I respectfully confess that it was given to him and not to me to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the [forced labor] camps dragged us all. -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

LIKE SOLZHENITSYN, Varlam Shalamov wrote about the years he was a prisoner in the brutal Gulag. Solzhenitsyn became a renowned world figure, but Shalamov died in Moscow last January almost totally unknown in this country and not much better known in his native Russia, where the government, to the end of his life, refused to allow the publication of his prose work, work that Shalamov was also forced to renounce.

I have translated two collections of his stories, "Kolyma Tales" and "Graphite," and I was tremendously moved by the news of his death. It was as though I had suffered a personal loss, but unfortunately I know no more about Shalamov than anyone else.

Apparently, beyond Shalamov's immediate circle of friends, few knew the reclusive man. I have even been unable to learn why he was originally sent to the camps. Shalamov was first arrested in 1929, when he was 22 and a student at the law school of Moscow University. He was sentenced to five years in Solovki, a former monastery that had been confiscated from the Orthodox Chruch and converted into a concentration camp.

In 1937 he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in Kolyma, the northeastern area of Siberia, which is separated from Alaska by the 55-mile-wide Bering Strait. In 1942 his sentence was extended "until the end of the war"; in 1943 he received an additional 10-year sentence for having said that the German Army was an efficient war machine and for having described Ivan Bunin, the Nobel laureate, as a "classic author of Russian literature." Shalamov appears to have spent at least 17 years in Kolyma and to have been released in 1953 or 1954, after Stalin's death.

The Soviets, the second largest gold producers in the world, have used Kolyma as a vast forced-labor camp, where the principal occupation is gold-mining. Even under the czars, Kolyma had been used as a place of exile, and the great mines there were a rich source of gold. In 1853, for example, the czarist official Muraviov-Amurski sent three tons of gold to St. Petersburg. In 1949 a Polish historian, Kazimierz Zamorski, estimated that 3 million people had been exiled to Kolyma, and not more than half a million had survived. In 1978, the historian Robert Conquest estimated that 3 million people may have met their death in Kolyma--and certainly not fewer than 2 million. It is difficult to comprehend such numbers or to find agreement among the estimates of the bodies.

Prof. Vladimir Petrov of George Washington University, who spent six years in Kolyma as a prisoner, has written extensively on the topic. His conclusions differ radically from those of Conquest and Zamorski. He believes that not more than 300,000 died at Kolyma. Such a difference is stunning, but it must be kept in mind that we are dealing with just one part of Siberia, and we are already speaking in terms of "give or take 2 or 3 million." Given Stalin's penchant for doing away with his own henchmen to cover up evidence, the Soviet government itself may only have estimates.

The great purges occurred during the years 1937-39. Millions of people were arrested, held for months in appalling prison conditions, tried on ridiculous charges, and either executed or sent in unheated boxcars to Siberia. Emaciated from a hopelessly inadequate diet, denied even sufficient drinking water and toilet facilities, freezing from the cold, they would arrive at the Siberian ports of Vladivostok, Vanino or Nakhodka after a trip lasting from 30 to 40 days. They were held in transit camps and eventually sent from the "mainland" by ship to Kolyma.

Michael Solomon, a Rumanian who had been a prisoner in the camps, described the experience:

"When we came out into the immense field outside the camp I witnessed a spectacle that would have done justice to a Cecil B. De Mille production. As far as the eye could see there were columns of prisoners marching in one direction or another like armies on a battlefield. A huge detachment of security officers, soldiers and signal corpsmen with field telephone and motorcycles kept in touch with headquarters, arranging the smooth flow of these human rivers. I asked what this giant operation was meant to be. The reply was that each time a transport was sent off, the administration reshuffled the occupants of every cage so that everyone had to be removed with his bundle of rags on his shoulder to the big field and from there directed to his new destination. Only 5,000 were supposed to leave, but 100,000 were part of the scene before us. One could see endless columns of women, of cripples, of old men and even teen-agers, all in military formation five in a row, going through the huge field, and directed by whistles or flags."

The Western attitudes about Kolyma have been truly amazing. In the summer of 1944, Prof. Owen Lattimore, representing the Office of War Information, and Henry Wallace, vice president of the United States, visited Kolyma and wrote glowing accounts of it in National Geographic. Lattimore said the Soviet efforts there "could roughly be compared to a combination of the Hudson Bay Co. and TVA."

But what was that world of Kolyma, where Shalamov survived for so long? How did people live and die there? In his writings, Shalamov gives some idea of the bleak, fearful hoplessness of Kolyma. In one poignant passage, he describes how the Soviets used an American bulldozer during World War II under Lend-Lease:

The mountain had been laid bare and transformed into a gigantic stage for a camp mystery play.

A grave, a mass grave, a stone pit stuffed full with undecaying corpses of 1938 was sliding down the side of the hill, revealing the secret of Kolyma.

In Kolyma, bodies are not given over to earth, but to stone. Stone keeps secrets and reveals them. The permafrost keeps and reveals secrets. All of our loved ones who died in Kolyma, all of those who were shot, beaten to death, sucked dry by starvation, can still be recognized even after tens of years. There were no gas furnaces in Kolyma. The corpses wait in stone, in the permafrost.

In 1938 entire work gangs dug such graves, constantly drilling, exploding, deepening the enormous gray, hard, cold stone pits. Digging graves in 1938 was easy work; there was no "assignment," no "norm" calculated to kill a man with a 14-hour working day. It was easier to dig graves than to stand in rubber galoshes over bare feet in the icy waters where they mined gold--the "basic unit of production," the "first of all metal."

