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108 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Stand as Witness to the Common Lot,
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...
Published on February 10, 2005 by Leonard Fleisig

versus
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great Book butchered by terrible hack during translation
By simple count John Glad chose to through out about 15% of actual words from the Shalamov book (Compare "On Tick" for example if you know Russian and English). Without those words that "translator" obviously considered unnecessary book of great literature became mediocre exercise in horrors of Gulag. What a hatchet job! What a shame! If anyone can...
Published on November 30, 1998 by yborodovsk@aol.com


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108 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Stand as Witness to the Common Lot,, February 10, 2005
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
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. In Procurator of Judea a military doctor (not a prisoner) transferred from the front lines to Kolyma in order to accelerate his pension. The stark, dry picture of surgeons performing dozens of amputations of the frostbitten limbs of prisoners arriving on a squalid vessel is only a page or two long. It skips forward 17 years and notes that the doctor could remember the names of his orderlies but could not remember the names of the ship or any of its prisoners. The story simply concludes by noting an Anatole France story. Procurator of Judea. In which "after seventeen years, Pontius Pilate cannot remember Christ." Simple words simply spoken speak volumes.

I could not help but think as I read these stories about the use of literature, of art, as a means of providing permanent testimony to man's inhumanity to man in a century that has witnessed more than its share of horrors. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of a different horror once wrote that "rejected by mankind, the condemned do not go so far as to reject it in turn. Their faith in history remains unshaken, and one may well wonder why. They do not despair. The proof: they persist in surviving not only to survive, but to testify". Varlam Shalamov not only survived but testified and in so doing left a beautifully conceived and executed testament to the lives of those men and women who never made it back home.

This is a book that should be read, and read again.
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51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Torture does not purify me, it destroys me., September 26, 2004
By 
C. B Collins Jr. (Atlanta, GA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
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.

In the story "Condensed Milk" one prisoner trys to get other prisoners to attempt escape so he can inform on them and get special treatment from the guards. In "Shock Therapy" a disgusting young egg-head physician trys to identify "fakers" in the first aid clinic with electric shock. In "The Lawyers' Plot" a Soviet official trys to arrest a whole social network of law students based on social contacts rather than evidence and eventually is arrested himself. "Typhoid Quarantine" was my favorite story. A man who has survived the gold mines is returned to camp dkuring a typhoid quarantine. Through some basic reasoning and knowledge of the Kolyma "system", he is able to survive in the camps and at least temporarily avoid the killing gold mines. In "The Lepers", persons who have leprosy are able to hide amongst the frost bite victims and victims of Warld War II injuries. In "Committees of the Poor" a great description of the social norms amongh the prisoners is described. In "Major Pugachov's Last Battle" a daring escape from the camps is told. In "Lend Lease" a terrible tale is told of American bull dozers being used to dig mass graves for the millions of frozen dead laborers. In "An Epitaph" Shalamov writes short paragraphs about people who may not need a whole short story for their tale of horror and death, but none-the-less needed to be related in a stream of consciousness account of misery of the common prisoner. In "In the Bathhouse" we learn that efforts to control lice and parasites are totally ineffective and are actually demeaning totures for the inmates.

