A brief history of the short story: Varlam Shalamov

“I hate literature,” wrote Varlam Shalamov in a 1965 letter. “I do not write memoirs; nor do I write short stories. That is, I try to write not a short story but something that would not be literature.” Despite Shalamov’s misgivings, his collection of short stories, Kolyma Tales, contains some of the greatest writing to emerge from the gulag.

What he was expressing, in agonised terms, was that everything in his writing serves a purpose. As in the gulag, where survival could come down to receiving the thicker part of the soup or an extra ration of bread, or simply owning your own bowl, there is no room in his stories for the non-essential. What he is also stating, purposefully or not, is that his writing is unique.

The gulag was a vast concentration-camp network that spread across some of the most inhospitable regions of Russia, and of all these regions Kolyma was the most extreme. “In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps,” the historian Anne Applebaum writes, “so too has the word ‘Kolyma’ come to signify the greatest hardships of the gulag.” Shalamov’s translator John Glad describes the region as “an enormous natural prison bounded by the Pacific on the east, the Arctic Circle on the north and impassable mountains on the third side of the triangle”. The temperature can reach minus 45 degrees centigrade, cold that, in Shalamov’s words, “crushed the muscles and squeezed a man’s temples”.

First arrested in 1929 for trying to distribute a suppressed letter by Lenin, Shalamov was released in 1932 after three years’ hard labour. Rearrested in 1937, at the outset of the great purge, he spent the next 17 years in Kolyma. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of him that his imprisonment “was more bitter and longer than mine, and I say with respect that it fell to him, not to me, to touch that bottom of brutalisation and despair to which the whole of camp life dragged us”. For his part, Shalamov was largely dismissive of Solzhenitsyn, whose fame he envied: he refused Solzhenitsyn’s offer to co-author The Gulag Archipelago, and once described the camps as a subject “that can freely accommodate a hundred writers of Solzhenitsyn’s rank, and five Tolstoys”.

Between 1954 and 1973, Shalamov wrote 147 stories about Russian prisons, transit camps, the mines of Kolyma, life in the camp hospitals, and the troubled experience of returning home. It is tempting, at first, to consider the stories autobiographical, if not straight memoir. This impression is only strengthened if you have encountered Shalamov’s stories quoted as primary source material in historical works by Robert Conquest and Applebaum, or by the political philosopher John Gray. It is a judgment his prose style supports: “Shalamov holds himself in severe check as an artist”, wrote Irving Howe, “he is simply intent, with a grey passion, upon exactitude.”

Yet the more you read, the less documentary-like the experience becomes. Unusual repetitions occur, such as the selection of a work crew described from different perspectives across three separate stories: three discrete pathways that unexpectedly intersect. Similarly, particular images and phrases repeat; objects exhibit a strong symbolic power; meanings double, as accounts of daily camp life take on aesthetic and philosophical dimensions. As Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson describe:
A reader who knows only a few of the stories may well imagine the Kolyma Tales to be simply a factual account of Shalamov’s experiences. The events described in each individual story seem entirely real. Only when we read further, when we try to grasp the whole of this epic cycle, do we begin to realise that its truth can never be grasped: we begin, at last, to sense the terrible unreality of the survivor’s world. Successive narrators suffer identical fates, their stories intertwine impossibly, and time stands still. This fusion of realism and the surreal endows Kolyma Tales with extraordinary power.
Shalamov’s work is often described as “web-like” in its complexity. The stories are quite capable of standing alone (several are outright masterpieces), but ideally they should be read as a totality, arranged in the order Shalamov intended. Unfortunately, because the stories were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published piecemeal in the west (none of them appeared in print in Shalamov’s home country before 1989, seven years after his death), and because to date only a third of the stories have been translated into other languages, non-Russian speakers are unable to experience their intended effect in full.

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