Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

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Kolyma Tales is a collection of short stories written by the Russian author Varlam Shalamov (1907- 1982) about the labour camps under the Stalinist regime and the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of living for the convicts at the Gulag (an acronym for the Russian phrase, ‘Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.’ ). In Kolyma Tales Shalamov combines raw realism and elements of fiction to describe his own personal experiences as a political prisoner in the frozen landscapes of Kolyma’s gold-mining camps. Shalamov’s settings are characterized by a laconic style, devoid of long descriptive passages, in the same way that his characters’ portrayal is devoid of any signs of melodrama. One of the culminating examples of the affirmation of humanism in Kolyma Tales, is the story ”The Resurrection of the Larch”. The ability of man to survive through such harrowing conditions, when the humiliating reduction of human nature at its basest becomes an everyday reality, is here symbolized by the Larch:

“The larch is a very serious tree. It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil — no, it wasn’t the apple
tree, nor the birch! — the larch was the tree standing in the Garden of Eden before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise.

The larch is the tree of Kolyma, the tree of the concentration camps.

In Kolyma birds don’t sing. The flowers of Kolyma — bright, hasty, crude — have no smell. The short summer — in the cold, lifeless air — brings dry heat and freezing cold at night.

In Kolyma only the mountain dog rose smells, with its ruby-red flowers. There is no scent from the pink, crudely-fashioned lily of the valley, nor the huge violets, the size of a fist, nor the sapless juniper, nor the evergreen dwarf pine.

And only the larch fills the forest with its elusive smell of turpentine. At first it seems like the smell of decay, the smell of the dead. But if you look and inhale this smell more deeply, you will understand it is the smell of life, the smell of resistance to the North, the smell of victory.

Besides, the dead in Kolyma don’t smell — they’re too atrophied, too anaemic, and anyway they’re preserved in the permafrost.

No, the larch is a tree unfit for romances, you won’t sing or shape this twig into a romance. It speaks of a different depth, another layer of human feelings.

A man sends a Kolyma twig by airmail: but it was not of himself that he wanted to remind people. He was sending a memento not of himself, but a memento of those millions who were killed, tormented, who were discarded in communal graves to the North of Magadan.

To help others create a memory, and release one’s soul of this heavy burden: to see the worst and find the courage not to tell, but to create a memory. A man and his wife adopted a little girl — a convict girl whose mother had died in prison — as if, in their own personal way, to take on some sort of obligation, fulfil some sort of personal duty.

To help one’s comrades — those who remained among the living after the concentration camps of the Far North…

To send this coarse, slender twig to Moscow.

Sending the twig, the man did not comprehend, did not know, did not think, that it would be revived in Moscow, that, in its resurrection, it would smell of Kolyma, that it would break into blossom on a Moscow street, that the larch would prove its strength, its immortality — the six hundred years of the larch’s life is practically immortality for man — or that the people of Moscow would touch with their hands this rough, plain, coarse twig, would look at its dazzling green needles; that they would look at its rebirth, at its resurrection; that they would inhale its smell, not as a memory of the past, but as living life.”

(“The resurrection of the Larch” 1966 translation by Sarah J. Young)


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.


One thought on “Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

  1. Pingback: Books of the Year (Part 1) | Ballyroan Reads

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