OUR NARRATOR IN “A Day Off,” a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp, watches a man praying beyond the silver larches. He recognizes Zamiatin, a priest in his barracks, with hair white from hoarfrost. He mistakenly thinks the priest is saying Mass, but Zamiatin is ashamed — he prays but doesn’t know what day it is or which direction is east. The narrator is not a religious man. “I knew that everyone here had his own ‘final thing,’” he says, “the most important thing that helped him to stay alive, to hang on to life, which we were so insistently and stubbornly being deprived of here.”
Returning to the barracks, the nameless narrator hears sounds coming from a tool shed and finds two fellow prisoners playing with a German shepherd puppy. One holds him down while the other splits the dog’s head with an ax. They skin the puppy, bury its fur in the snow, and cook the rest in a pot. The prisoners offer the leftovers to the priest, who quickly eats the remains. Only then do they tell him he has just eaten “[t]he dog that used to go and see you, the one called North.” The narrator follows the priest outside, where he sees him vomiting up his meal. “Bastards,” the narrator say. “‘Of course they are,’ said Zamiatin. ‘But the meat tasted good. As good as mutton.’”
Life in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories is a biological imperative, nothing more. His world makes Beckett’s look homey. Morals, faith, and manners crystallize and blow away in the cold, dry air. Temperatures in Kolyma, the titular region of the Russian Far East, average 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in the winter, and underfed, poorly clothed prisoners work in the gold mines. Shalamov spent 17 years in Stalin’s camps. Released in 1951, he began writing his stories three years later. Though seriously damaged, physically and emotionally, he survived. That he turned his experience into first-rate literature, some of the best short fiction produced in the 20th century, is miraculous. In the early 1980s, John Glad published two volumes of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales in English, but supplied little context for Western readers. Because his work was often discussed in the context of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Shalamov was judged a documentarian of Stalin’s camps. The new translation by Donald Rayfield, the first of two volumes, contains 86 stories and for the first time in the West offers a true picture of Shalamov’s artistic accomplishment. Chekhov’s most reliable biographer and the translator of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, Rayfield in his introduction extols the “relentless power of these works, in which the author refuses to soften or mitigate anything.” Readers should be warned: Kolyma Stories is not for the naïve or faint-hearted. The suffering, though artfully rendered, is unending.
Kolyma is bounded by the East Siberian Sea, the Arctic Ocean, and the Sea of Okhotsk. It is closer to Alaska than to Moscow, more than 3,400 miles to the west. The number of deaths in Stalin’s Kolyma camps is difficult to calculate with precision, though Robert Conquest let it go at “millions” and added, “[T]he frightfulness of Kolyma was due not to geographical or climatic reasons, but to conscious decisions taken in Moscow.”
Along with a thousand other writers, Shalamov is routinely likened to Chekhov, and for once the comparison has substance. Like Chekhov, Shalamov focuses less on traditional plot and elegant storytelling than on the behavior of human beings. His is a raw, Hobbesian world, where might makes, if not right, at least a chance of survival. Though dense with detail only a zek (Soviet slang for camp prisoner) could know, Shalamov’s stories anatomize character. In “A Personal Quota,” Dugayev is 23 and “more amazed than frightened by everything he had seen and heard here.” His partner in the gold mine is Baranov (perhaps ironically named after Alexander Baranov, who settled Alaska for Tsar Alexander I early in the 19th century). Baranov rolls a cigarette for Dugayev — a rare gesture of generosity in Kolyma. Though young, Dugayev is not naïve, and the gift sparks a meditation on friendship:
Not that any friendship could arise between hungry, cold, and sleepless men. Dugayev, despite his youth, understood how false were all the proverbs about friendship tested by misfortune and misery. Real friendship needed to have firm foundations before the conditions of everyday life had reached the extreme point beyond which human beings have nothing human about them except mistrust, anger, and lies. Dugayev never forgot the saying in the north, that there are three commandments for prisoners: don’t trust, don’t be afraid, don’t ask.
Shalamov’s narrative focus is always tight. He never generalizes, never indulges in sentimentality. He has no theories, political or otherwise, to share. In her recent Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulag in Putin’s Russia, Masha Gessen writes:
Shalamov is in many ways the opposite of Solzhenitsyn. He had no use for the heroic or the political. He set out to document not the superhuman scale of the gulag but the miserable insignificance of the inmate. He produced a thousand pages of the most harrowing and claustrophobic description in the history of literature.
All true, and one might conclude that Shalamov’s method is a prescription for tedium. Yet with each succeeding story the reader comes to understand that he is learning about a discrete world, one parallel to and occasionally overlapping with our own. In this sense, he is not unlike Dickens or Dreiser at work. Shalamov’s setting seems narrow but within its confines he finds room for digressions on such human concerns as food, clothing, poetry, and illness. Humans remain human even when denied their humanity. This reader was surprised to learn that Shalamov had an unlikely eye for the natural world. He chronicles the changing seasons above the Arctic Circle, and even has a favorite tree, the dwarf pine. Perhaps nature is one of his “final things,” as described above by the narrator of “A Day Off.”
I had long ago understood and treasured the enviable haste with which impoverished northern nature, destitute as it was, strove to share its simple riches with human beings by producing all of its flowers as quickly as it could. It took only a week to bring everything into blossom, and in little more than a month after the beginning of summer, when the sun never set, the mountains would shine red with lingonberries and black with blueberries.
Shalamov’s stories are peppered with brief allusions to his forebears among Russian writers, gestures that read like quiet homages and that establish continuity with a culture ruptured by the Bolshevik Revolution. His best-known story is probably “Cherry Brandy,” a retelling of the poet Osip Mandelstam’s final hours in a transit camp, and it ranks among the most convincing literary accounts of dying, flowing as it does out of the poet’s waning consciousness. Shalamov writes with cool, artful realism, without melodrama or preaching. He observes almost clinically, and in fact worked as a medical assistant in the surgical department of a camp hospital. He was a poet before he wrote fiction. Details are precious. The story begins:
The poet was dying. His big hands, swollen by starvation, with their bloodless white fingers and dirty, overgrown, curling nails, lay exposed on his chest, despite the cold. Before then he had held them against his naked body, but that body now had too little warmth. His gloves had been stolen a long time ago.
The title, “Cherry Brandy,” comes from a poem Mandelstam wrote in 1931, seven years before his death. In Shalamov’s story, the poet tells us he believes in the “immortality of his verse,” and that “only in verse had he found things that were new to poetry and important, as he always thought. His entire past life was literature, books, fairy tales, dreams, and only this present day was real life.” One can hardly imagine a more alien presence in this frozen camp. Shalamov confirms everything we know about Mandelstam’s poetic practice, its sacred duty: “Even now stanzas rose easily, one after the other, and although he hadn’t written down any for a long time, and couldn’t write down his verse, the words still came without effort in a rhythm that was predetermined and, on every occasion, unusual.”
The sadness of the story’s conclusion is unbearable. His last words are “What do you mean, later?” and the reader is reminded of Isaac Babel’s final words before the court that condemned him to death: “I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.” Here are the final paragraphs of “Cherry Brandy.” First, “By evening he was dead,” followed by: “But they wrote him off two days later. His enterprising neighbors managed to get a dead man’s bread for two days; when it was distributed, the dead man’s hand rose up like a puppet’s. Therefore he died earlier than the date of his death, quite an important detail for his future biographers.”
Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov didn’t live to see the Soviet system collapse. He died in 1982, at the age of 74, deaf and nearly blind and confined to a psychiatric ward.