(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two political prisoners are sitting on a fallen tree during a work break. One of them, a former screenwriter named Platonov, is telling the narrator the story of his “second life,” his life in the camps. It turns out that Platonov has spent a year at the Jankhar mine, a place notorious even by the standards of Kolyma, a region of northeastern Siberia.

Platonov explains, however, that only the first few months were bad. The only political prisoner—therefore the only educated one—among common criminals, he survived the year at Jankhar by telling the stories of Alexandre Dumas, perè, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells, and in return was fed, clothed, and protected by the thieves. He assumes that the narrator has also made use of this, the one advantage of the literate prisoner. The narrator has never been a “novelist,” however, and suggests that “novel-telling” is the lowest form of humiliation. At the same time, he does not find fault with Platonov and says only that a starving man can be forgiven much.

Platonov plans, if he lives long enough, to write a story about his own storytelling career, and he has even thought of a title, “The Snake Charmer.” However, he dies too soon—three weeks after this conversation, he collapses while breaking rock and dies as so many have died, of hunger, weakness, and heart failure. The narrator, who liked Platonov for his curiosity and lively interest in the world outside, decides to tell the snake charmer’s story.

The snake charmer’s story begins as Platonov finishes his first, exhausting day at Jankhar. He waits for the roll to be called and while waiting reflects on...

(The entire section is 683 words.)