Gobi crossers? – I don’t think so!
The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz is a story of an escape from prison, an escape from the Soviet gulag. This is a usual thriller/ adventure story but an unusual memoir of Soviet gulag. Rawicz is not in the line of Solzhenitsyn, or Ginzburg or Mandelstam. The main subject of the memoirs of these great Soviet dissidents was the description of life in Communist prisons and camps. The Long Walk however is a story of the adventures of seven men who fled the gulag.
Though never reaching the intensity of the great gulag memoirists, the description of the prison cells and of the interrogation by the NKVD officers in the Lubyanka, are authentic enough to produce a harrowing sensation in the reader.
The journey on the Trans-Siberian railway is well portrayed though it is from here that the reader starts feeling the ease of a fairy tale in which even tragic circumstances have an inevitable sense of happy ending… and even if there is a sense of doom it is born with a superior feeling of a Christian martyr who has Heaven in sight after all the suffering.
Nothing is seriously wrong with the narrative until the prisoners reach Irkutsk. Then it goes all mythical. We are told of a 600 miles plus trek of prisoners in the Siberian winters with -20 degree temperature or worse, and that with just the minimal clothing of fufaika?
Apart from the fact that no human party could survive such at trek, it would serve no purpose to the gulag authorities to run all the prisoners to their death after taking enormous trouble of imprisoning them for months and then carting them over for more than 4,000 miles. The gulag indeed was meant for punishing the common people but it also had an economic angle, particularly in the decade of 1940s, the time when the events depicted in the book transpired. By this time the Great Terror (1937-38) under Yezhov had already passed and the gulag had a more economic purpose under its new chief Lavrenti Beria.
This is the first time when the readers feel that the story is fake. The BBC has confirmed that the story is not entirely true. The most probable course of events is: Rawicz did suffer in gulag, but he never escaped but was rehabilitated in the amnesty of 1942. This sounds true as the latter half of the book which is about the escape seems fake, while the former half is sufficiently authentic.
But then why did Rawicz depict the stupid trek to Yakutia when he did experience deportation from the transit camp? Maybe Rawicz is just preparing his readers for the shocking fancies of the escape. Perhaps it is a necessary prelude for what follows later.
As soon as they reach the gulag the talk of escape starts. Rawicz finds a Dickensian character in the camp commander’s wife who quizzically helps them to escape by helping them in hoarding food for the journey. When it comes to gathering enough men for forming the escape party, Rawicz finds the appropriate men as if the whole thing is just a play being enacted on a domestic stage, with actors taking up their respective roles, enthusiastically anticipating the adventure!
The account of the prison break is so short that it almost feels like the prison is just a baby cage, surmountable for toddlers over five.
Rawicz goes from dubious to impossible when we come to the Gobi trail. Going on for days on end in the scorching heat, without shelter and without water! It’s simply ridiculous. In a desert like Gobi, a man can die in less than six hours without water, out of sheer exhaustion. Eating snakes is quite convincing but how did they make fire and from what? Quite later in the book (Oops! I almost said novel!) it is described that Zano used to gather animal droppings to use as firewood. The reader wonders again: in a place where the only thing to eat was snake meat, how the hell did they gather enough droppings for the firewood? And anyways how did they manage to find stones to light their fire in a sea of sand? A possible explanation is the air dropping of cow dung as relief packages in the Gobi by the United Nations, but sadly it had not come into existence then!
There are a lot of other such incongruities but even on the level of story the book is weak. The characters are all caricatures and stereotypes. They have no individuality of their own. There is no character development by the author. The characters are all shades of good: jolly, patronizing , wise, morose… There is also a fine specimen of fair sex in the party, who keeps the atmosphere light and enjoyable. It is as if the characters were handpicked for making a zoo of human virtues. All the classic gulag memoirists tell of the dehumanizing character of the camps where the sheer hunger and cold drove out every human feeling out of most of the prisoners and made them mad, hungry animals who could trade anything for just a warm bowl of soup.
To cap it all there is the final shocker: the crossing of the Himalayas by six brave men with no mountaineering kit and next to no experience! And remember guys! It’s not only one peak we are talking about, but the whole range of the highest mountains on earth! There is a reason James Bond has not crossed the Himalayas yet!
All these hurdles are passed with the obligatory casualties and such ease that it almost feels like a picnic. It can even make the reader yearn for going on such a trek!
There is one authentic feature of Rawicz’s writing, though a misplaced one. He always calls his persecutors as ‘the Russians’, reflecting the traditional Polish hatred of everything Russian. Very rarely does he use the word ‘Communist’, a fact which shows a lack of understanding of the ideological basis of the crimes of the Soviets.
The Long Walk would have made for a good novel, but it is claimed to be a memoir. It is interesting but it’s certainly fake.