A short protest story

Condensed Milk’, by Varlam Shalamov (trans. John Glad)

Read it here in 6 minutes.

In relation to the 2022 Winter Olympics, thinking about how we can use literature to protest…

Shalamov spent almost one-quarter of his life in Russian gulags (forced-labour camps), for being critical of, and protesting against, his own government. This story presumably mines those experiences, and protests them, by painting a picture of the harsh conditions men faced in the gulags, and the petty revenges that were their only means of temporary joy.

The length of the story, and the sentence structures, mimic the exhaustion the unnamed narrator feels, for example the listing (‘to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg’; ‘office work, a job in the hospital or the stables’; and ‘meat, fish, fruit, vegetables…’), the clipped dialogue (‘‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’; ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’), and the use of ellipsis (‘…’), which is used six times, as his narration trails off, his sentences unfinished.

Meanwhile, the luxurious food imagery – simile, metaphor, colour, scent – highlights his hunger: ‘loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils’; ‘watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can’; ‘Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way’.

The narrator so desperately wants some condensed milk, the ‘best’ tinned food, in his opinion, that he accepts two cans, knowing the man who gives them is setting him up in exchange for better prison conditions. These two meagre cans could cost more of our narrator’s liberty, or even his life, so, the story ends with an ironic understatement: ‘I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.’

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