Philip Ó Ceal­laigh

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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

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