Varlam Shalamov: Kolymskie rasskazy [The Kolyma Tales] (1572 words)

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Kolymskie rasskazy [Kolyma Tales] is the name given to six collections of short stories by Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), depicting the experiences of convicts in the Soviet labour camps of the far North East of Siberia, notorious for being the most brutal part of the Gulag in the Stalin era. Shalamov, first imprisoned in 1929 for attempting to publish Lenin’s Testament, was re-arrested as a Trotskyite Counter-Revolutionary in 1937 and spent a total of 14 years in the camps and mines of Kolyma. The stories – terse miniatures that insistently depict the cruelty of the regime in Kolyma and the loss of humanity of its inhabitants – were written between 1954, following Shalamov’s final release from exile in the region, and the 1970s. A number of stories were published in emigre journals and in translation in the West, but only one story, “Stlanik” [“Dwarf Cedar”] (1960), appeared in the Soviet Union during Shalamov’s lifetime. They caused a sensation when they were published during Glasnost’, but full publication in Russia, in the order defined by the author, had to wait until 1992. Although now renowned in Russia as the greatest work on the Gulag, Kolyma Tales has received much less attention elsewhere, and is barely known in the English-speaking world.

The six collections, encompassing 147 stories, are titled Kolyma Tales, Levyi bereg [Left Bank], Artist lopaty [Artist of the Spade], Ocherki prestupnogo mira [Sketches of the Criminal World], Voskreshenie listvennitsy [Resurrection of the Larch], and Perchatka, ili KR-2 [Glove, or KT-2]. Sketches of the Criminal World consists of eight essays, dealing largely with criminal culture, as opposed to the political convicts, the focus of the other collections, which each contain between 21 and 33 stories. These five collections do not differ radically from each other, but do have distinctive emphases: Left Bank features a larger number of stories set in camp hospitals (the title refers to the location of the central hospital on the left bank of the Kolyma River); this collection and Artist of the Spade contain the majority of stories about Shalamov’s alter-egos, Andreev, Krist and Golubev; and, in Glove, many of the tales are repetitions of stories told elsewhere. Throughout the five main collections, the stories move freely between first- and third-person narrative, different focalizers, and various places and time periods, creating a fragmentary effect. It appears impossible to reconstruct events into an overarching story, even though continuities and elements of different linear narratives linking tales together are evident, as, for example, in the stories “Iun’’ [June] and “Mai” [May] (1959), which depict Andreev at the beginning and end of the war.

The opening story of the first collection, the lyrical “Po snegu” [Through the Snow] (1956), begins with the question “How is a road trampled through virgin snow?”, and proceeds to describe how one man moves ahead to cut a path through thick snow, followed by five or six convicts walking forward shoulder-to-shoulder to make a road down which tractors can pass; it ends, “And on the tractors and horses ride not writers, but readers”. The evocation of convicts as writers, “sweating and cursing” to forge a route into Kolyma for readers, indicates that we are not in the realm of straightforward memoir, but are faced with a more literary form, in which a degree of fictionalization complicates Shalamov’s insistence in essays and letters on the absolute authenticity of every one of his tales. From the beginning he raises the question of what constitutes the truth of such experiences.

The literariness of the tales is emphasized in the second story, “Na predstavku” [On Tick] (1956), the opening line of which, “They were playing cards at the horse-driver Naumov’s”, is a strong and unmistakable pastiche of the first sentence of one of the most famous and important short stories in Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin’s “Pikovaia dama” [The Queen of Spades]: “Once they were playing cards at the horse guard officer Narumov’s”. In both stories, gambling causes a death, but the violence of Shalamov’s version, shocking in its demonstration of the cheapness of life in the Gulag, reminds us that we are far removed from the world of the Pushkinian fantastic; literature here has acquired an entirely new meaning because of the new, inhuman context it is forced to address.

