If there were quiz questions about the subtitles of books, this – ‘An Experiment in Literary Investigation’ – might be among the trickier ones, offering as it does no hint of the book’s subject matter. But a taster of what is to follow, and of the reason behind the subtitle, comes at once in the book’s preface.
In 1949 – it begins – the author and some friends came across a noteworthy news item in the Soviet scientific magazine Nature. It reported that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River in Siberia, prehistoric fauna tens of thousands of years old had been discovered in a frozen stream. These fish, or salamander, the report continued, were preserved in so fresh a state that, in the words of the Nature correspondent (but with the author’s italics) ‘those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot’.
What was the significance of this incident? The readers of Nature might have struggled to understand why anyone would fall on precious prehistoric fish and gobble them up, but the author and his friends understood instantly:
We understood because we ourselves were the same kind of people as those present at the event. We, too, were from that powerful tribe of zeks, unique on the face of the earth, the only
people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish.
The author is our guide not just to the tribe of zeks but to their country, too:
And the Kolyma was the greatest and most famous island, the pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag which, though scattered in an Archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent – an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country inhabited by the zek people . . .