Two very different books this time, both translated from Russian, both published by New York Review Books, and both collections of short stories of sorts.
Telluria is a work of speculative fiction, set in a future Russia.
Kolyma Stories is not so fictional, as it is Shalamov’s personal account of his 15 years in the gulag – one of the very few that survived in the system for such a long time. I’m not so sure about the practical political power of literature, but it is clear that both dissident writers at least shed some light on today’s Russia.
KOLYMA STORIES – Varlam Shalamov (1954-1965)
I’ve been reading Kolyma Stories on and off for more than 4 years: I started it the day my youngest was born. The fact that it took so long to finish it doesn’t say anything about my appreciation for the book: this is easily a 5-star read.
The excellent introduction by translator Donald Rayfield, spells out that Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) spent 15 years “in the worst of Stalin’s Gulag, spending six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on earth, before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps.” Shalamov, a journalist, was arrested in 1937, and his sentence was later extended by 10 years because he described Ivan Bunin as a great Russian writer. On top of that, Shalamov had served “corrective labor” earlier, from 1929 to 1931 in camps in the northern Urals.
Rayfield notes that the “line between autobiography and fiction is very fuzzy: virtually everything in these stories was experienced or witnessed by Shalamov”, who proves to have an extraordinary memory.
Shalamov wrote the stories after his release, filling 6 collections, of which the first three are collected in this edition, totaling 734 pages. In 2020 NYRB also published the 3 other collections as Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, again translated by Rayfield, another 541 pages. It is the first complete translation in English of this important work – various selections have appeared in different places and editions from 1970 on.
In Dutch, publisher De Bezige Bij already put out a full translation by Marja Wiebes en Yolanda Bloemen, also in two volumes: Berichten uit Kolyma and De Handschoen: Nagelaten berichten uit Kolyma, the first in 2001 and the second in 2006 – the author’s name transliterated as Sjalamov, for those who want to seek them out. I borrowed the first Dutch volume in my local library, and I have to say Rayfield’s translation is superior. In Russia itself, the work first appeared in print in 1978.
But let’s stop beating around the bush: this books is bleak. Very, very bleak. Or as Rayfield notes: “There is no consolation, no faith in Providence or humanity, despite the isolated incidences of kindness he encountered in the Gulag.” Shalamov presents his accounts in a straightforward, matter of fact style, without any literary embellishments, even though some of these stories are expertly composed. The prose suits the subject matter well, and there is something oppressive about this succession of 86 stories, in which the brutality of camp life just keeps coming.
The last 4th of the book a kind of fatigue crept in, but I think it only fits the subject matter – it does not detract at all from my judgement of Shalamov’s book. And either way, Shalamov does manage to find new details and new angles to keep the reader interested – there is a certain monotony, sure, but at the same time there isn’t. Hard to explain, but also as literature this is a really interesting collection – not only because of its non-fictional content.
In another piece (not part of Kolyma Stories, but quoted in full in Rayfield’s 11-page introduction) Shalamov listed 45 things he “saw and understood in the camps”. The first item is this: “The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.” I don’t ascribe to the ‘civilization as veneer’ idea – I think society is foundational to what humans are – but I can’t fault Shalamov for writing that civilization needs the right conditions to thrive, and can, indeed, be taken away.
To further shed some light on the flavor of the book, I’ll quote 5 more of those lessons Shalamov listed:
I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).
I realized that humans were humans because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.
I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.
I realized that one can live in indifference.
The people whom everyone – guards, fellow prisoners – hates are the last in the ranks, those who lang behind, those who are sick, weak, those who can’t run when the temperature is below zero.
Shalamov paints a world where people eat boot grease; where they even have calluses on their chests from pushing wagons; where they would murder a fellow prisoner just to get a trial and escape labor in the mines for a while; where men won’t move from a fire when somebody was murdered nearby, as they don’t have the energy to move away from the warmth, just like they don’t have the energy to take a bath or disinfect. A world were such disinfection is merely an ineffective but obliged formality, “creating additional torment for the prisoner.” A world where people smear their faeces in an open wound to get an infection to escape labor by being admitted to hospital, or break an arm or a leg on purpose, for the same reason, or eat a gob of spit from someone who was infected by tuberculose – even though it wasn’t a guarantee for anything, as there were also bureaucratic limits to how many people could be off work and in hospital. Hospital patients did receive better food, but were often too ill to eat it. The food, bureaucratically, obviously, couldn’t be given to other, starving prisoners. A similar illustration of the absurd logic of the system, is Shalamov’s story of a very sick man, Soldatov, who was treated in hospital until he was well enough to be shot. Add to that the ironic tragedy that non-political prisoners – i.e. real criminals – generally had it much better, and got much shorter sentences.
