For the last couple of weeks I have been steadily working my way through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a newly-translated collection of tales drawn from the author’s experiences at the most notorious outpost of the Soviet Gulag system. Perhaps not everyone shares my fascination with prison literature, but I found these stories remarkably fresh and closely observed.
One of the closest things to a statement of purpose from Shalamov comes at the opening of the 1960 story “The Necktie”, when the narrator asks himself how he can make his story “a piece of the prose of the future”:
In the past and at present a writer needs to be someone like a foreigner in the country he is writing about if he wants to be a success. He has to write from the viewpoint—interests, vision—of the people he grew up among and from whom he got his habits, tastes, and views. A writer writes in the language of those in whose name he speaks. And that is all. If a writer knows his material too well, the people for whom he is writing won’t understand him. The writer will have betrayed them and gone over to the side of his material.
You mustn’t know your material too well. Every writer in the past and the present had that defect, but the prose of the future demands something different. It will be professionals with a gift for writing who will speak out, not writers. And they will tell us only about what they know and have seen. Plausible accuracy is the force behind the literature of the future.
Shalamov was not a foreigner in the country of the Gulag: he was very much on the side of his material. In his stories he does not explain too much about the camp system, but simply recounts the actions of its participants, and this is usually all that is really required to understand how it works. As the translator, Donald Rayfield, observes in his introduction, “Despite his own assertion…Shalamov knew his material perfectly, and he wrote in a way that everyone can understand.”