The Eternal Story

I’m currently reading Varlam Shalamov’s Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, the second volume of his short stories regarding his time spent in the brutal Kolyma camp system in the Russian Far East during the late 1930’s to the mid 1950’s. It is a work of terrifying beauty and brutality, of the eternal story:

For how many years, distorted by winds, frosts, turning to follow the sun, has the larch stretched out every spring its young green needles to the sky?

How man years? A hundred. Two hundred. Six hundred. A dahurian larch is mature at three hundred years.

Three hundred years! A larch, whose branch, whose twig is on a table in Moscow, is the same age as Natalia Sheremeteva Dolgorukova and can remind us of her lamentable fate: about the vicissitudes of life, about fidelity and firmness, about inner staunchness, about physical and moral torments, which in no way differ from the torments of 1937, with the raging nature of the north, which hates humanity, the mortal danger of spring floodwaters and winter blizzards, with denunciations, the coarse arbitrary bosses, deaths, quarterings, husbands broken on the wheel, brothers, sons, fathers, all denouncing each other and betraying each other.

Isn’t that an utterly eternal Russian story?

After the rhetoric of that moralist Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s rabid preaching came wars, revolutions, Hiroshima and concentration camps, denunciations, and executions by shooting.

The larch tree displaced all scales of time and shamed human memory by reminding it of the unforgettable.

– From the short story entitled The Resurrection of the Larch in the new collected edition of Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield. New York Review of Books, 2020.

Anger as a Fuel

On life in a Soviet Gulag labour camp in the Russian Far East:

We were all sick of the barracks food. . . Any human feelings – love, friendship, envy, charity, mercy, ambition, decency – had vanished long along with the flesh we had lost during our prolonged starvation. The minuscule layer of muscle that was still left on our bones, and which allowed us to eat, move, breathe, even saw beams, fill barrows with spadefuls of stone and sand, even push a barrow up an endless wooden ramp in the gold mine, had only enough room for resentful anger, the most lasting of human feelings.

– From the short story entitled Field Rations in the new collected edition of Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield. New York Review of Books, 2018.