Varlam Shalamov Shalamov, Varlam - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shalamov, Varlam 1907(?)–

A Russian short story writer and poet, Shalamov writes of the seventeen years he spent at Kolyma, a Soviet labor camp. Kolyma Tales, his only work in English translation, depicts the prisoners' daily struggle to survive. Critics stress his documentary presentation, devoid of political and philosophical overtones, when comparing him to Solzhenitsyn. His fiction is banned in the Soviet Union, although some of his verse is in circulation.

George Gibian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not only is Shalamov a master of the short story, but his work is a major document about a quarter-century of human suffering in the Soviet labor camps of the Kolyma-Magadan region….

Now 24 of his best tales [Kolyma Tales] are available in English. Taken as a whole—and they are far more powerful read together in a collection than individually—these stories give a picture of the Kolyma horrors as broad as the Siberian waste itself: the mass graves, the endless roads trudged by the laborers, millions of dehumanized men and women kept in bestial conditions. Shalamov's tiny sketches (some are only a few pages long) evoke vast spaces and long years.

At the same time, he gives us striking concrete details of life in a Soviet concentration camp….

Shalamov is a relentlessly honest observer who resorts only occasionally to a muted irony. His view of Russians in prison is more pessimistic than Dostoevsky's in the House of the Dead. Helplessness is a recurrent theme, with hunger the all-powerful master of the camps….

Shalamov punctures one sentimental illusion after another. It is not true, he shows, that friendship flourishes under extreme adversity; on the contrary, self-preservation and self-interest predominate. The vast majority of prisoners are utterly degraded and will do anything, to anybody, for a little advantage to themselves. Very few escape Shalamov's...

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John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is a calmness and a judiciousness in Shalamov's consideration of his 17 years in Kolyma. All Russian authors have been connoisseurs, in their various ways, of the condition of servitude, imprisonment. When Dostoyevsky wrote "The House of the Dead," or Chekhov his account of the prison settlements of Sakhalin Island, they told the truth about those things in a way that at the time seemed horrifying. It was the truth but it wasn't so bad as this, not on the same scale, not so wholly without form and void. As for Tolstoy's account of Pierre's experiences as a prisoner of war and his friendship with Platon Karataev, that too is true no doubt, but somehow irrelevant, because too "significant." Shalamov's style is curiously light and weightless, as if it took for granted that "significance" had not returned and never would. Various things had happened to him; that was all. In fact this impression is produced by art, and a very effective and careful art. Shalamov has learned much from [Ivan] Bunin's stories, but the style he has evolved … is very much his own.

Indeed the most remarkable thing about ["Kolyma Tales"], written as they were after Shalamov's release,… is the determination of their author to turn those lost years somehow into art. The self-pity and self-advertisement, which would almost inevitably be present in a straight documentary approach such as a Western writer would have had the instinct to produce, have been separated out by the rigor of the artistic process, like gravel from the gold the convicts washed in the mines. The reader learns a good many facts, bizarre or terrifying enough, but it is more important that he sees how an artist later comes to terms with material of this kind. It is often said that there are areas of experience—Auschwitz, Maidanek, the extermination camps of Nazi Germany—about which it would be quite impossible for art to say anything at...

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Robert W. Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Kolyma Tales] reveals a very great artist at work…. [Shalamov's voice is] terse, flat, ironic and often beautiful. He has been likened to Bunin and Chekhov, and there are resemblances in style and structure, the major difference being that Shalamov's prose seems wrung from a bloody rag.

Abbé Sieyès, when asked what he did during the French Revolution, responded: "I survived." Shalamov, a dokhodyagas (goner) who survived, acts as the narrator, a full participant, in these stories. Each story is different from the others, without the gray sameness usual in this genre, but all share constants such as cold, food and work….

Kolyma was sadness ("It was a good thing that tears have no odor"), a sadness "easier to bear if you write it down. Once you've done that, you can forget." And men survive by forgetting. Though bitterness often intrudes, there is no self-pity and no despair….

Full publication of the complete stories of this, perhaps the greatest living Russian writer, will further expose his genius and, possibly, redeem his suffering.

Robert W. Smith, "Notes from the House of the Dead," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 20, 1980, p. 4.

Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The strength of [Kolyma Tales] derives, first of all, from a refusal to blink at the finality of waste…. [Shalamov writes] not with, and not without, bitterness, but somehow in a voice that seems beyond bitterness. Anger and grief have long ago exhausted themselves. What remains is the determination, perhaps beyond explaining, to get things straight, for whatever record may survive. Shalamov speaks in the voice of the irrevocable: millions perished, other millions were drained of health and youth, and there can be no recompense or reconciliation. The injustice is radical, complete, without end. Nor does Shalamov cover this up with noble phrases about "the human spirit," "transcendence," etc.…

[Shalamov's stories] yield a modest triumph of voice. Each story has its own nuances of theme and style, but the stories as a whole come together in something rare in modern literature: the filling-out of an impressive yet by no means transparent personality. Shalamov writes in a tone close to resignation yet not finally resigned, and in one of his best stories, "Major Pugachov's Last Battle," he breaks out in a spirited defiance of authority and death. Nor is his tone exactly stoical, though no critic need be chastized for so describing it. Shalamov holds himself in severe check as an artist, just as he held himself, apparently, while a prisoner; he grants nothing to rhetoric or compensatory emotions; he is simply intent with a gray passion, upon exactitude….

The urge to precision takes on a moral dimension. To note the difference between taste and the evoked sensation becomes a tacit gesture of salvage. This is an art ferociously insistent upon its present, its grasped fragment of time. There is barely a horizon of the future in these stories, since that seems beyond objective credence. As for the uses of memory regarding a time before the camps, experienced prisoners apparently learn that to surrender oneself to such memories is to risk losing the disciplines of survival. In their becalmed singleness of vision, the stories hold on to the present quite as a prisoner might grip his piece of bread….

A comparison with Solzhenitsyn is inevitable, and we might as well dispose of it. Solzhenitsyn is a writer of power, Shalamov of purity. Shalamov is not as openly rebellious...

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Josephine Woll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] stories included in Kolyma Tales represent the range of Shalamov's work, dealing with the basic matter of survival, the overlapping, if fiercely contentious, worlds of criminal prisoners and politicals, the precarious world of the jailors, the instances of defiance, flickerings of hope, release….

Shalamov's tone is flat, factual. Partly, of course, the flatness accentuates the horrors. Partly, however, the tone reflects the condition of the narrators. A man led from one place to another, likely to be shot, expresses no curiosity about his fate, no interest whatever beyond locating the stove in any room he enters, so that, for however long he may live, he can get a bit of warmth. (p. 35)

[Shalamov makes] clear that friendship, loyalty, compassion—traits we would like to think encourage survival—are incidental. "We all understood that we could survive only through luck." There are, to be sure, moments of kindness …, just as there are instances of humor, rebellion, and escape attempts. But mainly, beyond skill at self-preservation, beyond quick-witted bribes and lies, and certainly beyond superhuman work, there is luck. Shalamov's stories are disturbing because they leave us under no illusion that man can control his fate if circumstances are as they were in Kolyma. They disturb us because we like to think that something "human" in us, some spiritual quality, can endure under any conditions, and because he strips us of that illusion too. What endures, he says, what distinguishes man from animal, is not a soul, but an instinct for physical survival that made men in Kolyma last longer and work harder than any horse. (p. 36)

Josephine Woll, "Books and the Arts: 'Kolyma Tales'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 13, September 27, 1980, pp. 34-7.