ON ONE CHRISTMAS NIGHT in the 1930s or '40s or early '50s (the dates are not important) some prisoners are sitting around a stove in a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia. The extra degree of warmth laid on for the holiday has made them almost giddy.
"'You know, fellows, it would be a good thing to go home. After all, miracles do happen . . .' It was Glebov, the horse driver, speaking. He used to be a professor of philosophy and was famous in our barracks for having forgotten his wife's name a month earlier."
This is as good a place as any to begin, for Varlam Shalamov's great record of captivity, bestiality, and survival might be cloned from any number of such passages. Not vodka but a few extra degrees of radiant heat could prompt a professor of philosophy to mouth the sort of banality that is the usual prelude to closing time. He is now a horse driver. He has forgotten his wife's name. This is all but admired as a feat of forgetfulness.
Elsewhere in his terrible book Shalamov treats such lapses with more gravity. Men forget more than their wives' names. They forget that they are men. The rulers of the camps are not the administrators, the overseers, the corrupt doctors, and so on: the rulers are the professional criminals. They have their own code and even their own language. Formerly decent men, saddled with the excusable desire to go on living, accommodate themselves to the world of born thieves, learn their language, and do what they must.
Graphite (the translator has given the title of the last story to the entire collection) consists of 30 more stories from a manuscript called in Russian simply Kolymskie rasskazy, Kolyma Tales. John Glad has published a justly acclaimed earlier selection under that title. It is not pleasant reading, but it is probably necessary reading for anyone who wishes to know not only how it was in the Stalinist death camps--Kolyma is the infamous Siberian region of slave-operated gold mines--where between 20 and 30 million Russians perished, but also how the artistic imagination can master this all but inconceivable horror.
Shalamov's subject calls for comparisons with the Chekhov of Sakhalin, the Babel of the war stories, and of course the Solzhenitsyn of Gulag. He belongs in this company, morally and artistically, but he is different from the first two in the raggedness and generally uncooked quality of the "stories," and from the third he is different in his immensely superior artistic reticence. Comparisons with Solzhenitsyn appear to entail a certain odium, but one must risk it, anyway. Actually, only Ivan Denisovich comes into question, for when one compares Shalamov's stories with Solzhenitsyn's later work only the subject seems to be similar. In Shalamov one fails to detect the slightest hint of the spitting rage, the savage wit, the Russian messianism, the endless philippics, the megalomania. Shalamov seems in fact to care little whether he is honored, believed, or even read.
The temperature of these pages approaches absolute zero. There is no indignation at all, let alone savage indignation. There are reports, the notations of certain events. The events are beyond commentary. Commentary, I think we are to understand, would be trivial and vulgar. Some professional criminals kill a puppy, beloved by a certain priest (a convict like them), and offer what they cannot consume to him as mutton. Then they tell him what he has eaten. When he has vomited what he could manage to vomit, he says to the narrator that in fact it was almost as good as mutton.
Who is this narrator? We don't know. He is all but nameless (we learn at one place, almost by inadvertence, that he is called Andreev; in another, that he was arrested early in 1937, but this might not be the same "I.") In "The Letter" a first-person narrator makes a 500-kilometer journey of immense hardship to collect a letter. He recognizes the handwriting on the envelope and tells us in the last sentence: "It was a letter from Pasternak." Not a syllable as to its contents, nor its effect, but the addressee is a man who would know Pasternak's hand. This is what I mean by the raggedness of these stories, some of which are not stories at all but essays or brief reflections. This last narrator, whom we might as well take to be Shalamov, goes off to read his letter, leaving his audience to make whatever conjecture they will.
These reports from Kolyma are not so much addressed to us as flung with disgust and weariness upon the table. In "Mister Popp's Visit" the narrator's attention is caught by certain memories of a poker player named Levin who has nothing whatsoever to do with the story ostensibly at hand. We read: "I've inserted Levin by accident. I just can't get started on the story of Mr. Popp." Is this a kind of Gogolian playing with the reader? I rather think it is to be taken as the wandering testimony of one whose 17 years in Kolyma have left him permanently struggling with bewilderment and disorientation.
In the mid-1960s, when I encountered Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov some three or four times every week, he being almost as regular a frequenter of Nadezhda Mandelstam's kitchen as I was, it was customary to address him as Varlaam Tikhonovich, for the extra "a" (and syllable) lend to his already sufficiently Old-Russian name an even stronger air of medieval piety and probity. I am by no means sure that it is not in fact his actual baptismal name. The whiff of Christianity is of course sufficient reason for his appearing only as Varlam in Soviet print, where, by the way, he is known only as a minor poet, not as the major writer of prose--illegal prose--that he is.
I dwell on the name because the form used by his familiars so exactly befits the man--a tall, broad-shouldered, raw-boned modern instance of the Protopop Avvakum, whose only conceivable habitat in America would be Appalachia. He is utterly gentle, cultivated, and courteous. Nothing in his nature testifies to the torments endured during those 17 years in Stalin's frozen hell, except, perhaps, for the restless contortions of his hands, the fingers of which seem like prehistoric creatures locked in endless combat on the table. One cannot see them without thinking of Gorky's indelible portrait of the hands of Tolstoy.
We encounter many hands in the tales of Kolyma. Most of them ooze pus and blood, and cannot be unbent from the frozen claw that grips shovel and pick. Some fortunate hands are deliberately blown off with dynamite caps, thus liberating the rest of the body from labor in the mines. Some are cut off the corpses of would-be escapees and brought back: the camp bureaucracy must have its fingerprints no matter what. Some are the vestigial hands of lepers, who can explain away their stumps as frostbite and thus enjoy for a few precious weeks or months longer the society of what must serve as their fellow human beings. Two of them are the hands of a certain Poliansky, a formerly decent man, now reduced to scratching the heels of any important thief in camp--"a common ritual of servility that was thought to encourage relaxation."
Two of them, fortunately, were the hands I beheld in Nadezhda Yakovlevna's kitchen, hands that could finally grip the graphite, the common lead pencil of the last story, which alone could be trusted to survive the brutal conditions of Kolyma to identify, some day, all those corpses that are even now intact in the permafrost of their common grave.
One sour postscriptum: Shalamov's great work and John Glad's fine translation have been betrayed by the publisher. Physically, the book is a lemon. Shalamov's name itself is misspelled on the dust jacket, and misprints are thicker than the lice on the pathetic slaves of Kolyma. Redundancies and inconsistencies (not unusual in smuggled manuscripts) have gone unedited. There was a time when any self-respecting publisher would have recalled such a product. Not now. Reader, never buy a book edited in New York on a Monday.