Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Sketches of the Criminal WorldFurther Kolyma Stories
by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield
An NYRB Classics Original
In 1936, Varlam Shalamov, a journalist and writer, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Soviet Gulag. He survived fifteen years in the prison camps and returned from the Far North to write one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the years he spent in the Gulag. Sketches of the Criminal World is the second of two volumes (the first, Kolyma Stories, was published by NYRB Classics in 2018) that together 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 and continued for the next twenty years. In this second volume, Shalamov sets out to answer the fundamental moral questions that plagued him in the camps where he encountered firsthand the criminal world as a real place, far more evil than Dostoyevsky’s underground: “How does someone stop being human?” and “How are criminals made?” By 1972, when he was writing his last stories, the remnants of the camps were being destroyed, the guard towers and barracks razed, the barbed wire rolled up and taken away. “Did we exist?” Shalamov asks, then answers without hesitation, “I reply, ‘We did,’ with all the expressiveness of an official statement, with the responsibility, the precision of a document.”
Praise for Kolyma Stories:
These new translations of Varlam Shalamov’s astonishing short stories may well establish Shalamov as the new laureate of the Gulag.... The power of fiction has never been better exemplified.... Shalamov’s unique tone of voice and his pared-down style are beautifully rendered here by Rayfield—limpid, assured, the scarce moments of lyricism expertly caught.... One feels that poor Varlam Shalamov would be both amazed and delighted.
—William Boyd, The Sunday Times
The book is packed with gems, each complete in itself. Together they form part of a mosaic unlike anything in world literature. A struggle with memory comparable with that of Proust or Beckett, this is a work of art of the highest order by a writer of extraordinary daring and ambition.... He resembled Chekhov in his combination of non-judgemental realism with unyielding severity in his view of the human world.
—John Gray, New Statesman