GRAPHITE by Varlan Shalamov

GRAPHITE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Shalamov's 1980 volume, Kolyma Tales, still stands out--in its pessimism-beyond-despair, its knowledge-profounder-than-hope, its brilliant minimalist artistry--as one of the major works of 20th-century Russian literature. But an air of uncertainty about how Shalamov should be presented here (as a fiction-writer? a memoirist? a journalist?) hung over the book; and in this follow-up collection of prison pieces (some fiction, mostly non-fiction), the uncertainty is even more evident. Translator Glad, in his foreword, concludes: ""The lesson these stories teach is not that these people are unusual in their brutality to each other but that they are ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances."" That notion, more pious than accurate, is trivialized, even contradicted outright, by one of the stories here, ""The Lepers""--about a prisoner who joyfully learns that he has leprosy, and the panic this creates among the other inmates: ""People whose lives are ruined . . . suddenly find themselves in the grip of some trivial prejudice, some nonsense that they for some reason can neither ignore nor deny. And the sudden appearance of shame is the most subtle of human emotions, to be remembered for one's entire life as something real and infinitely precious."" Subtle--not ordinary--is the key here; reduced to ciphers, all emotions, as weak as the pale-yellow 1000-watt lightbulbs on the prison barrack ceilings, become exquisite, since they are held down as ruthlessly as bonsai trees, unable to grow. For the minuteness of their nullity, four stories here--""Typhoid Quarantine,"" ""Through The Snow,"" ""The Lepers,"" and ""Descendant of a Decembrist""--rank as equals to the greatest in Kolyma Tales, which means very great indeed. But why they were not placed in that volume is not clear. Instead they tower over the more pedestrianly handled journalistic testimonies (denunciation of the camps' criminal classes; a fantasia upon the death of Mandelstam) that make up most of this ancillary book. Over-explained, over-extrapolated, over-clarified, most of the pieces here give little sense of Shalamov-the-master, whose small nothings of useless knowledge and feeling disclose horror on an unimaginable, untellable scale.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1981
Publisher: Norton