Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the chief sources of irony in all of Varlam Shalamov’s stories is his narrative method itself—horrific events recited in calm, undramatic fashion, an objective account of murderous absurdity. In “The Snake Charmer,” he adds a more explicitly moral dimension to that irony by prefacing Platonov’s story with a conversation between Platonov and the narrator, and by letting the narrator inform the reader of Platonov’s death. When Platonov tells the narrator that he wants to write a story about his “novelist” days, he automatically begins his sentence with a camp formula, a cautionary charm. If he lives, he will write the story. While the narrator agrees that Platonov’s title is a good one, he reminds him that the main thing is to survive to write it. Platonov, the “novelist,” dies before he can write anything down, and the narrator, who has avoided becoming just such an entertainer, is left to tell his story, the story of a man who did what he himself refused to do.

Thus the reader already knows this narrator’s point of view and his attitude toward Platonov and his choice. Platonov’s doubts and waverings are filtered through the mind of a man who would not have done what he did. However, Shalamov himself refuses to turn that irony into either self-righteousness or sarcasm. His narrator has his own storytelling code, and he does not betray it, but tells the truth.