Михайлик Е. Dostoevsky and Shalamov: Orpheus and Pluto (Достоевский и Шаламов: Орфей и Плутон)

In Varlam Shalamov’s story The Funeral Oration two political prisoners heaving stone in a Kolyma gold mine compare their lot to that of the decembrists sent to the Siberian mines more than a century ago.

I told Fedyahin about the quotas the decembrists were assigned at Nerchinsk according to the "Memories of Maria Volkonskaya", — three poods1 of ore per worker.
– And how much would our quota weigh, Vasili Petrovich? Fedyahin asked.
– I did a calculation – it was about eight hundred poods.
Well, Vasili Petrovich, look how the quotas have gone up... (Shalamov 1992: 354)2

If I were to choose a single quotation that defines Shalamov’s manifold relationship with Dostoevsky it would be this one, a passage where Dostoevsky’s name is not even mentioned. And yet it neatly captures the nature of the distance between the House of the Dead, Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, and the Kolyma Tales. The production quotas have been increased 266.666666666(6) times. This radical change in the limits of human experience sets the framework within which Shalamov sees Dostoevsky’s philosophical ideas and creative devices. The connections between Shalamov and Dostoevsky cannot be covered within the boundaries of a single article or even a series of articles. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to define several interesting aspects of the problem and suggest tentatively the ways they might be explored further.

From the beginning of the Kolyma Tales Shalamov sets himself two ambitious tasks: firstly, the creation of a comprehensive literary rendition of the prison camp reality, and secondly, to create a new medium capable of projecting the author's experience on the consciousness of the reader, thus endowing a literary text with an authentic intensity of primary reality3. Within the limits of conventional literature both those tasks were by definition impossible.

Joseph Brodsky once commented that a true witness of a death can only be its victim. Consequently any account of a death must be either untrue or incomplete because the narration would have to end before life ceases. Moreover, if there was a way to describe death from a viewpoint of the one experiencing it, it still will remain incomprehensible, for the narrator and his still living addressees will have no common language, no common reference points. Thus death can not be fully shared or even represented. If that is true for a normal individual death, it must hold true for the wholesale destruction and degradation that was a prison camp, where inmates (at least in Shalamov’s personal view) became completely divorced from humanity long before their physical death occurred. In order to reproduce his object — the prison camp universe — Shalamov had to find a way to convert the language of an abyss into the language of the living, to establish a translation protocol that would work within the text, making it essentially bilingual.

The task of creating prose analogous to reality seemed no less daunting. In order to maintain a sensorial load comparable to that of real life Shalamov had to construct a text of extraordinary semantic density. Yet such a text would not have been viable as a message carrier, for once the semantic volume reaches saturation point, connections and associations begin to originate spontaneously, often without the author's will or knowledge. Once begun, the process goes like an avalanche, generating an ever-increasing number of possible meanings and tearing the fabric of the text apart. Thus Shalamov’s chosen theme and his declared literary approach offered him nearly insurmountable obstacles.

He was not sailing in uncharted waters. Within Russian culture there existed already a tradition of exploring both the boundaries of the human soul and the boundaries of the text. In creating his 'New Prose' (the name Shalamov coined for his literary experiment) he could not have ignored that tradition. (Actually, the label 'New Prose' implies a well-developed and complex relationship with the 'Old Prose'.) In so doing Shalamov had to define his position in relation to the most powerful and influential voice of that tradition, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. The author who made generations of readers confront the abyss of everyday life could not have failed to impact on the author who wrote about the everyday life of one such abyss.

Shalamov’s notebooks show that he took a singular interest in Dostoevsky. The only other figure to claim a similar importance for Shalamov was Boris Pasternak. Shalamov was highly aware of both the minutiae of Dostoevsky’s biography and Dostoevsky’s artistic devices, and regarded Dostoevsky not as a "classic" but as an extremely relevant contemporary writer4. "Dostoyevsky is a writer of two world wars and revolutions." (Shalamov 1997: 45) Moreover, there is some evidence that he perceived Dostoevsky as a tangible social force capable of shaping the first reality. Who knows, perhaps Dostoevsky checked the world revolution with his Crime and Punishment, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, with his passion of a writer. (32)5 He quotes Dostoevsky as an example of artistic honesty"... art knows only one truth. It is a truth of the talent. That is why our eternal companions are Dostoevsky and Leskov.(1996: 438) Shalamov defines Dostoevsky as "a genius" (11).

