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Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) Paperback – February 1, 1995

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Language Notes

Text: English, Russian (translation)


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Product Details

  • Series: Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin edition (February 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140186956
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140186956
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.1 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,702 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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116 of 118 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on February 10, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Survivor of that time, that place." Anna Akhmatova, Requiem.

Varlam Shalamov was a survivor of 17 years in the work camps of that time and that place known as Kolyma. Upon his return to Moscow Shalamov crafted a series of short stories that memorialized his time in Stalin's labor camps. Those 54 stories were not published in the USSR but were circulated widely in samizdat form. They were publshed in the west as The Kolyma Tales. They are exquisitely well crafted, powerful, and moving.

Shalamov's prose style is sparse and to the point. The dry recounting of horror after horror has quite an impact on the reader. In fact, the level of passion in Shalamov's writing seems inversely proportional to the nature of the scenes he paints; the more horrific the tale the less emotional the writing. This is certainly an effective style. Some facts do not need embellishment. The stories speak for themselves.

Shalamov also does not tell the reader how to interpret a story. He simply tells a tale. Unlike Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, who had a tendency to tell a story and then advise the reader what lessons should be drawn from it, Shalamov simply tells a story. In that sense his stories can be compared to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel.

It would be impossible to summarize each individual story in a short review. However, each was compelling in its own way. I was particularly struck by a few of them. The story "In the Night" concerns two men who sneak out of their barracks at night to dig up the grave of a newly deceased fellow prisoner. Why? Because the wanted to steal his relatively new underwear so they could trade it in for bread and tobacco and perhaps live an extra day longer.
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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful By C. Collins on September 26, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Varlam Shalamov's style is minimal, brutal, and straight-forward. He does not preach to his reader about terror, torture, death, and injustice. Rather, he describes the horrible experiences he endured in short stories that are far more like eye witness narratives than the typical short story. He does not need to tell you that cutting off a man's hands is a terrible crime, he just describes the actions and allows the reader to absorb the impact as they read the cold, hard narrative. Life in Kolyma had no frills and lace, and neither does Shalamov's narrative style.

I think this book would make excellent classroom reading and discussion for high school seniors. I say this primarily because of the exposure to the Soviet system of social control, especially between 1936-1956. Understanding totalitarianism and social control should be part of our education of our youth. I also think that Shalamov counters the concept that suffering is redemptive. Rather, Shalamov indicates that extreme hunger, torture, work, beatings, exhaustion, cold, and experience of arbitrary death and injustice gradually destroys any human being, depriving them of uplifting emotions, imagination, creativity, and finally empathy and a sense of self survival.

Shalamov carefully demonstrates this loss of our humanity under conditions of extreme torture, exhaustion, hunger and cold by showing character after character disintegrating in unique but common ways. In general, empathy and sympathy are gradually dissolved in the horror of their experiences and are replaced by a depressed apathy. Rarely does he show the downward spiral to go from nobility to criminal cruelty. Rather, his characters become devoid of emotions, both positive and eventually even negative, before they give up.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By S. F Gulvezan on January 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
Another reviewer has written that the English translation of these stories pales besides the Russian original. If that is so, I wish I could read Russian, because the stories in the English translation are among the best I have ever read. This book, tales of life in the Soviet GULAG, stands shoulder to shoulder with Tadeusz Borowski's THIS WAY FOR THE GAS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, which is composed of tales of life in Auschwitz, as the finest examples I have read of stories of man's inhumanity to man told in such an understated fashion that, once read, they are unforgettable. Shalamov was a genius.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By JR Hasbrouck on August 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
Prison literature has a long history in the Russian tradition, from Fyodor Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead" to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" and "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Varlam Shalamov's "Kolyma Tales" are quite unique however. Though told in a documentary style reminiscent of the Classical historians, the stories have the precision, symbolism, and memorable characters that make for great literature. Even the repetitive subject matter and themes do not come across as "whining" or self-absorption; they are matter-of-fact, direct, and yet always subtle.

Perhaps one of the scariest tales in the collection is "The Golden Taiga"--depicting an indirect interrogation carried out from a bunk bed, that does not involve any authorities and hints at the sinister machinery of human relationships without any graphic description. Others, like the "The Apostle Paul", suggest the power of suffering in eradicating memory, and the tragegy of losing what is most sacred to the human spirit through just such loss.

This book is a must-read for any idealists who suppose that the Sickle and Hammer was the moral and reasonable alternative to Fascism in the early XXth Century. No one visits Shalamov's Kolyma without shuddering and feeling its sobering effects. The stories are quite convincing, convicting, and challenging--they are stocked with bitter truths, which are the antidote to the sentimentalism and intellectually irresponsible idealism that is characteristic of much political and social theory today. Good logic can very easily translate into good horror, and there is a very short leap from social contracts to Article 58! Centrists will like it, I suppose.

It's a great book.
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