here’s some bread for you. Tomorrow you’ll get something better. Come on, sit on this blanket. And have a smoke!’

Platonov, who had not smoked for a week, drew with painful pleasure on a stub of makhorka.

‘What’s the name then?’

‘Andrey,’ said Platonov.

‘Well then, Andrey, how about something nice and long that’s got a bit of spice in it? Something like The Count of Monte Cristo. None of that stuff about tractors.’

Les Misérables, perhaps?’ Platonov suggested.

‘Is that the one about Jean Valjean? I heard that in Kosoy.’

The Club of the Knaves of Hearts then. Or The Vampire?’[1]

‘Fine. Let’s have those Knaves . . . Silence, you swine!’

Platonov cleared his throat.

‘In the city of St Petersburg, in the year 1893, a mysterious crime was committed . . .’

It was getting light when Platonov found he had no more strength left: ‘And with that the first part comes to a close.’

‘Great stuff!’ said Fedya. ‘That’s the spirit! Come and lie down with us now. There isn’t much time left for sleep — it’s dawn. You’ll have to snatch a bit of shut-eye while you’re out at work — you must get your strength up for this evening!’

Platonov was already asleep.

They were being taken out to work. A tall country lad, who had slept through yesterday’s Knaves of Hearts, gave Platonov a vicious shove as they went through the door: ‘Watch where you’re going, you reptile!’

Someone immediately whispered something in the lad’s ear.

As they were forming into ranks, the tall lad went up to Platonov.

‘Don’t tell Fedya I hit you. I didn’t realize, brother, that you’re a novelist.’

‘I won’t,’ answered Platonov.

Written in 1954; first published in 1967

Translated by Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson

Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics 2007)


  • 1. The first ‘novel’ is derived from Victor-Alexis Ponson du Terrail’s 1857—70 feuilleton saga, Rocambole or The Dramas of Paris, whose anti-hero was the mastermind of a criminal organization known as ‘The Club of the Knaves of Hearts’; Platonov’s transposition of the action to St Petersburg in 1893 can be seen as an indication of the liberties that camp ‘novelists’ took with their material. Shalamov is probably also alluding to Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. The second ‘novel’ is derived from The Vampyre by John Polidori. A huge success when published in 1819, this novella was at first thought to have been written by Lord Byron.