Snapshots from Hell

(This review of Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov’s classic work Kolyma Tales was taken from the much-longer review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

Translation: 2.5 stars

Overall material: 4.5 stars

These stories are great, despite being largely devoid of emotion, but the John Glad translation sucks rocks. I’ve read that it cuts out about 15% of the original Russian. The transliteration is all over the place, and contains THE WORST transliterations I’ve ever seen, even worse than Michael Glenny. I’m sure “Glad” this fellow wasn’t my professor!

It also leaves out all the great GULAG slang and special terminology, such as zek, zechka, dokhodyaga, tenner, fiver, Black Maríya, and Stolypin car. Saying “prisoner” doesn’t convey what the GULAG experience was all about; the traditional Russian word for prisoner is not zek/zechka. To just say “goner” doesn’t convey the same thing as dokhodyaga, the same way that the Lager word (in Nazi death camps) Muskelmann conveyed something terrifying and tragic, more than just calling someone an emaciated prisoner ever could.

Varlám Tikhonovich Shalámov was arrested in 1929 and given three years; in 1937 he was rearrested and given a fiver, but in 1942 his sentence was extended to the end of the War. The year afterward it increased even more when he praised the effectiveness of the German army and called Nobel Laureate Iván Búnin a classic Russian writer.

Aleksándr Isáyevich admitted humbly and respectfully that Shalámov spent a lot longer in the GULAG than he did, and that it was his responsibility to tell the world about the deepest depths of Hell. He actually asked him to co-author Archipelago, but Shalámov declined, since he was old and sick.

I wrote a paper in my Modern Russian Lit course on the differences between them, and it’s obvious that Shalámov is more bitter. He doesn’t have time to delve into people’s lives and personalities, and his zeki have lost all hope. They don’t have time to sit around discussing Marx, Luther, Yesenin, Prince Ígor, and their future plans. These men are often worked to death within days or even hours.

Shalámov’s wood-cutting partner Garkunov is murdered for his good white sweater in a game of cards, and his only reaction is “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get a new wood-cutting partner.” The dead have no respect in this world; in one of the first stories, two zeki go off to lift the rocks from a fresh corpse, a fairly new arrival judging by his weight, so they can have his nice warm clothing. That they’re digging up a corpse and wearing a dead man’s clothes doesn’t even faze them.

The zeki in this cruel barbaric world don’t have the time nor interest to go making political statements or indictments against the man who put them there; who cares about condemning Stálin when you’re being slowly worked to death and only have enough time and energy to plan one day ahead at a time? It’s true that in prison you were freer than in the outside world, since now you were in no danger of being informed on and sent to prison, but the zeki in Shalámov’s world don’t even see themselves as free. They’re slaves, cutting down wood and working to death in mines. They have no concept of hope, love, loyalty, kindness, friendship, freedom, nothing.

The images may be emotionless, but they’re sure unforgettable. Who needs to be emotionally involved in the personal lives of a host of multifaceted characters when you’re getting graphic images of sweaters moving all by themselves because of a massive infestation of lice, or a presumed dead man getting his hands cut off so he can be identified by fingerprints, then returning, confusedly holding his bloody stumps next to his chest? Or the men who deliberately blow their own hands and fingers off to get out of slave labour? They reinfected or worsened wounds just to stay in hospital and not have to work in sixty degrees below zero.

It took awhile to really get into the book, because of the lack of human feeling and emotion, as well as the bad translation job, but these are really incredible portraits of Hell. To survive one must lose all human emotions; emotions are meaningless when you don’t know if you’ll live to the next day or get your daily ration of food after sixteen hours of fruitlessly mining for gold in eighty degrees below zero. Anyone would become bitter after seventeen years in Hell, and despite the questionable claims about the Medical Sections, the thieves, and the women, this is searing writing that is so affecting precisely because it’s so detached and emotionless.

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5 thoughts on “Snapshots from Hell

  1. I wonder how much got lost in translation with “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” b/c I also felt like the first half of the book was missing a lot of emotion. An agent is shopping my book is Asia and Europe now, but I’m also worried about the translation thing! Your reviews are very thorough 🙂

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