There is an accursed area in eastern Russia, covered by a dilapidated 2,025-kilometer highway built on thousands of corpses of gulag prisoners and known as the Road of Bones. Kolima is his name and from 1932 to 1956 he received more than two million political and common prisoners who fed with their work and their lives a criminal structure of 160 labor and extermination camps. "It is the worst nightmare of the twentieth century, the most terrible island in Gulag Archipelago (…) the white crematorium, the arctic hell, an ice-cold concentration camp, without furnaces, a universal human meat mincer, "says Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader in Journeys of Kolimá (La Caja Books, translation by Ernesto Rubio and Agata Orzeszek), an account of his amazing hitchhiking trip through that land with which he won the English Pen Award in 2013.
The journey has its starting point in Magadan, sea of Okhotsk, the beginning of everything, as in the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, moral guide of Hugo-Bader along with the poet Varlam Shalámov, survivors the two whose steps pursues in this literary device, book of trips and testimony at the same time of what remains after the horror. "Kolimá, like Auschwitz, are sites with great symbolic strength that I feel very attracted to," he tells by email to EL PAÍS Hugo-Bader.
Guided by his creed – "work, sport, travel, elbow, make love" – and with a psychological mechanism to keep despair at bay, Hugo-Bader is in his journey with victims of the fields, people like Maria, with life destroyed by arriving one hour late for work, stealing a bottle of milk or making a joke against the Party, all of them anti-revolutionary activities framed in article 58 of the Soviet code. In the gulag suffer the violence of common criminals, cold, hunger, rape in groups and all kinds of atrocities. But many survive and tell it here, even though it is not normal. "The Russians have what they call the syndrome of silence. They do not talk about the atrocities that have occurred in their territory and pretend to do as if they had never happened, "sums up the Polish reporter.
However, this is not a book about the fields, or not only. Hugo Bader encounters the aristocracy of crime, with gold prospectors who seem taken from the most extreme western, with bandit children, entrepreneurs who set up farms in the middle of nowhere, or people, like Madame Marianne, who has returned to Kolimá from Paris, fleeing from everything because "here there is spirit without beauty and in France there is beauty without spirit".
Through the story pass characters like Basania, the millionaire with the empty eyes, agent of the Russian espionage that contaminates everything, veteran of Afghanistan, dangerous and almost endearing crazy, owner of the gold mines of Kolimá, authentic natural treasure exploited before by the Mafia of the State and now by the mafia to dry.
There's a lot of alcohol, whole lives drowned in vodka, incredible scenes of card games between mafiosi, a surgeon who operates on the phone while not drinking … Halfway Bader, who also knows magnificent people who help him not to dying frozen in the middle of the road, he meets Vladimir, a guy who when he closes his eyes sees the mountains of intact corpses, perfectly preserved in permafrost, which he took from the earth with the shovel of his bulldozer during a prospection in search of gold.
The book, more in the wake of the Nobel Svetlana Alexievich than in that of Ryszard Kapuscinski, has a fundamental tool, humor, and a tone, almost optimistic, that make it different. "You have to be able to put out your bad thoughts, even a reporter. If not, you will be devoured by depression and you will not live much, "the author confesses. "When I'm in Russia, I drink a lot of vodka. In addition, every time I travel -even to darker places like Kolimá- I concentrate obsessively on the good side, "he adds.
That is why, perhaps, he does not let another of the characters, the protector of Shalámov's literary legacy, close the book with an atrocious story about how his letters destroyed by criminals who had previously masturbated together, excited by its content, were lost. He prefers to finish with an argument in which he regrets not having known better the people who have taken him along the way. "They convey so much decency, so much kindness, so much authenticity …", virtues that not even the greatest massacre in history has managed to erase completely.
"Perhaps the first reason that brought us closer to the book, was to take a leap forward and find out what happened with Kolima after the atrocities of the gulag", comed the editor Paco Cerdà when asked why this book and the reasons why they decide to break with the publication strategy that gives name to the publishing house: boxes of three short books on a subject and that combine essay, fiction and chronicle).
East Journeys of Koimá anger aside, in a collection called Caja Alta. "Memory will be an important axis of this collection," says Cerdà. "That's why we started it a month ago with Stop saying lies, an exciting book by the Frenchman Philippe Besson about his discovery of sexuality and now we continue it with Journeys of Kolimá. Individual memory, collective memory ", explains Cerdà.