Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons
Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag
Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship between life in the Soviet penal colonies and the near impossibility of creating prose literature about those same camps. As Solzhenitsyn puts it,
Verses can be read, lips close to ear; they can be remembered, and they or the memory of them can be communicated. But prose cannot be passed on before its time. It is harder for it to survive. It is too bulky, too rigid, too bound up with paper, to pass through the vicissitudes of the Archipelago. Who in camp could make up his mind to write?
Of most of those who may have tried to create such literature, we now can have no record: “No one will ever tell us about the notebooks hurriedly burned before departures on prisoner transports, or of the completed fragments and big schemes carried in heads and cast together with those heads into frozen mass graves.”
The tragedy of this loss is all the deeper to Solzhenitsyn because the millions of Russian intellectuals thrown into the camps had an experience denied to most of their ilk across human history: consigned to live and die in the camps, they lost the patronizing pity that usually separated intellectuals from the poor and the dispossessed and the guilt they felt at not sharing that plight. Forced to be serfs themselves, they at last could understand the serfs, and were truly ready, Solzhenitsyn wrote, to undertake a fundamental examination of the human condition. But it was precisely at this moment that the intellectual
had no pencil, no paper, no time, no supple fingers. Now the jailers kept shaking out his things and looking into the entrance and exit of his alimentary canal, and the security officers kept looking into his eyes.
So the “bearers of the merged experience perished” and “thus it was that an unprecedented philosophy and literature were buried under the iron crust of the Archipelago.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was Solzhenitsyn’s own triumphant assertion of the writer’s ability to capture in prose the reality of life in the gulag, by distilling and reordering his experiences. Now in China, too, writers are starting to penetrate that “iron crust” by recalling in detail what happened to them in the labor and internment camps of their own gulag. The authors of four such books, which have just appeared in English translations, have each adopted a different strategy for preserving and sharing their memories: Han Wei-tien, a former Kuomintang army officer who spent twenty-four years in Communist camps before being repatriated to Taiwan, compiled “a sort of journal” after his release in order to preserve his experiences. Acknowledging that he had “no talent for writing and wouldn’t presume to try,” he consigned his manuscript to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.