We will never know the exact number of persons who died under Stalin's Soviet experiment. Conservative figures reach 22 million citizens of his own country. Shalamov at least gives us a true accouting of his horror and allows many of the dead to at least be enobled through a story. This book should make us sad at the true nature of human existence and how a social system can be designed to make our darker nature the dominant feature. Knowing this fact, and knowing that we can not change human nature, we are compelled to design social and political systems of public discourse that do not allow this horror to erupt and overtake us.
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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MAGNIFICENT, January 27, 2001
By 
S. F Gulvezan (Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (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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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bitter Truths, August 29, 2005
By 
JR Hasbrouck (Vancouver, Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (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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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darkest Evil Exposed, February 23, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
I first read Shalamov's book many years ago as a teenager and have never forgotten it. Now I live and work in the former Soviet Union, not far from the site of the camp where Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, but a very long way from the Kolyma, which Solzhenitzyn himself said was the "pole of suffering". I see the effects of the old system in people every day - the emotional, psychological, moral, spiritual catastrophies that mar individual's lives even today in 1999. Read Shalamov's book and think quietly.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kolyma Tales: Powerful tales of the GULag, December 30, 1996
By A Customer
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
Kolyma Tales is one of the most important sets of Russian short stories of this century. Varlam Shalamov, the author, provides a searing look at life in Stalin's forced labor system. The stories are well-translated by John Glad, who brings a greater audience to this extremely important 20th century Russian writer. This book outstrips Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in its ability to show the reader the true horror of the GULag. Shalamov creates a narrator who, although outwardly neutral, reveals the full pathos of a system that killed millions of people, not deliberately, but through its complete indifference to their fate. These stories will linger and stay with a reader for years to come. We can only hope that with the destruction of the Soviet Union, more great writers like Shalamov whose work was silenced will be brought out into the open
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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great Book butchered by terrible hack during translation, November 30, 1998
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
By simple count John Glad chose to through out about 15% of actual words from the Shalamov book (Compare "On Tick" for example if you know Russian and English). Without those words that "translator" obviously considered unnecessary book of great literature became mediocre exercise in horrors of Gulag. What a hatchet job! What a shame! If anyone can point me to a decent translation, I'll appreciate it.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eerily entertaining title, August 3, 2005
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
I have purchased Shalamov's short story compilation in 1989 in Hungarian edition. The author's picture was on the back most probably an old camp photograph that struck me because in it he looked like a man having suffered a lot and being close to the end.

When I started reading them I wondered how could someone write stories in a way he did. He had no sensible emotion towards the players neither positive nor negative, yet I was moved by the stories.

I bought Kolyma Tales in English because it contained a wider compilation than the other edition (turned out later that it still did not contain several stories that the other version did; still I have to look for more?). Some new stories were equally as good as those in the other book, some were just a snapshot of a situation or short series of events. A few were tiring to read perhaps because of the many other ones that I read previously, I felt these somewhat less interesting. But the closing few stories are really good. On the other hand I miss very much "Course" from this compilation (Hungarian edition did contain it). This is the tale that helps us understand how and why Shalamov managed to survive.

It was interesting to compare the Hungarian text and the English text. I have found some minor differences at places. These were generally phrasing differences, that is, not the exact words were used (as if each translator had used different original text), but the meaning was achieved (still I'd be curious how it is really written in Russian). In particular, one example of this is in "Lawyers' Plot", when the guards and Andreev talk to reach other in a roadside buffet where they stopped for the night on the way to their destination, involving a third prisoner. There is even some extra words/sentences in this English version compared to the Hungarian one.

For those who have never read Shalamov's tales I strongly suggest buying and reading it. The typesetting of this book is very eye friendly enabling reading easy. And entertainment is guaranteed even if it is an eery one.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars INCREDIBLE and UNFORGETTABLE, July 20, 2001
By 
Lowella Rivero (Chicago, IL United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
Not only does Shalamov move the reader to the very depths of one's essence, he does so quietly --- no moralizing necessary. The truth of his stories need no embroidery. Seventy-two years I have lived on this earth and have done a great deal of reading. "Kolyma Tales" is the most deeply affecting book ever I have weaved into my soul.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Friendship is born neither of need nor of misfortune", March 30, 2006
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This review is from: Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (Paperback)
Shalamov provides the perfect counterpoint for Solzhenitsyn-while Solzhenitsyn is bombastic, Shalamov is understated; while Solzhenitsyn is resolutely hopeful, Shalamov luxuriates in a sort of charred, cynical despair that is unusual in literature; and while Solzhenitsyn makes pretenses to be the voice of the Gulag, Shalamov can only speak for himself. Shalamov's stories are wrenching and vicious, the voice of single, recognizable human being faced with the entire murderous apparatus of the Gulag. The mere existence of the Kolyma Tales is astonishing. Shalamov was somehow able to draw genuine artistic inspiration from his years in the camps, and perhaps the style of the Tales themselves-detached, understated, ironic-is the only form that could survive such an extreme experience.

Another advantage Shalamov has over Solzhenitsyn is that readers are unlikely to mistake his stories for fully researched historical writing, a problem with the Gulag Archipelago. Both men were predominately artists, but Shalamov does not engage in the same type of social criticism and thus leaves himself less open to attack.
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Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) by Varlam Shalamov (Paperback - February 1, 1995)
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