In 1936, Varlam Shalamov, a journalist and writer, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Soviet Gulag. He survived fifteen years in the prison camps and returned from the Far North to write one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature.
... remarkable for both [its] historical witness and their literary integrity ... The stories will change the way you think about the miracle of basic bodily functions. I have never read a writer who paid such serious attention to the act of defecation—for malnourished prisoners a fraught, agonizing process ... Shalamov writes from a place beyond embarrassment, beyond fear and beyond consolation. The stories are fiction by a man who had long ceased to believe in fictions ... In Mr. Rayfield’s highly readable translation, the main qualities are directness and spontaneity, as though Shalamov were describing a picture in his mind ... It is the precision, and often even the beauty, of these descriptions that astonishes most. Strange as it sounds, although there is no hope in these stories, there is no sense of nihilism either.
... revelatory ... Shalamov’s stories offer no hope. There are no heroes in a world where it was all you could do not to steal your starving fellow prisoner’s bread ration, or not denounce him in the hope of improving your own chances of survival. There is no glimmer of a redemptive moral message, such as we find in Solzhenitsyn. Shalamov describes a world of labour, frostbite, starvation and perpetual violence. But he does it from within a moral and literary tradition that precedes Stalinism and his hope was to connect, however precariously, with an earlier, more humane era ... Shalamov’s descriptions of Kolyma are superficially repetitive, but each tale manages to be unique and revelatory ... his accounts are never didactic. And, whatever the author’s protestations that he is not writing 'about' the camps, the stories create a complete mosaic of the world of the condemned and beyond that of the society which enslaved them ... His stories can be so factual they read like essays and his essays sometimes evolve into stories ... Shalamov is such a powerful and consistent writer that you can approach his work at random, from any point. Each piece is a cold, glittering fragment of the mosaic.
... fascinating sociological side notes ... As in his earlier volume, Shalamov writes matter-of-factly, unblinkingly, about the endless horrors of the gulag, which are scarcely comprehensible ... Essential chronicles of the worst face of the totalitarian state.