The first bell rings when we discover that Shalamov devoted several pages of his working notebooks to the extensive biographical and artistic comparison of Dostoevsky and Esenin. The choice seems surprising but even more so is his conclusion that the affinity between these authors is unmistakable and that, despite the impressive difference in the sheer scale of their talents, Esenin was not a parody on Dostoevsky but a much-diminished modern copy of him. That comparison is unflattering in itself, but it becomes positively insulting when one remembers that in the Kolyma Tales Esenin exists solely as a favorite poet of the professional criminals, whom Shalamov sees as a physical embodiment of evil. (In the short story On Tick Esenin’s poetry is used as a kind of a criminal ID.) The existence of such a comparison suggests that Shalamov’s attitude to Dostoevsky was rather ambiguous.

Shalamov’s list of grievances against Dostoevsky is quite impressive. He accuses Dostoevsky of not knowing his subject well enough (e.g. mistaking ordinary people who have committed crimes career criminals in the House of the Dead), questions Dostoevsky’s judgement, defines his attitude as "superstition without end or limit" (1997: 37), and launches a broadside attack on Dostoevsky’s preferred genre, the novel. Moreover, when called a "successor of the traditions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky", Shalamov reacted with indignation, disclaiming even the possibility of such a relation6.

However, if we consider the poetics of the Kolyma Tales, we shall see that Shalamov’s authorial "genome" carries many sequences of Dostoevsky’s code. At a glance the Kolyma Tales, in their uninvolved, unhurried pointillist precision — a sketch, another sketch, an episode, no judgements made — seems to have no connection with the feverish verbose world of Dostoevsky.

Yet if we think about the space of the Kolyma Tales — crammed, limited and claustrophobic at the semantic centre, and offering glimpses of freedom and unlimited distance at the periphery; the time of the Kolyma Tales — personal, dispersed, discontinued; the invasive sound structure; the endless repetitions; the warped, off-key grammar used to enforce the feeling of spontaneity; the non-linear unpredictable plot7 — we realize that all these features are also poetic characteristics of Dostoevsky’s prose8.

Apart from their immediate functional purpose, these devices also emit a subliminal message of difficulty and hostility, defining the nature of the object described and making the reader interact with the text on the more immediate personal level. In the paper devoted to Dostoevsky’s early story Mr. Proharchin V.Toporov writes:

The typical statements about Dostoevsky’s "cruelty" or "ruthlessness" usually made by those who are afraid to leave the voluntary "prison" of their unauthentic existence, by those who would not and could not pass through fear (Angst) to the freedom of choice, are to a significant extent based not on the "terrible" subjects of Dostoevsky’s text but on their compulsiveness in relation to the reader, who is deprived of comfort and private inertia as well as the right to quit the game when it turns dangerous and approaches the "forbidden limits of nature". (1995: 171)

Dostoevsky arranges the structural and semantic elements of his text to impose on the reader a mental and emotional state that would have resulted from the participation in a similar real-life situation.

A. Sinyavsky maintains that one of the most interesting features of the Kolyma Tales is its coercive power, the ability of the writer to make the process of reading as all-encompassing and inexorable as the prison camp experience itself, bringing the reader a step closer to that experience.

In contrast to other literary works, in the Kolyma Tales the reader is equated not with the author... but with an inmate. With a man locked within the limits of a story. There is no choice. You have to read those short tales one after another, to carry that log or a stone-filled wheelbarrow without respite...He9 leaves us no way out. It seems that he is as ruthless to his readers as life was ruthless to him, to the people he depicts. As Kolyma was. That’s where a feeling of authenticity, of the text being adequate to the plot comes from. (Sinyavsky 1994: 227)

Like Dostoevsky, Shalamov attempts to make his text into the functional double of an unbearable reality. Locked within a limited space, deprived of the ordinary protections literature offers, the reader has no recourse but to confront the text on the immediate level as he might do with the events of the first, physical reality. This is the level of raw involvement both authors need to propel their texts.

