Varlam Shalamov's profile
Born: June 18, 1907, Vologda
Died: January 17, 1982, Tushino
Education: Moscow State University
Occupation: Writer, journalist, poet
Notable works: Kolyma Tales, Graphite
Time spend in the Gulag: 1929-1931, 1937-1951
When Varlam Shalamov rejected Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s offer to co-author the Gulag Archipelago, he sparked a conflict between the two on the question of whether suffering is redemptive and what role art should play in society.
Solzhenitsyn once asserted that “literature becomes the living memory of a nation” and the inclusion of The Gulag Archipelago onto Russia’s high-school curriculum confirms that one can apply this statement to his own works.
The same cannot be said for his contemporary, Varlam Shalamov, who survived 17 years in the same camp system, wrote as powerfully and brilliantly as Solzhenitsyn, and yet has garnered little recognition within Russia or abroad.
For anyone interested in the experience of the Gulag, Shalamov’s collection of short stories Kolyma Tales is an absolute necessity, forming a complement to Solzhenitsyn’s work due to the writers’ contrasting styles and philosophy. John Glad, who produced the first translation of Kolyma Tales, writes in his foreword that the reader is “a person whose life is about to be changed.” This can be seen as a kind of disclaimer, a warning that this material is not for the faint-hearted, with its unflinching presentation of the brutality of power and the range of human suffering. Shalamov wrote that “a writer must be a stranger in the subjects he describes” and his work is defined by his direct, objective, presentation of suffering, with the detached gaze of his narrators serving to bring the subject matter into sharp relief.
Thematically, each of the stories is self-contained, focusing on a different element of camp life, a specific event, or a personality. However, this thematic division masks a deeper artistic unity. Critic and translator Robert Chandler notes that “whole passages are sometimes repeated between stories, but the story will end differently.” For Chandler, this creates the impression that Kolyma Tales is like a mosaic that has been shattered, and intentionally so, as if to exemplify the fact that the experience of the Gulag does shatter one’s world.
Thus Shalamov was not embarking on a historical project, and does not provide the reader with the expected eyewitness testimony in the mold of Auschwitz survivors such as Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi.
Shalamov declined to collaborate with Solzhenitsyn in part because he was disinterested in an historical approach, and in part due to his differing philosophical outlook. He claimed that “Solzhenitsyn is bogged down in the themes of nineteenth-century literature” and “all those who follow Tolstoy’s precepts are cheaters.”