The concept of fictionalization is apparent elsewhere in the collections in the use of stories within stories. “Pervyi zub” [First Tooth] (1964) begins as an apparently straightforward first-person narrative describing the narrator’s protest at the beating of another prisoner, for which he in turn is beaten. It contains no skaz-like features to suggest that we are listening rather than reading, but is transformed in its final page, when a verbal frame to the written story unexpectedly appears: “‘Not a bad story,” I said to Sazonov. ‘It’s got a literary quality to it. Only you won’t get it published. And the ending’s sort of amorphous’.” Sazonov then proceeds to offer two alternative endings for the story. The narrative’s status as story is thus triply emphasized: by its frame; by its reference to publication; and by the fact that the first narrator, whom we would be inclined to equate with Shalamov himself – we know from his memoirs that the incident in question happened to him during his first period of imprisonment in Vishera – proves to have a different identity altogether.

The possibility of different endings here belies suggestions that Shalamov is a simple, naturalistic writer, and shows that he manipulates his stories not only to maximize the emotional effect on the reader, but also to the foreground the epistemological questions that underlie their writing: what actually happened? where does the story end? and who is capable of knowing, and telling it? Similar questions arise when incidents are repeated, particularly from a different perspective or in the context of a different story, as in the case of “Serafim” (1959), which includes the events that form the basis of “Utka” [Duck] (1963). Such repetitions intensify the sense of incompleteness implied by the fragmentary form of Kolyma Tales, creating a silence between the stories that gesture towards the difficulty of narrating the traumatic nature of the Gulag.

Shalamov is well known for the spiritual torment he depicts among the convicts, and for the bleakness of his rhetoric. That he considers Kolyma to be a locus of horror from which the survivors may never recover is not in doubt: “Salvation might be a good thing, but it might not: I haven’t decided on that question for myself even now” (“”erchatka’ [Glove], 1973). Story after story reminds us that the experience of a convict like Dugaev, losing his strength and singled out to have his work-rate measured prior to being executed, is unusual only in that his suffering is brought to a premature end. His isolation, in life and death, is the normal condition of Kolyma existence: “No kind of friendship is forged by hunger, cold and and insomnia, and Dugaev, despite his youth, understood the falsity of adages about friendship being proven by disaster and misfortune” (“Odinochnyi zamer” [Individual Assignment], 1955).

But alongside the brutality Shalamov depicts, and his questioning of the limits of humanity, Kolyma Tales also contains an emphasis on the creative act that appears to belie the author’s claim that nothing positive can be derive from that experience, and reveals a complex response that encompasses the contradictions arising from traumatic experience: the need for and unattainability of redemption, the tension of memory and forgetting, the impulse to write and the impossibility of expression. In “Resurrection of the Larch” (1966), Shalamov states, “We create symbols for ourselves and live by these symbols”, and we see this process at work repeatedly as the author develops knots of symbolism that simultaneously evoke destruction and creation. The image of the temporary path in “Through the Snow” reappears in positive, reflective mode in “Tropa” [Footpath] (1967), where a natural path in the forest becomes the narrator’s ‘study’ in which he writes poetry, but in the next story, “Grafit” [Graphite] (1967), the image is transformed by reference to the topographers who have drawn a prison onto the Kolyma landscape. When the notorious execution camp at Serpantinka is discussed in “Aleksandr Gogoberidze” (1970-1), the eponymous doctor observes, “Serpantinka – what a name! The road there winds round the mountain like a serpentine ribbon, so that’s what the cartographers called it”, drawing attention to the lethal potential of what may in other contexts seem quite benign. The image of the serpent itself appears elsewhere to connote hope. It signifies rebirth in “Glove”, as the skin on Shalamov’s hands is shed like a snake, beginning his recovery and new life, while in “Zaklinatel’ zmei” [Snake Charmer] (1954) it indicates the life-giving properties of story-telling, as the convict Platonov is saved by his willingness to act as a ‘novelist’ (story-teller) to the criminals. But here as well, the idea contains its own reversal, as the protection afforded to Platonov by his skill as a narrator proves inadequate; he is already dead when his story is told.

Such ambivalence also impacts strongly on the reader, who encounters both the extreme savagery of Shalamov’s world, and the remarkable beauty of its precise, spare form that never wastes a word. Reading Kolyma Tales can undoubtedly be a painful, alienating experience, but it is this combination of unassimilable elements that gives Shalamov’s writing its extraordinary power.

Work cited

Varlam Shalamov, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh [Collected Works in 6 Volumes] (Moscow: Terra-Knizhnyi klub, 2004).

Citation: Young, Sarah J.. "Kolymskie rasskazy". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 February 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=24332, accessed 09 July 2020.]

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