by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield
An NYRB Classics Original
Kolyma Stories is a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the fifteen years that Varlam Shalamov spent in the Soviet Gulag. This is the first of two volumes (the second to appear in 2019) that together will constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.
Shalamov spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma 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. His stories are at once the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and a literary work of unparalleled creative power, insight, and conviction.
As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism.
Available only for the last five years in Russia itself, a searing document, worthy of shelving alongside Solzhenitsyn.
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
Suffering—elemental suffering—can never be told. There is no other state 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.
Shalamov's experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own...I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life inthe camps dragged us all.
[Shalamov's] prose is as simple and spare as a scientist's. The stories are exciting because they deal with extremes, like stories of Shackleton's expeditions, or Jack London's Klondike tales...Sit with them long enough and you begin to sense the depths of feeling under the permafrost, and something approaching Chekhovian artistry...these stories are literature—great literature, with their own terrible beauty.
—Alex Abramovich, Bookforum
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