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I Stand as Witness to the Common Lot,
on 20 February 2005
Survivor of that time, that place." Anna Akhmatova, Requiem.
Varlam Shalamov was a survivor of 17 years in the work camps of that time and that place known as Kolyma. Upon his return to Moscow Shalamov crafted a series of short stories that memorialized his time in Stalin's labor camps. Those 54 stories were not published in the USSR but were circulated widely in samizdat form. They were publshed in the west as The Kolyma Tales. They are exquisitely well crafted, powerful, and moving.
Shalamov's prose style is sparse and to the point. The dry recounting of horror after horror has quite an impact on the reader. In fact, the level of passion in Shalamov's writing seems inversely proportional to the nature of the scenes he paints; the more horrific the tale the less emotional the writing. This is certainly an effective style. Some facts do not need embellishment. The stories speak for themselves.
Shalamov also does not tell the reader how to interpret a story. He simply tells a tale. Unlike Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, who had a tendency to tell a story and then advise the reader what lessons should be drawn from it, Shalamov simply tells a story. In that sense his stories can be compared to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel.
It would be impossible to summarize each individual story in a short review. However, each was compelling in its own way. I was particularly struck by a few of them. The story "In the Night" concerns two men who sneak out of their barracks at night to dig up the grave of a newly deceased fellow prisoner. Why? Because the wanted to steal his relatively new underwear so they could trade it in for bread and tobacco and perhaps live an extra day longer. In Procurator of Judea a military doctor (not a prisoner) transferred from the front lines to Kolyma in order to accelerate his pension. The stark, dry picture of surgeons performing dozens of amputations of the frostbitten limbs of prisoners arriving on a squalid vessel is only a page or two long. It skips forward 17 years and notes that the doctor could remember the names of his orderlies but could not remember the names of the ship or any of its prisoners. The story simply concludes by noting an Anatole France story. Procurator of Judea. In which "after seventeen years, Pontius Pilate cannot remember Christ." Simple words simply spoken speak volumes.
I could not help but think as I read these stories about the use of literature, of art, as a means of providing permanent testimony to man's inhumanity to man in a century that has witnessed more than its share of horrors. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of a different horror once wrote that "rejected by mankind, the condemned do not go so far as to reject it in turn. Their faith in history remains unshaken, and one may well wonder why. They do not despair. The proof: they persist in surviving not only to survive, but to testify". Varlam Shalamov not only survived but testified and in so doing left a beautifully conceived and executed testament to the lives of those men and women who never made it back home.
This is a book that should be read, and read again.