Kolyma Tales was written by a deeply scarred survivor of Stalin's Gulag, a man who was sentenced to the coldest, most awful part of the Soviet prison system for writing a single sentence - for saying that Ivan Bunin was `a classic soviet writer'.
Yet it takes an objective, unemotional stance as it describes the horrors and illogicalities of this prison system that was larger than Europe. The result is that it is far more deeply moving, shocking, and surprising than any emotional prose could manage.
The descriptions of the aching cold (twenty centigrade below was a `hot' day), the hunger (bread is the all-consuming obsession of the prisoner) and most of all of the monstrous behaviour of men and women towards other men and women (guards, doctors, directors, or prisoners). It is incredibly revealing about the crazy, irrational nature of the Soviet system. It also taught me a lot about the depths - horrors - human nature so easily descends to.
It's been compared to Solzhenitsyn's A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, and both are great books on the same subject. But Shalamov is darker. Kolyma was, unbelievably, far worse than other parts of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn depicts kindness, humanity and respect surviving among the prisoners. There is none here; the most horrifying things are the terrible cruelty of prisoners to one another, the desperate measures to secure a hospital bed, and the anarchic rule of common thieves over the political prisoners
Shalamov deserves to be far better known - to stand along books by Primo Levi and Solzenhytsin that catalogue the worst horrors of what man has done to man, showing us what we can become. And it reminds us that we must never forget.