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 …

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