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Reading ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ in Zanzibar

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The book: The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The place: Evergreen bar, Bwejuu, Zanzibar

A very wet day here in Zanzibar, which is actually a minor blessing, as it means time off from battling my customary conflicting impulses: I want to see EVERYTHING vs I want to sit down quietly and read. Much of the day has been spent doing the latter (interspersed with an early morning dive – two green turtles! – a couple of lengthy walks and a sunset run), and it has been delightful. Places like Zanzibar do rain well, too: a fresh, clean smell; dramatic skyscapes contrasting with flat pale sand and flat pale water; sculptural clouds dropping visible tails of rain; lightning flashing out to sea.

I am ashamed to admit that the copy of The Gulag Archipelago that I’m reading is an ebook o dubious legality, acquired from one of the internet’s dens of iniquity. I can just about justify this to myself because a) no ebook of The Gulag Archipelago is legally available, so really, what’s a girl to do; and b) I have a legally acquired hardcopy of the book at home in the UK, which – in my head at least, if not in the eyes of the law – means that I’ve effectively bought the right to read it in any format I please. (I am grudgingly aware that this is not actually the case.) Said hardcopy was bought in an English language bookshop in Baku when I was there in 2012 – in my memory the bookshop was called Chirac, but in hindsight that seems terribly unlikely. Having lived in Baku in 2000, when the city was possibly at its nadir – poised between post-Soviet crumbling and the first excesses of oil wealth – I was delighted to find things like foreign language bookshops, not to mention decent cafés and restaurants, gleaming shopping streets and fully renovated oil boom mansions, though it did mean that I found the city completely unnavigable, despite my bold claims to the friend with whom I was travelling: “I used to live here! I’ll be able to find our way!” NOT SO. Particularly shocking was the site of my old apartment, located in a building widely known (in 2000, at least) as ‘five storey building’, as it had been the first in Baku; when I had lived there it had been ramshackle and chaotic, windows rattling in their frames in the sharp cold winds off the Caspian and the incessant honking of mashrutnoe taxis in the square below, the hallway lined in that peculiar padded wallpaper that gives the impression of a psychiatric facility and which I have only ever seen in the former USSR. Now the building is sandblasted and pristine, the old man who used to sell me sour cherry juice and pepper vodka on the street outside is long gone, and the shops on the ground floor are no longer dodgy electronics stores (one of the chaps from which helpfully came up to my flat when I was living there and spliced my phone connection for me, so that I could plug in the internet – plug in the internet! It’s like a phrase from the 1950s), but fancy fragrance emporia. Newsflash: things change fast in transitional / developing countries! I’d been away for 12 years, after all; I can’t imagine the changes I’d see in Juba if I left for that amount of time.



Baku, 2012, with both me and my former apartment looking significantly different from the way we looked in 2000.

(The other book I bought in Chirac – really, can that be its name? – was The Orientalist, Tom Reiss’s rather brilliant biography of Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino. Recommended.)

In any case. I started The Gulag Archipelago back in 2012, got around 100 pages in, left my glasses in a restaurant in Yei and could no longer see the tiny print – and then never got round to picking it up again. So this is my second attempt. It’s epic in scope and in length, fascinating but incredibly dense, and I shall probably mete out a chapter at a time, interspersed with lighter and easier fare.





Written by Jess

April 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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