Essential chronicles of the worst face of the totalitarian state.

SKETCHES OF THE CRIMINAL WORLD

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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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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BEYOND THE GREAT SNOW MOUNTAINS

Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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