These graves, enormous stone pits, were filled to the brim with corpses. The bodies had not decayed; they were just bare skeletons over which stretched dirty, scratched skin bitten all over by lice.

The north resisted with all its strength this work of man, not accepting the corpses into its bowels. Defeated, humbled, retreating, stone promised to forget nothing, to wait and preserve its secret. The severe winters, the hot summers, the winds, the six years of rain had not wrenched the dead men from the stone. The earth opened, baring its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies.

These human bodies slid down the slope, perhaps attempting to arise. From a distance, from the other side of the creek, I had previously seen these moving objects that caught up against branches and stones; I had seen them through the few trees still left standing and I thought that they were logs that had not yet been hauled away.

Now the mountain was laid bare, and its secret was revealed. The grave "opened," and the dead men slid down the stony slope. Near the tractor road an enormous new common grave was dug. Who had dug it? No one was taken from the barracks for this work. It was enormous, and I and my companions knew that if we were to freeze and die, place would be found for us in this new grave, this housewarming for dead men.

The bulldozer scraped up the frozen bodies, thousands of bodies of thousands of skeleton-like corpses. Nothing had decayed: the twisted fingers, the pus-filled toes which were reduced to mere stumps after frostbite, the dry skin scratched bloody and eyes burning with a hungry gleam.

Shalamov was released after Stalin's death in the early 1950s and permitted to go back to Moscow. In describing his return he wrote:

And that is all: the glaring light of the bulb at the Irkutsk train station, the "businessman" hauling around random pictures for camouflage, vomit avalanching down onto my berth from the throat of the young lieutenant, the sad prostitute on the upper berth in the conductor's compartment, the dirty 2-year-old boy blissfully shouting "Papa! Papa!" This is all I remember as my first happiness, the unending happiness of "freedom." The roar of Moscow's Yaroslav train station met me like an urban surf; I had arrived at the city I loved above all other cities on earth. The train came to a halt and I could see the dear face of my wife who met me just as she had met me so many years before after each of my numerous trips. This trip, however, had been a long one -- almost 17 years. Most important, I was not returning from a business trip. I was returning from hell.

When Shalamov returned he began writing his "Kolyma Tales," but could not get them published. After smuggling them out to the West, he devoted himself to poetry and managed to see five slender volumes of verse appear in print. Little, however, is known of his life during this period.

In the strange irony that made this Russian a man I could never know outside his writings, I was invited to give a lecture on Shalamov on Jan. 17, 1982, sponsored by the e'migre' journal Kontinent at the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. Unknown to any of us there that Sunday, Shalamov had died that very day in Moscow. Perhaps we should have had some indication, because it was the coldest day in Washington in 48 years. In Kolyma, Shalamov once wrote, the way the prison officials determined whether it was too cold to work was that someone would walk outside and spit. If the spit froze with a snap in mid-air, then work was called off. Shalamov would never have understood that we called last January a "cold wave." In one of his stories he writes that it was "only 20 degrees below zero. Winter was over."

Translating Shalamov was sometimes unexpectedly difficult and sometimes unexpectedly easy. The slang of the forced-labor camps ought to have presented difficulties, but it didn't. The sad fact is that there were so many people in the camps that this slang has become part of everyday conversational Russian. The difficulties were of a different sort. Imagine a starving, terrified prisoner addressing a guard as "citizen warrior." How can the translator render such a form of address in any way that does not sound so implausible? No, it's not the slang that's difficult to render; it's the reality. In the end, I let the form stand -- "citizen warrior."

I made a number of attempts to establish contact with Shalamov, although not through the mail, which is heavily censored in the Soviet Union. But I got no response. Although Shalamov had smuggled his stories out for publication in the West, he was old, sick and frightened of the possible consequences. Solzhenitsyn had asked him to collaborate in the writing of the "Gulag Archipelago," but Shalamov had refused.

I could not have been more distant from Shalamov if he had lived before the birth of Christ. I think of Norman diGiovanni, who taught last year at the University of Maryland and who has done considerable work on the translations of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The two sat down together to produce translations that were not only authorized by Borges, but that also were original works differing from the Spanish texts on which they are based.

Still, no civilization at any period has ever been able to boast of more than a tiny fraction of its members being involved in what might be called the "collusion of culture," and within that small group there is no greater intimacy than that of the translator with his author -- an intimacy that can virtually dissolve the identity of one in the other. But like any other reader, the translator cannot avoid the necessary confusion of author with work, and I would like to have downed a shot of vodka with the man whose work I know so well, but whom I'll never meet.

Although there are many terrible things in Shalamov's tales, they are not a collection of horror stories. His art has a lyricism and a frightening beauty that is hard to describe, a music that no one before has managed to capture:

And then came the day when everyone, all 50 workers, dropped their work and ran to the village, to the river, climbing out of their ditches, abandoning half-sawn-through trees and the uncooked soup in the pot. They all ran quicker than I, but I hobbled up in time, aiding myself in this downhill run with my hands.

The chief had arrived from Magadan. The day was clear, hot, dry. On an enormous fir stump stood a record player. Overcoming the hiss of the needle, it was playing symphonic music.

And everyone stood around--murderers and horse thieves, common criminals and political prisoners, foremen and workers. And the chief stood there too. And the expression on his face was such that he seemed to have written the music for us, for our desolate sojourn in the taiga Siberian forest . The shellacked record spun and hissed, and the stump itself, wound up in 300 circles over the past 300 years, spun like a taut spring . . .

John Glad directs the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His translations of "Kolyma Tales," for which he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, were judged one of the five best translations of the year in the 1980 Book Awards.