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.
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!"