Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Shalamov’s semiautobiographical narrator is an insider, a veteran of camp life, an observer rather than an active participant. In this story, too, his only “act” is contemplative, when he stops digging through the trash heap for anything edible or useful and looks over the notebook. It is left to a fellow prisoner to judge the paper unfit for rolling cigarettes and toss the notebook back on the heap. Though not above the scene, this narrator is removed from it by his own reticence in act and speech.

What gives this story—and the rest of the Kolyma Tales—their impact is the dissonance between the unbelievable, nightmare absurdity of the labor camps and the narrator’s calm reportage. He avoids dramatization, embellishment, sentimentality, even sympathy. He may explain, or clarify, but he never comments. What he leaves out reveals more than any description ever could.

For example, the story begins with a brief description of camp routine. The narrator tells the reader that the prisoners are marched out in fives to make counting easier because even the prisoner’s patience wears thin if he has to wait in the cold. End of description. What the reader is left to figure out for himself is the ignorance and stupidity of those in control, and that the fear of violence—even violence by starving wrecks of men—controls the controllers.

The narrator’s impartiality extends to himself as he relates how he systematically rummages through the garbage, envious of his companions’ success in scavenging. His tone does not change when he describes his own reaction to the child’s notebook: material boon, spiritual loss—seemingly equal value, redefined, redrawn by Kolyma.

The suggestive legend of the taiga god who discards his own crude, childish creation, covers it with snow and leaves forever, ends with a disclaimer—“So goes the legend.” Once again, the narrator makes no connections, and the reader must link the god’s abandoned, snow-covered world, the narrator’s lost childhood, and the Kolyma child’s tablet, coated with frost as soon as it returns to the garbage heap.