Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
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 fact that the end of the working day is not really the end, that they all must return their tools, fall in for yet another roll call, march five kilometers to gather firewood, then haul the logs back to camp. No vehicles are used for hauling wood, and the horses are too ill and weak to leave the stable—which leads Platonov to thoughts about human endurance and human instinct, the instinct (not will) that makes even a dying man cling tenaciously to life. Man, he thinks, is tougher than any animal.
When he finally gets to the barracks, he sees that not everyone has worked that day. A group is perched on the top bunks, watching a card game. Platonov barely has time to sit down on the edge of a bunk when one of the toughs addresses him as a generic “Ivan Ivanovich.” When Platonov answers that that is not his name, he is shoved over to the chief thug, threatened, and then slugged in the face. The thug, Fedya, orders him to sleep by the slop bucket, the foulest spot in the barracks.
Platonov knows that these thugs are not joking—he has already seen two thieves strangled to settle scores. He does as he is told, but Fedya is bored and restless; Fedya wants his feet scratched but is not satisfied with the way the young thief Mashka does it. He rouses Platonov again with orders to carry out the bucket and stoke the stove.
Most of the prisoners are asleep by this time, but Fedya wants a story. The thieves roust Platonov out one more time and almost ingratiatingly ask him if he can “tell novels.” Platonov considers, doubts racing through his mind over the bargain he is about to make—and agrees. Fedya immediately brightens, gives him some bread and a cigarette, and asks him his name. Platonov offers a selection, then begins the tale chosen by Fedya. It is dawn by the time he finishes the first part. Fedya is delighted and lets Platonov sleep in the best bunks with the thieves.
When the prisoners are leaving the barracks the next morning, a big country boy gives Platonov a vicious shove and curses him. However, all it takes is one word from another prisoner, and the big one apologizes, asking Platonov not to tell Fedya what has happened. Platonov promises not to tell.