Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kolyma Tales

Kolyma Tales. Varlam Shalamov. Translated by John Glad. 1978/1994. 508 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: How is a road beaten down through the virgin snow? One person walks ahead, sweating, swearing, and barely moving his feet.

Premise/plot: Kolyma Tales is a collection of short stories and essays; what these short stories and essays have in common is a shared setting--Kolyma, a forced-labor camp in the Soviet Union. The stories are not connected to one another; there are no main characters. Some stories are long; some stories are short. All of them are bleak though perhaps some are bleaker than others. The style throughout is matter of fact, almost like there's no extra emotion to spare to dress up the stories. The edition I read has five sections: "Kolyma Tales," "The Left Bank," "The Virtuoso Shovelman," "Essays on the Criminal World," "Resurrection of the Larch."

My thoughts: I wanted to love this one, or at the very least really like it. I almost wish it had been a novel, novella, or memoir. I think I would have connected more with the text if it had not been short stories. Each story was a variation of a theme; each story was the same, yet, not the same. Like no two snowflakes are supposed to be identical, yet snow is snow is snow. There are no words--were no words--for how bad conditions were. Yet here's a whole book of words that makes the attempt.

I am glad I read this one. I don't regret my time by any means. But I would have felt more if they'd been a greater connection. I didn't want to get to know a hundred or two hundred characters a little bit. I wanted to get to know three or four characters really, really well.

Knowing how to live is a real skill. (260)
Death was replaced not by life, but by semi-consciousness, an existence which had no formula and could not be called life. Each day, each sunrise brought with it the danger of some new lurch into death. (285)
Oh, how distant is love from envy, from fear, from bitterness. How little people need love. Love comes only when all other human emotions have already returned. Love comes last, returns last. Or does it return? Indifference, envy, and fear, however, were not the only witnesses of my return to life. Pity for animals returned earlier than pity for people. (287)

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J.G. 9:10 PM  

This sounds difficult and interesting, and I understand how you could miss having a connection to the characters. But for myself, if I cared more about the characters it would have made the stories that much more difficult to read. Emotional distance makes it more bearable, perhaps?

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