Apricot Jam: A helpless witness to history

The dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned triumphantly to Russia from exile in 1994 to write this collection of stories – available for the first time in English – that reanimate the corpse of the totalitarian system he had undermined and questioned for so much of his adult life.

The exiled Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalya and sons Yermolai, left, and Ignat arrive in Zurich from the Soviet Union in 1974. Heinz Ducklau / AP Photo
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What is to be done with the excess strands of a story that has already been written? To what distant tip do we cart the unwanted, extraneous details of a tale already summarised, serialised, and forgotten? The question applies with equal validity to the author and subject of Apricot Jam and Other Stories, which may explain the audible click of connection between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the crumbling edifice - crumbling for more than 70 years before finally giving way - of the Soviet Union. Even before his death in 2008, Solzhenitsyn had had his obituaries written, remembering him as the man who assisted in bringing down an empire with books like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago - less artist than prophet.

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Following the writing of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn had been expelled, eventually fleeing to the United States, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he returned to Russia, living out the last 15 years of his life there. While there, he wrote the eight stories that form Apricot Jam. Most are dedicated, paradoxically, to reanimating the corpse of the Soviet Union - the very beast that Solzhenitsyn had devoted the overwhelming bulk of his energy to toppling. For what other subject could he possibly profess to know so well?

Gone for 20 years, the mundane reality of the Soviet Union - its language, its jobs market, its restructuring of the weekly calendar - feels increasingly like an emanation from a far-off planet, bearing little resemblance to, or resonance for, the world we live in. More than a prophet, Solzhenitsyn was communism's memory-keeper, and Apricot Jam is further evidence of his ability to remember what others prefer to forget.

"And you simply can't avoid swimming along in this stream, my dear," a father tells his teenage daughter in the story The New Generation, "or you might let the whole epoch slip past, as they say. What's being created - and granted, it's being created stupidly, clumsily, and by fits and starts - is something majestic." The father has it wrong - nothing majestic at all is being created, only more horror - but Solzhenitsyn, too, must swim in the Soviet stream. Having been cursed to live through it all, he is blessed - or is it yet another curse? - to remember it all. And his memories are unadulterated, preserving the way people experienced war and deprivation and the Great Terror, not the way others chose to remember it. "So this is the problem: Should he write about all this?" his Marshal Zhukov, who narrates his own life story in Times of Crisis, wonders. "In fact, could he write about it?"

Solzhenitsyn can, and these stories look backward at the empire that was in all its blood-soaked, demonic vigour. Even though it is impossible, there are moments in Apricot Jam where one could almost swear that Solzhenitsyn had read Timothy Snyder's searing 2010 book Bloodlands, with its stories of cannibalism and mass starvation, and translated its historian's prose into literature. Examples abound of these figures of commingled horror and pity, emblems of the Soviet calamity. The wounded soldier, his leg blown off in battle, who begs his comrades to "just straighten my right leg for me, boys ...". The rape victim cursed by her doctor for aborting another foetus: "They could already tell it was a boy: his body was tossed into the waste bucket." The academic interrogated by a former student to whom he had once shown mercy, gently telling him his best hope is to compose a rap sheet of imaginary crimes.

But Solzhenitsyn, in novels like The First Circle and Cancer Ward, always demonstrated a preternatural sensitivity to language, and the most memorable moments of Apricot Jam revolve around the Soviet misuses of language. Words take on meanings precisely opposite to what they had always meant, and Soviet speech - part idealistic, part thuggish - becomes the lingua franca of the age. Revolutionary actors need revolutionary words to speak: "After the revolution we need not just new words but even new letters for them! Even the periods and commas of the past become repulsive." And a true-believing lecturer takes the literature of the past hilariously to task for its ideological failings: "Had Leo Tolstoy been able to think as clearly as Comrade Stalin he would not have tangled himself in long sentences." The truest language of the era, he believes, emerges from a darker, more brutish place: "While someone was being flogged, stretched on the rack, or burned with a hot iron, the most unadorned speech, coming from his very bowels, would burst forth from him. And this is something absolutely new!"

Solzhenitsyn remembers, above all, what the past sounded like, and his stories, almost all of which are set in the Soviet era, avoid the mistake of re-editing the original transcript. To twist a favoured bromide of the Leninist-Stalinists, Solzhenitsyn lends his characters the rope by which they eventually hang themselves. In the collection's best story, Times of Crisis, Marshal Zhukov, hero of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, narrates a capsule history of his life and times serving under Stalin. Only at the very conclusion, overwhelmed by crashing waves of applause emanating from the audience at the Writers' Club, does he choose to wonder about the efficacy of his choices: "There was pain in his heart. Perhaps it was then that he should have done something. Then, perhaps, then was the time he should have acted. Can it be that I was really such a fool ...?" Those twin, staccato "then's", so pointed and so uselessly belated, are the dagger the author wields, the cutting incisions of Jamesian irony his preferred mode of attack.

At times, Apricot Jam falls into an artless routine that belies its author's strengths - irony and satire. Adlig Schwenkitten and Zhelyabuga Village, the two Second World War stories, in particular, are the weakest in the collection, suffering from overfamiliar themes, even as Solzhenitsyn desperately tries to undo the clichés of the combat narrative.

In his old age, his greatest works past him, Solzhenitsyn casts himself as the helpless witness, able to remember what he could not help. "While some maliciously calculated plague raged around him," a soldier remembers of the eradication of the kulaks, "he could only look at the eyes of the dying and listen to the wailing of women and the weeping of children. It was as if he has been vaccinated against this plague but also dared not help any of its victims."

The author's boundless pity for the victims of Soviet utopianism finds an outlet in capsule biographies like Times of Crisis and "binaries" - the author's term for stories that ironically juxtapose the experiences of two different protagonists, like the young women who share the same name, but dissimilar fates, in Nastenka.

In Fracture Points, the book's final story, a Soviet factory boss and a physicist-turned-oligarch (shades of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) each share their stories of material success via adaptation to the new capitalist reality.

Every era has its winners, and its losers: for every scientist who goes on to make a mint as a banker, there is another willing to kill him for a few extra rubles. The elite, though, remain as blind as ever to the struggles of the powerless: "You might have the best cabin on the ship, but what did it matter if your ship was sinking?"

Solzhenitsyn himself lived, not two lives, but at least four - as a Soviet citizen, prisoner, American exile and returning Russian hero. Coming home, in 1994, must have been a bittersweet reminder of all that he had, once again, lost: "It was as if some enormous bridge, a marvel of engineering spanning a river broader than the Volga, had collapsed in an instant, leaving only a cloud of concrete dust slowly settling over the ruins." Apricot Jam arrives at the scene of the accident we call, for lack of a better term, communism, and at times, its conclusions are hasty, based on incomplete evidence or rushed judgements. But at their best, Solzhenitsyn's stories offer a humanist idealism tempered by Russian cynicism. In Ego, a partisan fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919 discusses "the general breakdown of everything around them" with a peasant. "Life, it seemed, was reaching the point where it could get no worse, and what would be left of it after all this? 'Never mind,' said the silver-haired old fellow, 'the grass lives on beneath the scythe'." The scythe came, and it went, and Solzhenitsyn was present to document both its destructive swoop, and the sprigs of grass that lingered underneath its arc.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York. His work has been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.