A Set of Vicious Russian Nesting Dolls: On Varlam Shalamov’s “Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories”

By Patrick KurpApril 20, 2020

A Set of Vicious Russian Nesting Dolls: On Varlam Shalamov’s “Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories”

Sketches of the Criminal World by Varlam Shalamov

WHAT ARE WE to make of the unexpected fondness inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps had for Marcel Proust? In 1940, the first book Aleksander Wat read in Lubyanka prison after a bookless year was Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. In My Century, Wat describes it as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” The following year, in a prison camp 200 miles north of Moscow, Józef Czapski lectured his fellow inmates on Proust’s novel, a book he was “not sure of seeing again.” His audience “listen[ed] intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” And here, in his story “Marcel Proust,” Varlam Shalamov describes the theft in a Gulag camp of Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork: “Who was going to read that strange prose, so weightless that it seemed about to fly off into space, a world whose scales were displaced and switched around, so that there was nothing big and nothing small. […] The horizons of a writer are expanded extraordinarily by that novel.”

He and the book’s owner, a paramedic named Kalitinsky, “recalled our world, our own lost time,” but the volume is never recovered. Shalamov’s stand-in portrays himself as a civilized man, an inheritor of the Western tradition who cherishes books, though he knows his values mean nothing in the alternate universe of the Gulag: “You might meet admirers of Jack London in that world, but Proust? It could only be used to make playing cards: it was a heavyweight large format book. […] It went to make cards, cards … It would be cut up and that was it.” Like morality and religion, art means nothing. Only survival counts. The lives documented by Shalamov are Hobbesian: “[S]olitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In 2018, New York Review Books published Donald Rayfield’s translation of Kolyma Stories. With this second volume, Sketches of the Criminal World, we now have all 145 stories written by Shalamov after his 17 years in Stalin’s prison system. Collections of short stories are not ideally read in bulk, consecutively, but are best sampled at leisure. The experience can quickly turn into a forced march and blunt the impact of individual pieces. Given the nature of Shalamov’s material — the unrelieved and purposeful degradation of human beings — his prose is best appreciated over time. This reader, while respecting Shalamov’s obsessive need to return to the horrors he witnessed and share them with a naïvely unbelieving world, looks forward to rereading the best of his stories one at a time, the way we might read one of Shalamov’s forebears, Anton Chekhov.

Shalamov anatomizes the organizational evil of the Gulag. There’s no pretense to rehabilitation or high-toned appeals to justice. The camp bosses defer to the violent criminal subclass that effectively runs the camps. As a “political” sentenced for “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities,” Shalamov is at the mercy of warring gangs of garden-variety hoodlums. A Gulag camp is a like a set of vicious Russian nesting dolls, one within another, each vying for power. This explains the title of the second volume.

The opening stories in this collection are not works of fiction but rather combative essays that propose a reevaluation of the way Shalamov’s predecessors in Russian literature, acknowledged masters and merchants of pulp alike, romanticized the criminal world. In “What Fiction Writers Get Wrong,” he takes on Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Babel, even Chekhov. About the author of Sakhalin Island he writes: “Chekhov was in Sakhalin for too short a time, and until the day he died he lacked the boldness to use this material for his fiction.” He accuses his predecessors of faintheartedness, an unwillingness to face “the phosphoric glare of criminality.” Instead, “they have disguised it with a romantic mask and thus reinforced their readers’ utterly false idea of what is in fact a treacherous, revolting, and inhuman world.” In “Crooks by Blood,” Shalamov even corrects Chekhov’s use of the gambling slang he misheard on Sakhalin. In the same story, he writes perhaps the most chilling words in the entire collection: “Doing evil is far more entertaining than doing good.” This is Shalamov, or his narrating stand-in, speaking, not one of his characters.

Shalamov is at his best when he writes concisely, in stories that read almost like parables or such late Tolstoy works as “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” — though without the consolations of faith. “Someone Else’s Bread” is less than a page long. The narrator is entrusted with another prisoner’s daily ration of bread: 300 grams, about the weight of the human heart. He keeps it in a small wooden box reserved for his few possessions. After much restless pacing and inability to sleep, he takes the bread from the box, savors the smell, returns it to the box, and immediately removes it again. Crumbs fall from the loaf and he licks them from the palm of his hand. He salivates and takes three pieces “the size of my pinkie” from what remains. “And I went to sleep,” he concludes, “proud that I hadn’t stolen my comrade’s bread.”

The impotence of intellectuals and other bookish sorts when they encounter the allied forces of Stalinists and gangsters is a recurrent theme. In “Pain,” we meet Aleksandr Shelgunov, an inmate in a Siberian transit camp. He is too sick to work in the gold mines. His parents were academics. Since he was a boy, “he had lived on books and for books; a bibliophile and a bookworm, he sucked in Russian culture with his mother’s milk.” Shelgunov is soon identified as a “novelist” — that is, a storyteller who repeats and embellishes the remembered plots of books, e.g., Stendhal, Cellini, The Count of Monte Cristo. He is much in demand. The barracks boss, a gangster nicknamed the King, names him “court novelist” and rewards him with food and tobacco. Soon he is ordered to write a letter to the wife of the King’s henchman: “Make it really tender and clever.” Shalamov calls his novelist “Cyrano-Shelgunov.” He writes 50 such letters, until the henchman is murdered. Shelgunov survives the camp, is released, and returns to Moscow. He learns his wife has committed suicide after a letter written by another henchman of the King informed her that Shelgunov had been executed: “Shelgunov had trusted gangsters, and they had made him kill his wife with his own bare hands.”

This too is a parable. Shalamov writes many of them, and often the object of their mockery is the figure of a writer who, in his oblivious vanity, prides himself on living by and for words. In “Pain,” Shalamov gives one of the King’s lackeys the last word. Asked if he remembers the novelist, Genka replies: “Why should I forget him? I remember him. He was that jerk, that ass!”

And yet, despite the emotional and physical damage he sustained in Stalin’s camps, Shalamov survived and wrote his hundreds of stories and poems. He embraces the very words he derides. Most other writers in comparison look like dilettantes. The title character in “The Life of Engineer Kipreyev” says: “The only thing you can prove to yourself is your own stupidity. Living and surviving is the task. And not to fail … Life is more serious than you think.”


Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.

LARB Contributor

Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.


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