KOLYMA TALES by Varlam Shalamov
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Solzhenitsyn is reported to have asked Shalamov to co-author The Gulag Archipelago, but Shalamov's health wasn't up to it. And in a sense, these extraordinary stories indicate that Shalamov perhaps may know more--a barbarous knowledge even other Russian prison books do not suggest--than could possibly have been presented in non-fiction. Instead he has made ""tales""--fictions--of the Kolyma, the gold-mining region of Siberia where it's estimated that three million people died under Stalin. Translator Glad suggests that Shalamov resembles Chekhov--and certain pieces here, like ""A Piece of Meat"" and ""My First Tooth"" (knocked-out in the camps, not gained as a baby), do recall in angle and acuity the darker Chekhov of ""Gusev"" and ""Ward 6."" But the writer that Shalamov most startlingly resembles is Samuel Beckett: the pits; the stone-moving and purposeless cedar-needle-gathering in weather that freezes spit in mid-air; remembering a word--""sententious""--so foreign and useless to the camp reality that it proves to a man that he's still alive. . . . In all this, Shalamov brilliantly scrapes the very pot-bottom of existence: ""We'd all learned meekness and had forgotten how to be surprised. We had no pride, vanity, or ambition, and jealousy and passion seemed as alien to us as Mars, and trivial in addition. It was much more important to learn to button your pants in the frost. Grown men cried if they weren't able to do that. . . . We realized that life, even the worst life, consists of an alternation of joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and there was no need to fear the failures more than the successes."" The voices of Shalamov's narrators are of the living dead, yet alive as only Kolyma can register life, barely perceptible. True, other tales of the camps, Russian and German, have chastened and cleansed world literature; but Shalamov's seem on even yet another level--of very great art, of inconceivable, soul-rattling realness.

Pub Date: March 24th, 1980
ISBN: 0140186956
Publisher: Norton