Varlam Shalamov

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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

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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 general rule and remain noble and human. (p. 17)

Shalamov also destroys the widespread belief that the "criminal element" (blatnye) are Robin Hood-like, romantic, basically kind-hearted Russian outlaws. He shows them to be monstrously cruel and selfish. Favored by camp authorities, they exercise their ruthless power over all political prisoners….

Shalamov combines the qualities of Ernest Hemingway with those of Isaac Babel. He does not analyze the states of mind, or render the thoughts, of his characters. His narration is laconic, understated, like the reports of a camera or microphone—with occasional ethnographic explanations of camp life, and death, added for the benefit of the uninitiated reader—and he has a fine eye for gestures….

Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn….

Gulag, of course, is an encyclopedic conglomerate of facts, reports and incidents; Kolyma Tales are a unified cycle of sketches and stories. Shalamov has far less faith than Solzhenitsyn in the survival of human decencies under camp conditions. He is more self-restrained as well, exhibiting artistic concentration and intensity. Flaunting artlessness, Shalamov may indeed possess the greater art. (p. 18)

George Gibian, "Surviving the Gulag," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 7, April 7, 1980, pp. 17-18.

John Bayley

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[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...

(This entire section contains 786 words.)

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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 all. But this is not likely to be true: The reason why art has been silent about such places is a macabre one but simple enough. No artist who went to one survived, and no artist who had not experienced such a place could write about it. (pp. 34-5)

["Kolyma Tales"] is only a short selection of what must be a much larger body of work, and even so the literary level is markedly uneven. The best stories are as good as Chekhov, Babel or Bunin, but some have a perfunctory quality, and these, oddly enough, often have the greatest documentary interest: It is as if art and reporting were hostile to one another in Shalamov's temper. "Major Pugachov's Last Battle," for instance, tells of one of the mutinies by exprisoners of war from Germany, sent straight back to labor camps on the grounds that they were now politically unreliable and should not have been unpatriotic enough to surrender. Unlike the "politicals," and the criminal element who cooperated with the guards and helped run the organization, these tough customers were not easily kept in subjection, and one or two determined uprisings seem to have occurred, though the participants were invariably murdered by army troops sent into hunt them down.

An example of the artistry that is likely to be lost on a Western reader is the title of this particular tale: Pugachov was the famous rebel whose activities seriously embarrassed the government of Catherine the Great, and a history of whom was written by Pushkin. Now a latter-day Pugachov, the ex-army major, makes his tiny hopeless revolt against the might of the new-style Russian empire. "The Queen of Spades" by Pushkin, known to every literate Russian, begins, "They were playing cards once at Narumov's, the horse guard officer." Shalamov begins a story about the card-playing dramas of the criminal element in the camp with the sentence: "They were playing cards on Naumov's berth in the barracks for the mine's horse drivers." Art, it might be said, makes its own kind of comment on the ways in which history has remained unchanged….

Part of [the effectiveness of these stories] is that they have no wish to protest. They are a bit like the men in the camps who, if they managed to get a few scraps more to eat, recovered "the wish to die" and often did so. With the generosity and humility one would expect. Solzhenitsyn admitted that "Shalamov's experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own." That length and that bitterness have been distilled into the impassivity of these tales. (p. 35)

John Bayley, "Voices from the Gulag: 'Kolyma Tales'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1980, pp. 1, 34-5.

Robert W. Smith

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[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

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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 or intellectually assertive as Solzhenitsyn, having obviously been more deeply impaired by his ordeal. But neither is he as apocalyptic and dogmatic as Solzhenitsyn. He seems closest in spirit to the earlier Solzhenitsyn of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and "Matryona's House"; but Solzhenitsyn has become a writer who needs large, expansive forms combining invention and invective, while Shalamov, as frugal with words as Isaac Babel, packs everything into a few pages. And while Solzhenitsyn is a writer of proclamations, sometimes ideas, Shalamov possesses a rarer gift, that of a subdued philosophical temperament. Without theory, rage, or assault, he will include an occasional passage about the exertion of will required for survival and the "spiritual dullness" this usually entails. In the context of his fiction these sparse sentences acquire an overwhelming authority. Utterly self-effacing, he is everywhere visible….

Like the work of virtually every serious Russian writer in our time, Shalamov's stories testify to a willed, an insistent continuity of Russian literature. To affirm ties with prerevolutionary masters, as well as with some of the gifted figures of the Twenties, becomes a moral-political gesture understood by friend and enemy. The formal influence that strikes one as strongest is that of Babel. In temperament and probably opinion these writers differ; Shalamov has none of Babel's fascination with violence or taste for extremes. Yet it's impossible to read "Major Pugachov's Last Battle" without hearing—behind it, so to say—the tensed nervous rhythms of Babel….

Other stories seem to contain small, delicate touches of Chekhov, half-memories, half-contrasts. (p. 36)

As one lives through this book, one can't help thinking about the relationship in this century between art and testimony. The problem has been discussed mostly with regard to writings about the Holocaust, but it presses almost as strongly on the reader of Shalamov or Solzhenitsyn. A recent reviewer of Shalamov felt obliged to reassure his readers that this Russian wasn't just another survivor piling up terrible facts about the Gulag. Shalamov, he solemnly asserted, was also an artist. Behind such remarks there seems to be the view, comforting to us all, that in the hierarchy of values by which we live, culture retains its primacy and that in responding to a book about Kolyma what matters most is its artistic quality. There is another view, more hesitantly advanced by some critics, that declares culture to be helpless, or shamed, or finally just irrelevant before the horrors of our century. Who cares whether a writer can turn out a comely sentence when he is remembering a child's head being bashed in by a Nazi rifle butt? What matters is relentless testimony piled up to the very skies that do not heed it.

Is there a way of mediating between these two outlooks? Is there even any reason to want to? My own inclination is to feel that the tension here between aesthetic and moral standards is good for our souls, if not our literary theories; let it remain, that tension, so that we will not rest too easily with mere opinion. But in the case of Varlam Shalamov it is also worth saying that one reason his work achieves high literary distinction is precisely the moral quality of his testimony. The act of representation yokes the two. (pp. 36-7)

Irving Howe, "Beyond Bitterness," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 13, August 14, 1980, pp. 36-7.

Josephine Woll

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[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.