To this point the literary techniques employed by Shalamov have been similar to those of Dostoevsky in structure and in purpose, yet we begin to note a slight shift, a discrepancy. Both Dostoevsky and Shalamov seek to wean their reader from a passive distanced role of a recipient. Dostoevsky achieves the reader’s involvement, not only by coercion but also by invitation. V. Toporov notes that the core meanings of Dostoevsky’s prose stay unformulated, unfinished, intentionally set to be reinvented at every reading. Shalamov does the opposite. In his texts the seemingly unrelated details, once being placed together, begin forming semantic chains that ultimately cover every possible meaning of every word or word combination within the text. As a result, every textual unit contains a potential avalanche of equally possible interpretations among which the reader is forced to choose so as not to drown.

This difference in artistic approach reveals a rift in the attitudes. Both authors are describing inherently chaotic systems. In Dostoevsky’s case the choice of the adventure novel as a genre defines the world of his prose as indeterminate and unpredictable, the almost immediate subversion of this genre only adds to the chaotic capacity of the text, where the word "suddenly" dominates the narration. In Shalamov’s world of the prison camps the cause and effect chain is irrevocably broken and any action can cause almost any consequence, within the limits of inevitable death.

Dostoevsky uses chaos in an attempt at higher harmony. He sees it as a transitory state that will be subsumed once perfection is achieved. Shalamov’s choice of portraying chaos through chaos (apart from being a brilliant tactical decision that made destructive centrifugal semantic forces work for the text and not against it) denotes an acknowledgment that chaos does exist and should be included in every equation — otherwise the equation would not last. Chaos exists and so does a prison camp. Having reached those previously unknown shores, having mapped their outlines, it is impossible to wipe them either from memory or the planetary surface.

Dostoevsky and Shalamov imbue their texts with the constant presence of God. In the Kolyma Tales Christian symbolism permeates the prison camp routine. One of the protagonists (a recognizable "double" of the author) has a surname Krist, which in Russian is associated with both Christ and the cross. Another is called Golubev — "the dove". Quite often the titles of Shalamov’s stories (e.g. Apostle Paul, The Evening Prayer, The Cross, The Unconverted) refer the reader to the New Testament. No less often the motif structure of Shalamov’s stories would unobtrusively demonstrate the sacrilegious, profane nature of the prison camp reality10. Here we encounter yet another point of divergence. In Dostoevsky faith is a matter of personal decision. One is able to chose between faith and atheism, between Christ and the devil and even — as Dostoevsky had once suggested - between Christ and truth. In the Kolyma Tales God and the Devil, while rarely mentioned, are nevertheless presented as an organic part of the universe, no less and no more real than the morning temperature of 50 below zero Centigrade, murderous colonel Garanin or that lonely island of physical salvation, the hospital with the meaningful name "The Left Bank"11. Their existence is not a matter of choice and thus the question of belief becomes irrelevant.

The question of personal faith is dispatched with the same finality. In the story The Unconverted (whose title speaks for itself) the half-starved narrator concludes "the possibility of 'religion as a way out' was too incidental and too unearthly". (Shalamov 1992: 225) According to Shalamov religion cannot serve as a universal fulcrum in the world where the very problem of free will that had plagued theologists for centuries is easily solved on a purely physiological level. "It was that portion of gruel that my partner needed to dare to die — sometimes one has to hurry to retain the death will." (110) Shalamov demonstrates that faith — or ethics, or culture, or any other prop coming from within the human soul — is not enough to sustain a personality in the world where "spit freezes in midair" and "the guards shoot without warning". Like Dostoevsky, Shalamov acknowledges the presence of God in everything. Unlike Dostoevsky, he would not talk to Him12. Presented with a choice between Christ and truth Shalamov chooses truth (as he perceives it), for he had seen that ungrounded faith leads to degradation and death.

Dostoevsky and Shalamov portray their respective worlds as something opposed to the normal flow of events. In his ground-breaking book on Dostoevsky’s poetics Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that Dostoevsky’s choice of adventure novel as his preferred genre was motivated by his need to provide a structure where almost any twist of the plot was possible and to provide a hero unburdened by social and cultural restrictions. He needed a genre where princes could mix with merchants and illegitimate sons could kill their fathers without straining credibility. He needed to upset all the ingrained hierarchical structures. He needed a world where a human being could communicate with another human being bypassing the society. And so he turned to carnival.

