by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield
An NYRB Classics Original
Kolyma Stories is a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov’s fifteen years in the Gulag. This NYRB Classics edition (and an accompanying second volume forthcoming in 2019) is the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories, based on the definitive edition of his collected works, published in Russia in 2013.
Shalamov spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast region of the USSR and one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth, before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his account of life in Kolyma after Stalin’s death in 1953 and continued until his own physical and mental decline in the late 1970s.
In Kolyma Stories, the line between autobiography and fiction is indistinct: Everything in these stories was experienced or witnessed by Shalamov. His work records the real names of prisoners and their oppressors; he himself appears simply as “I” or “Shalamov,” or at times under a pseudonym, such as Andreyev or Krist. These collected stories form the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and, because the stories have more than documentary value, a literary work of creative power and conviction. This new complete translation of Kolyma Stories will fill a significant gap in the English-language library of Russian literature.
Suffering—elemental suffering—can never be told. It cannot be explained, painted, can’t be turned into music, can’t even be written about, because then it will be only painted, sung, or written suffering. There is no other state—only that of suffering—where the distance between a narration merely truthful and a narration that is truth itself creates such an achingly unfathomable abyss. It is this that elevates the work of Varlam Shalamov. His torturous secret resides in how the focus of his attention is turned only toward the frozen crenellation of palpable concrete details. What he knew about the human being was appalling. And although none of this can be transmitted—nonetheless, he transmits it to us. To us, who will never realize what we have received from him.
Like the landscape gardeners of the late 18th century, Shalamov builds ruins. The sketches remain fragments because they are about fragments—of men, of society, of dreams.
—Jay Martin, The New York Times Book Review
There can be no doubt that Shalamov’s reportage from the lower depths of the Gulag of a society building a ‘new world’ will remain forever among the masterpieces of documentary or memoir literature and an invaluable source for the present and future understanding of the ‘Soviet human condition.’
—Laszlo Dienes, World Literature Today
A numbness of sorts pervades the tales as a whole, as if the accumulation of horrors could not be related or understood except under very heavy sedation. In Andrei Sinyavsky’s apt characterization of Varlam Shalamov: ‘He writes as if he were dead.’
—Maurice Friedberg, Commentary