I will leave you with some more quotes, quite a lot. They serve a double function: as a reminder for myself, but I also hope they will do the book justice, and convince you to pick up this human masterpiece.
The peace of mind achieved by the dulling of all are feelings was rather like that “higher freedom of the barracks” that T.E. Lawrence dreamed of, like Tolstoy’s nonresistance to evil. Someone else’s will was constantly watching over our peace of mind.
It was hard to think. Thinking was a physical process. For the first time I saw the full extent of the material nature of our psyche, and I felt its palpability.
Every fragment of my body tells me how I have to behave.
Man lives by the strength of the same primary cause that keep a tree, a stone, or a dog alive.
I was put on a stretcher. I was a hundred and eighty centimeters tall (almost six feet), my normal weight was eighty kilos. My bones, 42 percent of my gross weight, weighed thirty-two kilos. On that icy evening all I had left – skin, flesh, guts, brains – was sixteen kilos, the same as a bushel of wheat.
The camps are a negative school of life in every possible way. Nobody can get anything useful or necessary out of the camps, neither prisoner nor chief, neither the guards nor the casual witness, such as engineers, geologists, and doctors, neither the bosses nor their subordinates. Every minute of camp life is poisoned.
He was kept alive by indifference and resentment.
That was so very much a Russian view of luck: being glad that an innocent man had been given five years – after all, he could have been given ten or even the death penalty.
Repressions affected not just the top layer but every layer of society – in any village, any factory, in any family there were either relatives or friends who were repressed. [And families were often completely in the dark about the fate of their relatives thousands of miles away, and if they tried to help by sending stuff or letters, they only made themselves look suspicious and subject to arrest too – my note.]
A naïve feeling for fairness lies very deep, perhaps ineradicably deep, in men’s hearts.
In Kolyma bodies are consigned not to the earth but to the stones. Stone preserves and reveals secrets. Stones are more reliable than earth. Permafrost preserves and reveals secrets. Every one of those close to us who perished in Kolyma, everyone who was shot, beaten to death, exsanguinated by starvation, can still be identified, even after decades. There were no gas ovens in Kolyma. The corpses wait in the stones, in the permafrost.
I didn’t care at all whether I would be lied to or not; I was beyond truth and lies.
“(…)” said Goblov the horse man, who used to be a professor of philosophy and was notorious in our barracks for having forgotten his wife’s name a moth previously.
The reason that it was possible to dispatch millions of people so successfully was that these people were innocent.
The white bread left virtually nothing to excrete; the human organism disposed of any surplus just once every few days.
(…) for he was an experienced prisoner who had long before crossed the boundary of life in the camps, after which everyone becomes a fatalist and just lives, following the current.
Patience and luck, the two whales on which the prisoner’s world stands, were what used to save us, and still would. [One of the very few similes in the entire book – my note.]
I am definitely going to read the next volume of Shalamov’s Kolyma tales, but first I’ll read a book on the same matter by the Polish philosopher and historian Barbara Skarga, who was arrested in 1944, and sentenced to 10 years. After her release she was forced to work in a kolchoz, only being able to pick up her life in Poland in 1956. That book focuses on an often untold side of the Gulag: its female victims, constantly subject to possible rape and abuse, resulting in a different dynamic in camps for women.
It appeared in Polish as Po wyzwoleniu 1944-1956 in 1985, and was published in Dutch as Na de bevrijding: Aantekeningen uit de Goelag 1944-1956 in 2022. An English translation of the title would be “After the Liberation, Notes from the Gulag 1944-1956”. Except for a French translation from 2000 (Une Absurde Cruauté. Témoignage D’une Femme Au Goulag 1944-1955) no other translations exist. Skarga died in 2009, but remains a well-known intellectual figure in Poland.
