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A Great Russian Writer: Варлам Шаламов [Varlam Shalamov] Posted by on Dec 7, 2008 in Uncategorized

Though it’s been over a month since I finished reading his masterpiece «Колымскиерассказы» [“The Kolyma Tales”] I have not yet been able to let go of him as a writer. Not only the fate of Варлам Шаламов [Varlam Shalamov] but also his person has stuck on me for good. I wanted to write about him here straight away, but soon I realized that I needed some more time to ‘melt him down’ for myself first, before sharing my reflections with the rest of the world. It has been said that Солженицын [Solzhenitsyn] is the Толстой [Tolstoy] of the 20th century, and that Шаламов [Shalamov] therefore must be the Достоевский [Dostoevsky] of the same century. Thus it cannot be any surprise that the first Russian work of fiction that came to my mind while I read his collection of short stories describing life in GULAG camps on Kolyma was «ЗапискиизМёртвогодома» [“Notes from the House of the Dead”]. “Notes from the House of the Dead” is Dostoevsky’s effort – and it was the first in the history of world literary of its kind – to portray life «накаторге» [in the penal colony] in Tsar Russia, whereas Shalamov’s “Tales” is his take on life in a GULAG prison in Soviet Russia exactly one hundred years later. The hundred years that set them apart are crucial, not only for the way ‘hope’ is portrayed, but also for the role ‘freedom’ plays in the two books. In “Notes” there is hope, because there is still the dream of freedom, even if there isn’t freedom in the colony everyone still dreams of freedom, and in the end the main character screams: «…Свобода, новаяжизнь, воскресеньеизмёртвыхЭкаяславнаяминута[…Freedom, a new life, rising from the dead… What a glorious minute!] If in Dostoevsky’s colony the prisoners lived only with the dream of freedom, the situation is quite another in Shalamov’s GULAG camp. His “Tales” end not with freedom, though there is some sort of ‘freeing’, but with the conclusion that even outside of the camp man can never be truly free because he will always be a prisoner in a country that imprisons people for thinking differently.

Today I would like you to pick up a copy of Shalamov’s “Tales”, be it in the original Russian, or in an English translation, it doesn’t matter. Though I understand that perhaps not everyone is as close to the «тюремная тема» [prison theme] as I am – after all I spent 18 months in Omsk just because that’s where Dostoevsky spent four years in the penal colony – these stories are beautiful even without their sad context. The stories are all rather short, and it is more than possible to finish reading one each night right before bed. I promise you that you won’t be disappointed if you follow my advice and get to know a writer who really knew how to write. Because that’s what really made a deep impression on me – his skills at writing. He writes in such a way that it is a pure pleasure to read about people always starving and always wanting to die because they’re on the end of the world with no way out of there. He sees people and he writes about them in such a way that they become alive, and the whole region also becomes alive, and the lightness of his language, the talent with which he moves his pen is so delightful that it makes one almost angry with the Swedish Academy for giving the Nobel Prize to Solzhenitsyn, instead of Shalamov. If anyone deserved a Nobel Prize in Literature it was certainly Varlam Shalamov – no offence, «Один день Ивана Денисовича» [«A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”] is great stuff, but why not noting the fact that there was another way of living – and dying – in the GULAG camps of the Soviet Union, one that didn’t contain trying to get off work for one whole day?

All the while I was reading “Tales” I kept thinking of Dostoevsky’s “Notes”, not just because of the theme – an intellectual retelling his life in prison by way of using the people’s words and the people’s speech – but because it felt like it was going to come any moment now; just a little hint to tell the reader that yes, you’re right – I’m as familiar with what went down in 1850 as you are. Then all of the sudden it comes, right smack in the middle of the collection, in the short story called «Татарский мулла и чистый воздух» [The Tartar Mullah and Clean Air]. In it Shalamov opens up his polemics with Dostoevsky wide open, and argues that the ‘clean air’ that saved Dostoevsky in Tsar Russia was not salvation at all for the condemned in Soviet Russia – for them ‘clean air’ equaled hard work and hard work equaled an early death. And once again we’re faced with the issue of differences between these two writers, who had so much in common otherwise, that one could claim for the rest of his life that it was indeed the forced work that saved him while in the penal colony, whereas the other was so harmed by forced work that he was made an invalid for the rest of his life. Dostoevsky only said forced work was harmful because it was forced, he didn’t go into detail as to what kind of damage was made unto his body because of it (which leaves us guessing – perhaps he really did leave the penal colony healthier than he had been when he arrived, or perhaps he restored to health so soon afterwards that he forgot all about it?). Shalamov on the other hand, goes into very explicit details when it comes to the different injures done unto his body, and when reading this one soon comes to realize that no real ‘health’ can ever be real again. Though their ‘health issues’ differs quite a lot, they both write in almost the same way about their time in different hospitals, which at least leads me to suspect that the last hope for humanity had not quite died in Soviet Russia. Both of them write with great love about the care and tenderness shown towards them by the doctors.

I would like to finish this post with the ending of the short story I mentioned above, hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. (Actually I went straight to the library upon finishing reading “Tales” and picked up a biography about Shalamov, and started to cry right there in the library when I read about how one nurse, now living in Kiev, remember that Shalamov, while at the hospital, used to walk around with a tiny little notebook and write down poems in it. To survive all of that and still be able to write poetry… and some of the best poetry I’ve ever read, too. That is in what in my opinion makes a good writer a true great writer!)

 «…Поэтому нет нужды полемизировать с Достоевским насчёт преимущества “работы” на каторге по сравнению с тюремным бездельем и достоинствами “чистого воздуха”. Время Достоевского было другим временем, и каторга тогдашняя ещё не дошла до тех высот, о которых здесь рассказано. Об этом заранее трудно составить верное представление, ибо всё тамошнее слишком необычайно, невероятно, и бедный человеческий мозг просто не в силах представить в конкретных образах тамошнюю жизнь, о которой смутное, неуверенное понятие имел наш тюремный знакомый – татарский мулла.»

[P.S. here’s a great site for Russian books by the way!]

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  1. Lisa:

    Thank you so much, Josefina, for mentioning my blog! And, far more important, thank you for writing about prison camp literature. Your post is a great reminder that I should read more Shalamov stories: I bought a huge collected works book last year and read from it every now and then but need to do better! I can only echo your praise… the stories are short, evocative, and beautifully written.

  2. Anthony:

    Hi Josefina – thank you for writing exactly what I feel about this genius. I had never even heard of Shalamov until I read excerpts from Kolyma Tales, then I bought the book about six months ago. He has also lead me to be interested in other Russians, such as Grossman and Victor Serge. here in Ireland, Shalamov’s writing is virtually unheard of, so I am sharing his greatness with anyone I feel would be interested. I have only today discovered your blog, so I shall be hunting out other great Russians to read!