Again the poetics of the Kolyma Tales seems to echo that device of Dostoevsky’s. Shalamov describes a world where every convention is unstable. It is a world where one can kill a man by giving him extra food (The Stillness), save him by clapping him with a new prison sentence (My Trial) or radically improve his health by cutting out his perfectly healthy appendix (A Piece of Meat). It is a world where a humble chambermaid wields enormous influence (Aunty Polya) and an all-powerful colonel is brought low by the very system he served (How Has it All Began?), a world where living bodies fall apart and the dead stay forever unaffected by rot, preserved by permafrost.

Shalamov actually enforces that sense of inversion by throwing in some very recognizable literary quotations — and then subverting them. The story A Duck is a Kolyma version of the famous sentimental Grey Neck by Mamin-Sibiryak. The story Pain is a prison camp guignol rendition of Cyrano de Bergerac. And the story On Tick (the death of a 'political' inmate whose life became a stake in a card game between two career criminals) begins with a phrase: "They were playing cards at Naumov's, a mine horse driver." (5), playing havoc with the sancta sacrorum, the untouchable Queen of Spades by Pushkin. And Shalamov goes even further by attacking his own text, travestying his own plots and undermining his own statements. That attack is multiplied thousandfold by the avalanche generative system of the Kolyma Tales. In the world of the Kolyma Tales every message is subverted repeatedly, nothing is stable, nothing is safe.

Such a world can be described as a kind of carnival. Yet this carnival is different from one described by Bakhtin, for it is a carnival where nothing is renewed. It is the Black Death without Bocaccio. It is a final destruction that offers no hope of resurrection. "...who would find out whether it was a minute or a day, a year or a century that we needed to return to our former bodies — we never even expected to return to our former souls. And of course we never did. Nobody did." (406) In Bakhtinian terms we might be speaking of one of the carnival subversions, the dance macabre, with Death leading the way. Or rather, a danse macabre as seen by one of the characters on the painting in one of Shalamov’s tales.

Dostoevsky’s carnival is both a self-sufficient world and a literary device that permits the author to turn a novel into a fair of viewpoints. It is both a product and a vessel of polyphony. The main body of Russian prison camp literature it seems has adopted Dostoevsky’s heteroglossia as a form of discourse, making the "other" and his/her "alien" word an integral part of their poetics. Such is not the case with the Kolyma Tales. Unlike Ginsburg in whose memoirs "everybody talks", unlike Solzhenitsyn, whose authorial voice is often drowned under the weight of many voices of the Gulag Archipelago, Shalamov presents the reader with an single point of view13. Behind the thin gauze of characterization one can always hear a single powerful voice, and it is not exactly the voice of the author.

In the first story of the cycle, Through the Snow, Shalamov makes it understood that the narrator and the author of the Kolyma Tales are one and the same. And yet, having defined his supreme narrative position, Shalamov proceeds by establishing himself as a semi-inanimate object. Shalamov’s meticulous description of a deteriorating body and soul persuades the reader that the half-starved, half-frozen and probably already dead narrator of the Kolyma Tales does not possess enough strength to provide anything but bare facts. Shalamov sets himself not as an Orpheus, who ventured to Hell and came back, but as a Pluto, an integral part of the netherworld, describing his habitat in its own terms.14

Within this universe Shalamov creates memories of the prison camp which are impersonal, for the inmates do not retain enough of their personalities to taint the account. There is no room left for the "other", for that other is also being consumed. There is no room for the "self", either. The void is filled by the automatic reactions dictated by surroundings. Shalamov uses every structure in the Kolyma Tales — be it a religion, a social system, a quotation from a classic or a human body — as a probe. According to the type and extent of the damage done to the probe by the alien environment one can judge the nature of that environment. At the end of the day the only true narrative voice in the Kolyma Tales is the voice of the prison camp itself.

Yet that monophonic text is based on Dostoevsky’s premises. All the social and cultural characteristics of the characters are stripped away, all the barriers are removed and people mix in combinations even the professedly egalitarian Soviet society might be surprised at.

