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Beyond Bitterness

Kolyma Tales

by Varlam Shalamov, translated by John Glad
Norton, 222 pp., $9.95

The strength of these stories derives, first of all, from a refusal to blink at the finality of waste. Varlam Shalamov, now seventy-three, said to be living in Moscow, spent seventeen years in the forced labor camps of Kolyma, and his life was shattered by this ordeal. In stories that circulated in Samizdat but are still not published in the Soviet Union he writes about it 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.

But by another reckoning Shalamov is primarily a writer. The years in the camps are his substance, mostly what he knows, and if he is to remain a writer he must use what he has. One is reminded—improbably—of Henry James’s prefaces in which he keeps talking about the challenge of making a significant work out of some small, unpromising event or situation. The life of the Kolyma prisoners was constricted to a point close to, sometimes below, survival; large portions of common experience and feeling, traditionally the material of literature, were cut away from both the prisoners and their chronicler. Still, a writer like Shalamov must be haunted by the question: from all those years of suffering and deprivation what can be salvaged for the work in hand, especially if the life of the prisoners is accepted as the limit of the subject?

Shalamov’s stories, sensitively collected and translated by John Glad, 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. Here is the opening paragraph of the great story, “In the Night”:

Supper was over. Slowly Glebov licked the bowl and brushed the bread crumbs methodically from the table into his left palm. Without swallowing, he felt each miniature fragment of bread in his mouth coated greedily with a thick layer of saliva. Glebov couldn’t have said whether it tasted good or not. Taste was an entirely different thing, not worthy to be compared with this passionate sensation that made all else recede into oblivion. Glebov was in no hurry to swallow; the bread itself, melted in his mouth and quickly vanished.

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.

Shalamov himself was a “guilty” man: he had actually said something, harmless though it seems to us, which the Stalinist authorities could seize upon as subversive. However, the story of his ordeal as reported by Professor Glad in this book turns out to be inaccurate in some details. It is not true that Shalamov was sent to Kolyma in 1937 for having said that Ivan Bunin, the émigré writer, was “a classic” of Russian literature. According to Professor George Gibian in a recent New Leader, the accurate, even more appalling story is this: Shalamov, at the age of twenty-two; received a five-year sentence to a labor camp in 1929, for reasons unknown. He was again arrested in 1937 and sentenced to five years in Kolyma. “In 1942 Shalamov’s sentence was extended ‘to the end of the war’; in 1943 he received ten more years” for his remark about Bunin. Apparently he was betrayed by an informer in the camps. This final sentence expired in 1953 but Shalamov was not allowed to return to Moscow until a few years later. As Professor Gibian sums it up: “By then he was fifty and had spent half his life in labor camps, including seventeen years in Kolyma.”

There are millions of others, and in one of his rare historical generalizations Shalamov writes about these people that they “had nothing to defend themselves with except, perhaps, personal honesty and naïveté…. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree.” Was Shalamov’s survival enabled by the fact that, being “guilty,” he did have a unifying idea? Or was it simply a matter of chance? In any case, that unifying idea—strongly felt in reading his stories but very hard to roll up into a phrase—enabled him to become one of the major artists of the camp experience.

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.

I count at least three masterpieces among these stories. “In the Night” shows two prisoners digging up the grave of a third one, simply to get a few shreds of underwear which tomorrow they can trade for bread: three pages of pure notation, a terribleness of event. “Major Pugachov’s Last Battle” is a more expansive tale about a group of ex-soldiers, banished to Kolyma because they surrendered to the Germans, who now start up a rebellion they know to be doomed, flee the camp, and in the wastes organize their last-ditch resistance. “Lend-Lease” is a grim story about the use during the war years of gigantic American tractors which root up frozen corpses:

The north resisted with all its strength this work of man, not accepting the corpses into its bowels. Defeated, humbled, retreating, stone promised to forget nothing, to wait and preserve its secret. The severe winters, the hot summers, the winds, the six years of rain had not wrenched the dead men from the stone. The earth opened, baring its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies.

What is presented as a mere gruesome fact becomes a metaphor encompassing the fate of generations.

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. Or the lilt with which the story ends:

Major Pugachov remembered each of [his fellow-rebels], one after the other, and smiled at each. Then he put the muzzle of the pistol in his mouth and for the last time in his life fired a shot.

Other stories seem to contain small, delicate touches of Chekhov, half-memories, half-contrasts. Perhaps the most poignant thing in this book is a speech by one of the prisoners in “Dry Rations”;

Just imagine…. We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive…. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.

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.

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