Gessen on Shalamov: “It was nothing personal. Just the twentieth century.”

I really enjoyed Keith Gessen’s new novel A Terrible Countrya charming, convincing and moving account of a young American’s complicated relationship with Russia. The narrator is a struggling low-level academic specializing in Slavic literature, who must return to Moscow to care for his aging grandmother. He gets by teaching an online course in Russian literature, but generally seems more passionate about playing pick-up hockey than the great Russian books.

One of the only exceptions, to my surprise and delight, is a digression on Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, which I just read this year and immediately recognized as an indisputable masterpiece. Here is the narrator’s appreciation of Shalamov:

Shalamov saw things differently from Solzhenitsyn. He saw them doubly, ambivalently. He thought Solzhenitsyn was a windbag. Physical pain, hunger, and bitter cold: these could not be “overcome” by the spirit. Nor did the world divide neatly, as it did for Solzhenitsyn, between friends and enemies of the regime.

For Shalamov, in the camps there were people who helped him and there were people who brought him harm (who beat him, stole his food, ratted him out), but the majority of the people he encountered did neither. They were just, like him, trying to survive. There was great brutality in the camps, and very little heroism.

In his memoirs he told a remarkable story about learning, at one of the darkest moments of his camp life, that his sister-in-law, Asya, with whom he was close, was in a nearby camp. Shalamov was in the hospital with dysentery, and one of the doctors wanted to know if he wished to send Asya a message. Only half alive, Shalamov scribbled her a short and unsentimental note. “Asya,” it said, “I’m very sick. Send some tobacco.” That was all.

Shalamov clearly remembered this with shame, but also with understanding: he was weak, on the edge of death, and had been reduced to a bare animal existence. There was no great lesson in this, except that in certain conditions a man quickly ceases to be a man.

It was nothing personal, as the saying goes. Just the twentieth century.

This is very well put, far better than I managed when trying to express what is so great about Kolyma Stories (here is my previous post on Shalamov).

For more on Gessen’s novel, Francise Prose’s review is on the mark, and gives a good flavor of what the book is like.

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