The Polish writer Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (1919-2000) -- Gulag survivor, co-founder of Kultura and author of A World Apart: Imprisonment in a Soviet Labor Camp During World War II (1951) – has sent me back to Varlam Shalamov and his Kolyma stories.Herling-Grudziński in 1971 started keeping his multi-volume Journal Written at Night. In 1997, excerpts were published in English as Volcano and Miracle: A Selection from the Journal Written at Night, translated by Ronald Strom. The entries amount to compressed essays, seldom longer than two pages -- gossip, history, memories and literary criticism. In an entry from 1979 he writes of Shalamov:
“Never, in his picture of the hell of Kolyma, does he do more than give a brief, dry, almost colorless account of the monstrosities of Kolyma, of the pit of human existence; he shuns any temptation to match his style and language to the cruel facts he reports. He uses the conventional matter-of-fact language of the chronicler or summarizer rather than that of a fiction writer. He eschews the exclamatory and the dramatic heightening of words, even where the subject itself might seem to call for it. He speaks in a voice that is calm and balanced, as if it were slightly softened by a touch of sad reflectiveness.”
When I reviewed Kolyma Stories (2018) and Sketches of the Criminal World (2020), both translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield, I was struck by this coolness of voice and dryness of style. No verbal pyrotechnics, which Shalamov rightly judged distracting and tasteless. He survived seventeen years in Stalin’s camps. In his 145 stories, the mix of reportage and invention is always ambiguous, though this reader suspects it tips toward the former. Herling-Grudziński cites Mikhail Geller, Shalamov’s Russian editor:
“Heller quotes two remarks about hope, one from Shalamov in Kolyma and the other from Tadeusz Borowski in Auschwitz. Shalamov: ‘Hope is always a shackle for a prisoner. Hope is always slavery. The man with hope will change his behavior for anything, he acts wickedly more than the man without hope.’ Borowski: ‘Never in the history of mankind was hope stronger, and never did it bring such wickedness as it did in this war, in this camp. We were not taught to reject hope, therefore we die in gas chambers.’”
Hope is a dangerous commodity. It’s sentimental and likely to be rooted in delusion. Perhaps the opposite of hope is not despair but acceptance – one of the lessons taught us by the survivors of communism. Zbigniew Herbert told an interviewer: “I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. ‘Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don’t like hope.”
Borowski, a Polish non-Jew, survived Auschwitz and committed suicide in 1951 at age twenty-eight. Read his Here Is Our Auschwitz and Other Stories (trans. Madeline G. Levine, Yale University Press, 2021). Borowski and Shalamov are among the essential writers of our time, along with Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, author of Journey into the Whirlwind (trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward, 1967) and Within the Whirlwind (trans. Ian Boland, 1982).