There were some other people in the work gang that huddled in their rags, they all were equally dirty and hungry, with the same gleam in their eyes. Who were they? Generals? Heroes of the Spanish Civil war? Russian writers? Collective farmers from Volokolamsk? (396)

Shalamov takes up where Dostoevsky finishes. He establishes the "man to man" line of communication that bypasses all "artificial" barriers. He presents to us human beings meeting in infinity (for, in the absence of continuous time, the prison camp universe is perceived as eternal) in the final moment of crisis, in the face of imminent death.

The request Shatov had made from Stavrogin is realized to the letter. Most of the Shalamov’s characters have achieved the status of an untainted "human voice", only to demonstrate that there is nothing human in this voice any more, only to show that it cannot be used for any kind of communication. Between the people on the same level of disintegration no exchange is needed, for they are presented as a single, composite personality. The use of "we" instead of "I" is typical of the Kolyma Tales. As for people of different strata, the semantic barrier between the layers is so great that it effectively prevents communication15.

The carnival, which for Dostoevsky was a potent literary device and a philosophical statement, is for Shalamov an unbearable reality of the daily prison camp routine, the reality that was to be escaped at any cost. In the Kolyma Tales Shalamov demonstrates that the only possible way to resist this disintegrating pull of the carnival (if only for a time being) was to root one’s identity in some social function that exists outside the prison camp universe. To become a Paramedic, an Engineer, a Soldier, a Writer, a persona whose actions are strictly prescribed by the social expectations and professional code and not dictated by the environment or personal preference. In other words, the opposite of what Dostoevsky wanted to achieve.

Dostoevsky tried to strip the human soul of its protections in order to understand its nature. Shalamov believes that without these protections the soul cannot exist. Within the bounds of the Kolyma Tales that soul is not immortal — actually it is one of the first things to fall apart, and when it dies, it dies irrevocably ("we never even expected to return to our former souls"). Dostoevsky asked to be judged by his ideals. Shalamov does just that. He takes Dostoevsky’s ideals and dismantles them one by one by demonstrating their inability to contend with the prison camp universe. For Shalamov every appeal to man’s "nature" is negated by the fact that “human brain can not function in severe frost."

If we consider the poetics of the Kolyma Tales along those basic lines we shall see that Shalamov, while employing an impressive set of devices from Dostoevsky’s arsenal, chose to reject, subvert or undermine their underlying ideas. Why? By regarding the relationship between the poetics of Dostoevsky’s prose and that of the Kolyma Tales on a macro level we see a slight difference in orientation. Dostoevsky’s text reaches towards heaven. Shalamov’s text also builds upwards, from the bedrock layer of the prison camps. This difference between "to" and "from" is very descriptive. Dostoevsky strives to embody an ideal. Shalamov seeks to hammer into his audience the basic facts of human nature as he sees it.

Despite outward similarities the Kolyma Tales is not a part of the menippean tradition. The menippea tested people and ideas in an attempt to answer the "ultimate questions". Dostoevsky needed indeterminism and polyphony to provide his protagonists with choices. Shalamov has no need to create a testing ground. He already has one. He also has no need to actually stage a test. That has also been taken care of by the system that for decades has been testing millions of human beings to destruction. Shalamov’s challenge is quite different from that of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was looking for answers. Shalamov knew he had found them.

Once again it is the old conflict of Christ and truth. It is a bitter account Shalamov presents, not only of Dostoevsky, but of Russian humanistic literature as a whole. "The nineteenth century was afraid to look into those abysses, those chasms, those voids, that had opened to the twentieth century." (1996: 339) He accuses Tolstoy and Dostoevsky of preaching a myth about the human nature, a myth that led too many people to rely on something that was not there. According to Shalamov the blind faith in innate human virtues, the messianic idea of the people being transported to a higher plane by virtue of their suffering16, the anthropomorphic desire to harmonize history and the determination to treat evil as a transient social phenomenon were the poison gifts that the Russian humanistic tradition left the twentieth century. Shalamov postulated that the total disregard for human life and identity stemmed directly from the nineteenth century idea of the human apotheosis and the expectation of an exalted destiny. The world of Dostoevsky, where Peter Verkhovsnsky was the worst evil imaginable and even the devil himself yearned for humanity, was, in Shalamov’s opinion, an integral part of that myth.

