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Shalamov, Varlam (Tikhonovich)

SHALAMOV, Varlam (Tikhonovich)

Nationality: Russian. Born: Vologda, 18 June 1907. Education: Law Faculty, Moscow University, 1926-29. Family: Married and divorced. Career: Political prisoner, in labor camps in North Urals, 1929-31, in Kolyma, Siberia, 1937-53; journalist and writer, 1932-37; freelance journalist, 1956-82. Member: Russian Writers Union. Died: 17 January 1982.

Publications

Short Stories

Kolymskie rasskazy. 1978; as Kolyma Tales, 1980.

Graphite. 1981.

Voskreshenie listvennitsy [The Revival of the Larch] (includes stories and prose), edited by Michael Heller. 1985; edited by I. Sirotinskaya, 1989.

Levyi bereg [The Left Bank]. 1989.

Pechatka ili KR-2 [The Glove or KT-2]. 1990.

Poetry

Shelest list'ev: Stikhi [The Rustling of Leaves: Poems]. 1964.

Doroga i sud'ba: Kniga stikhov [The Road and Fate: Book of Poems]. 1967.

Moskovskie oblaka: Stikhi [Moscow Clouds: Poems]. 1972.

Tochka kipeniia: Stikhi [Boiling-point: Poems]. 1977.

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Critical Studies:

"Art out of Hell" by John Glad, Survey 107, 1979; "Beyond Bitterness" by Irving Howe, in The New York Review of Books 27, August 1980; "Surviving the Gulag" by George Gibian, in The New Leader 63, 1980; "Stories from Kolyma: The Sense of History," in Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 17, 1989, "A Tale Untold: Shalamov's "A Day Off'," in Studies in Short Fiction 28, 1991, and "Shalamov's Kolyma," in The New Myth of Siberia, edited by Galya Diment and Yury Slezkine, 1993, all by Leona Toker.

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Varlam Shalamov's short stories deal with the inmates of Stalin's concentration camps. The narrating voice is usually that of a released prisoner imaginatively reliving and rethinking his past. Whether directly autobiographical or slightly fictionalized, the stories are based on real issues and events. Shalamov described them as "documentary prose" that records an authentic and highly emotional engagement with things of which the author has the most profound understanding. He sought the kind of absolute truthfulness that meant not only absence of reticences or wish-fulfilling embellishments but also freedom from literary conventions and from the language of traditional morality. His work shows, indeed, that traditional schemata are inapplicable to the experience that had fallen to his lot. For instance, the story "On Tick" starts with a sentence reminiscent of the opening of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades (1834), yet with telltale differences that set the atmosphere of a world in which moral barriers have been displaced, emotional responses canceled, and human relationships transformed beyond recognition.

Most of Shalamov's protagonists are incapable of any active response to the violence they have to endure. Their physical and psychic energies have been totally depleted by chronic hunger, long hours of slave-labor, frost, filth, and abuse at the hands of the camp authorities and criminal convicts. In a physical state verging on that of the walking skeletons that one sees in documentaries on the liberation of Nazi camps, these people find that their emotions have been dulled, that the limit of the humiliations they can stand has been pushed back, and that most ethical distinctions have become ambivalent or irrelevant. The most shocking thing in "On Tick" is not the bare fact of the criminal convicts' killing a political prisoner for his refusal to give up his woolen sweater but the matter-of-fact way in which the murder is presented, with the authorial persona's final response being, "now I had to find a new partner." A likewise merciless record of the prisoners' responses to atrocity ends such stories as "Berries," "Condensed Milk," and "Quiet."

Shalamov does not condemn his characters for lying, faking, bribing, not sharing food, begging for a piece of bread or a whiff of tobacco smoke, rummaging in garbage heaps—he too has done most of these things. Nor does he criticize them for failing to rise to supererogatory action—his characters, he says, are martyrs who could not, did not know how to, become heroes. He tends to present them at the stage when most of the props of their identities (education, social status, affiliations, professions, clothes, relationships, most of the flesh) have been removed or worn down, leaving no option but that of tacit passive resistance. Yet even these people can preserve their moral fiber so long as they do not inform on or bully others and do not accept what is being done to them. At the basis of their self-respect are mute anger, emotional independence, and a refusal to justify cruelty and exploitation or to accept the authorities and the criminals at their own valuation.

The stories present different aspects of the culture of the camps. Though Shalamov rejected the good/evil dichotomy in character portrayal, he believed that his stories, a truthful but not despondent or cynical testimony, are—rather than are about—the victory of good, a slap in the face of evil: testifying means restoring meaning to crushed lives; replacing sentimental illusions by a clear account of camp semiology and logistics amounts to a reassertion of individual freedom. Shalamov also believed that though writers are entitled to their own opinions, they have no right to teach the audience. His separate stories therefore frequently display a contradiction between narrative commentary and plot or images, as though the author's opinions were being tested against reality. Owing to this principle of reassessment, as well as to often puzzling collocations of carefully selected narrative details, most stories raise subtle and complex philosophical issues—even if at first they strike one as plain testimony. The deliberate uncouthness of Shalamov's laconic, almost mutilated style is peculiarly appropriate to the austere setting, ethical paradoxes, and the valorization of moral/intellectual freedom.

Shalamov did not participate in the ideological debates of the post-Stalinist period: for him the rhetoric of "socialism with a human face" was as vapid as the official propaganda. Both were voided of meaning by his bland unconcern and by the totally different set of values implicit in his vocabulary. This may have rendered his prose more dangerous for the regime than the writings of active dissidents. His dream of having his stories printed in Russia did not come true in his lifetime: he did not live to see their publication after glasnost and perestroika had got under way. In a shelter for the disabled, blind, deaf, and in constantly deteriorating health, he held in his hands only the collection of his stories published in London in 1978. Amidst the frosts of 1982, in a move that meant "only madmen can think this way," he was taken to a psychiatric clinic where, according to a friend's account, he died three days later of untreated pneumonia.

—Leona Toker

See the essay on "The Snake Charmer."

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