The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.
Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.
After the first month he stopped counting.
Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.
But typhus is decimating the camp.
Three out of four deportees are stricken.
The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.
The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:
The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.
He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.
Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.
The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.
The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.