"In our days Dostoevsky would not have repeated that phrase about the God-bearing people." (Shalamov in Shreider 1989: 243)) wrote Shalamov, knowing that phrase — or rather one of its interpretations — to be one of the causes of his personal fate. Shalamov was of the opinion that in a vastly changed contemporary world "after Hiroshima, after the self-service of Aushwitz and after Serpantinnaja in Kolyma, after wars and revolutions..." (Shalamov) the very nature of literature had to change. He thought that literature could not afford to remain as it was, the price of error was just too high. He felt that the writer’s duty was to become a Pluto. Literature had to become life, for Shalamov that was the only way to create harmony and avoid the trap of what was later dubbed "the grand narrative".

Shalamov sought to dispel everything that does not have grounds in human nature, for otherwise no one would ever learn how to live on a barren frozen land that lies at 15 centimeters deep in every, or almost every, human soul. Dostoevsky and Shalamov were confronting very similar philosophical and artistic tasks. Yet Shalamov was unable to accept not only Dostoevsky’s answers, but even his questions. For the production quotas have changed since 1849.

Публикуется по изд.:
The Dostoevsky Journal: An Independent Review Volume I (2000)

Русскоязычный реферат этой статьи, подготовленный Марией Десятовой

Bibliography

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Mikhailik, E., 1995, Варлам Шаламов: проблема культурного контекста. (Varlam Shalamov: problems of the cultural context), Australian Slavonic and East European Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1: 31–64.

Mikhailik, E., 1997, Варлам Шаламов рассказ «Ягоды»: пример деструктивной прозы (Varlam Shalamov, Berries: an example of destructive prose.), Международные шаламовские чтения: доклады и сообщения, Moscow: Respublika, pp. 74–85.

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1 A pood is an ancient Russian weight measure, about 16,38 kg.
2 All the Russian texts in the paper are given in my translation unless otherwise specified.
3 Shalamov maintains that the aim of an artistic work is «the resurrection of life» (Shalamov 1989: 551). Please see Shalamov 1996, On Prose.
4 For example he notes that one of Dostoevsky’s ancestors was a secretary to Prince Kurbsky.
5 Here I would like to note that for Shalamov, a member of Trotskyist opposition and an avowed admirer of the socialist-revolutionary party, prevention of the world revolution was not necessarily a good thing.
6 Shalamov was known for his harsh peremptory judgement.
7 Regarding the major characteristics of the poetics of the Kolyma Tales please see Toker 1989, Zolotonosov 1994, Timofeev 1991, Sinyavsky 1994, Mikhailik 1995, Volkova 1997, Mikhailik 1997a, Mikhailik 1997b. Of course, we by no means claim to cover every single instance of structural or semantic correlation, we are merely pointing out several most obvious ones.
8 Shalamov was extremely interested in literary theory and criticism. As a student he was an admirer of OPOYAZ and attended Osip Brik workshops. There is evidence that indicates that Shalamov read Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Creative Works (1929 edition) short after his release from Vishera prison camps in 1932. Varlam Shalamov possessed an eidetic visual memory and therefore he could not have failed to notice the resemblance of some of his artistic devices to those of Dostoevsky.
9 This topic has been extensively discussed in Toker 1989 and in Mikhailik 1997.
10 It is well known that the Land of the Dead was located on the left bank of the Acheron.
11 In his book of memoirs, The Fourth Vologda, Shalamov proudly claims that throughout all his prison camp odyssey he had never ever turned to God for salvation or solace.
12 «As in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which, for Bakhtin, is a quintessentialy heteroglot polyphonic novel, everybody talks in Ginzburg volumes...» (Toker 1989: 1999)
13 This comparison belongs to Shalamov himself.
14 In the story June Shalamov off-handedly displays a failed communication attempt concerning such a vital subject as the Second World War (the action takes place in June 1941 — a few days after Germany invaded Russia).

— Listen, — said Stupnitsky, — the Germans have bombed Sebastopol, Kiev, Odessa. — Andreev listened politely. The announcement sounded like the news about a war in Paraguay or Bolivia. What had Andreev to do with it? Stupnitsky is well-fed, he is a foreman, he is warm — that’s why he’s interested in matters like war. (488)

15 Please see Mikhailik 1998, Другой берег.
16 «Who have been naught now shall be all».