TELLURIA – Vladimir Sorokin (2013)
It must be de rigueur today to like exiled Russian authors – living in Berlin no less. Telluria “is set in the future, when a devastating holy war between Europe and Islam has succeeded in returning the world to the topor and disorganization of the Middle Ages”, “an array of little nations that are like puzzle pieces, each cultivating its own ideology or identity, a neo-feudal world of fads and feuds, in which no power dominates.”
Set in the same world of Day of the Oprichnik – a book that has been called prophetic given current events – Sorokin seems to indulge in navel-gazing about the ‘idea’ of Russia. Already on page 10 one of his main insights is spelled out: what if Russia, as an empire, had properly collapsed in 1917? Granted: a sharp thought indeed.
The 50 vignettes this novel consists of don’t spawn a larger narrative nor fleshed out characters, and that, for me, results in boredom. It’s the old adagio: in a world where everything is possible, nothing really matters.
I was amused or interested occasionally – Sorokin surely can be inventive – but ultimately he didn’t manage to engage me. His writing felt pompous and self-serious, a self-seriousness dishonestly disguised by irony, a bit of salacious sex (who cares?), expensive drugs and shapeshifting wordiness.
So I jumped ship at 36%. I’d rather read some of Sorokin’s interviews if I want to learn something, or even better, more of Varlam Shalamov’s vignettes.
For a bit of a deeper look at Telluria, check out this one on The Untranslated: an English review by somebody that read the Russian original. I’m a bit suspicious of most recent reviews of the book, as they might be influenced by the current political situation.
Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.
Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.
You clearly got a lot from the Shalamov, and I wouldn’t quibble with any of the observations you made but I would have difficulties with the inexorable cruelty of the gulag system. Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, which I read fifty years ago, gave me enough of an inkling of the sadism of Russia’s punitive system. And I’d give the Sorokin a miss, except this time for all the reasons you cogently give!
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I’ve read that Dostoyevsky too, over 20 years ago. I only remember I liked it a lot, and the fact that it wasn’t half as brutal as Shalamov’s book. Or maybe not brutal, but simply objective, clinical, matter of fact. It’s also a bigger book, documenting a lot more. I think Shalamov mentions Dostoyevsky to in the book, just a few lines, but I basically forgot what he said. Iirc, it was rather dismissive, in the sense that he was too positive about camp life, but don’t quote me on that.
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I am familiar with Sorokin from his ICE trilogy, also published by NYRB. Needless to say I jumped ship at 600 page mark.
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You held on for quite a long time then…
After reading Gulag Archipelago, I think my time of russian non-fiction is done. Kolyma sounds absolutely brutalizing.
On a side note.
I came over to read this past and glanced at your side bar. What did I see? Your “Currently Reading” widget. And what was in it? A book by Moshfegh. I laughed my head off 😀
I’ll try to write something in that email. just be aware that it’s going to be a very slow process due to life circumstances at the moment.
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Yeah, it was your review of Lapvona that triggered me to try her previous book – I’d been wanting to for quite some time, so I thought it was a good excuse. I guess my regular readers wanting reviews of speculative fiction will have to wait a bit longer for their dose. Take your time, I’d rather have a thoughtful discussion than a quick and vapid one.
And I can understand having enough of gulag literature after one book. I haven’t read the Gulag Archipelago, we’ll see if I ever get to it, but funnily enough, my copy of Shalamov sits next to another of Solzhenitsyn’s titles, a play that’s also set in the camps, namely “The Love-Girl and the Innocent”, which in Dutch has a much more striking title, “De Kamphoer en de Simpele Ziel”, which translates to something like ” The Campwhore and the Simple Soul”.
The subject of the gulag and, in general, cruelty inflicted by humans on other humans will probably never stop to hold my interest. I’ve visited Auschwitz in 2005, and that was a much more profound experience than I could have imagined beforehand. It’s a puzzling affair, the battle between nihilism and hope.
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As for hope: I do genuinely hope life isn’t too hard for you both at the moment.
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Your reviews are so well written, I enjoy them always and read them with alacrity.
I’m glad you explained the nature of these two books. Thanks for the quotes and your notes, they gave me pause and reminded me of the many blessings I enjoy.
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Thank you Silvia, very much appreciated! Shalamov´s is indeed a stark reminder of life´s endless other possibilities…
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