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From The Ghostwriter’s Notebook  Copyright © Chris Keil 2015

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena couldn’t tell me much about the asteroid 3408 Shalamov that I didn’t already know. They knew, obviously, that it had been discovered in 1977 by the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Chernykh, and is named after the author of Kolyma Tales. They’ve plotted its orbit, but they say that nothing is known about its size, shape, mass, or composition. I find this frustrating. Is it the size of a potato or a grain of sand? A cathedral, or a kitchen table? I wanted to form an image of this object, circling the sun in the main belt between Jupiter and Mars; I wanted to know if it was cratered by impacts or worn smooth by time and distance, like a piece of glass in the sea. I could have written a postscript to the book, picturing an exile more cold and terrible than Kolyma, where the ruins of the camps are choking in snow, the wooden huts scoured as white as bones. Today, the space-ship Dawn is orbiting the pocked and blobby face of the dwarf planet Ceres, but nobody at JPL would even speculate about Shalamov. Sorry we can’t be more helpful, they said. Good luck with the book.

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