Essential chronicles of the worst face of the totalitarian state.


Building on his Kolyma Stories (2018), one-time prisoner Shalamov limns the hell that was the Soviet gulag.

The stories gathered here, apparently reportage with a light veneer of fiction to disguise names, open with their author chiding himself for being “thrilled by the ‘heroic’ figures of the criminal world,” adulation befitting an impressionable teenager. For, as Shalamov (1907-1982) writes, there really were criminals in the gulag, not just blameless victims of Stalin. At the head of the hierarchy were the “hereditary thieves,” those who knew no other way than robbery—and who were not to be confused with the amateurs who swelled the ranks of the criminal class following the “dekulakization” of the 1930s. The professionals wield tremendous power: In one of Shalamov’s tales, they threaten the head medical officer at a mine where one of their “godfathers” had been sent with unspecified violence while promising him two suits of clothing if he arranges for a transfer to “a thieves’ place, the Northern Administration.” Indeed, apart from the criminals, many of the figures whom Shalamov profiles are the doctors, nurses, and paramedics who serve the camps, often as inmates themselves; the prisoners tend to make little distinction over titles, so long as they can get a little medicine and perhaps a little time off in the clinic, and even the captors who administer the prison system prefer those doctors to the ones on the outside. There are fascinating sociological side notes, such as the odd fact that the “murderers or thieves” among the gulag’s denizens were fond of the poetry of Sergei Yesenin, “the only poet who was accepted and consecrated by the criminals, who generally altogether disliked poetry.” As in his earlier volume, Shalamov writes matter-of-factly, unblinkingly, about the endless horrors of the gulag, which are scarcely comprehensible.

Essential chronicles of the worst face of the totalitarian state.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-68137-367-6

Page Count: 576

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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