Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories
By Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield
ANew York Review of Books, 555pp, £17.55
lexandr Solzhenitsyn subtitled his Gulag Archipelago “An experiment in literary investigation”. In a country where socialist realism echoed the lies of the state, Solzhenitsyn was returning literature to what he saw as its original vocation: speaking the truth. In Russia, fiction was dead, surpassed by reality. A writer no longer needed to invent.
Alongside The Gulag Archipelago – its meticulous research and compilation of first-hand accounts of every aspect of the penal system that was the bedrock of Stalinist terror – stands a monument just as revelatory. It is the short stories of Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), drawing on his 15 years as a political prisoner in the camps of the Siberian region of Kolyma.
It is difficult to estimate mortality rates in the Kolyma area of the Gulag, but as many as 300,000 of the nearly one million prisoners sent there are believed to have died, from the cold, starvation and violence from both the authorities and other prisoners. Shalamov was convicted in 1937