Chekhov on Sakhalin by Seamus Heaney
So, he would pay his ‘debt to medicine‘.
But first he drank cognac by the ocean
with his back to all he travelled north to face.
His head was swimming free as the troikas
Of Tyumin, he looked down from the rail
Of his thirty years and saw a mile
Into himself as if he were clear water:
Lake Baikhal from the deckrail of the steamer.
That far north, Siberia was south.
Should it have been an ulcer in the mouth,
The cognac that the Moscow literati
Packed off with him to a penal colony -
Him, born, you may say, under the counter?
At least that meant he knew its worth. No cantor
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass
That shone and warmed like diamonds, warming
On some pert young cleavage in a salon,
Inviolable and affronting.
He felt the glass go cold in the midnight sun.
When he staggered up and smashed it on the stones
It rang as clearly as the convicts‘ chains
That haunted him. In the months to come
It rang on like the burden of his freedom
To try for the right tone – not tract, nor thesis -
And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze
His slave’s blood out and waken the free man
Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin
Russian writer Anton Chekhov went to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island (Russian territory north of Japan) for the cause of prison reform, He interviewed thousands of convicts and compiled a census.
On the boat to Sakhalin, Chekhov enjoyed a glass of cognac (“The cognac that the Moscow literati/ Packed off with him to a penal colony”). When he finished the cognac, he threw the glass to the floor as is Russian tradition (“When he staggered up and smashed it on the stones”). He feels like a hypocrite because he is enjoying the luxury of fine liquor on a journey to witness hardship.
Two sounds will haunt Chekhov on his journey: the sound of his glass shattering and the sound of the convicts’ chains.
The burden of the knowledge Chekhov acquires on the treatment of prisoners also haunts him. Though one of history’s great authors, he struggles to offer a perspective that is neither “tract” nor “thesis.” At the same time, he will not let himself gloss over the brutality that he sees (“walk away from floggings.”)
Heaney too has confronted serious sociopolitical issues. He experienced “The Troubles” in the 7os and 80s in Ireland. He feels sympathetic to Chekhov.
Image by http://kamakaev.deviantart.com/
Thanks to David Fawbert, http://fawbie.com/2013/11/22/chekhov-on-sakhalin/.