I began studying Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales several years ago as part of an ongoing project on Gulag narratives. Translating some of the stories seemed to be a natural extension of that work: there is no better means of interrogating a literary text than translating it, no surer way of knowing all the layers of the story, the significance of every word, every phrase. And few writers are more difficult to know than Shalamov. His stories of the seventeen years he spent in the camps of Kolyma have an emotional and moral impact that is often unbearable. Many readers find themselves torn between feeling compelled to read the tales, and being unable to do so. This presents a particular dilemma for a literary critic. On the one hand, the sort of sustained concentration required to develop an interpretation is difficult to attain when faced with texts such as these. On the other, one does not wish to become inured to the violence and misery Shalamov depicts; experiencing their profound impact is essential to understanding the true significance of his writing. Translating, for me, offered a partial solution to the problem, a chance to know the stories through the fine detail of their substructure as a contrast to the sometimes overwhelming process of considering the collections as a whole. Moreover, focusing on particular stories as I worked on the translations made me see that there is more variety in Kolyma Tales than I had realized, even though I had already read all the stories several times; the harrowing nature of some of the tales, particularly in the first collection, tends to overshadow the more nuanced and contemplative stories that follow, where the keynote, as in the case of Resurrection of the Larch, is frequently sorrow rather than horror.
The spareness of Shalamov's prose has a rhythm that resonates like an incantation. He frequently repeats words in close proximity to each other — 'water' in the fourth paragraph of Resurrection of the Larch, and 'flowers' in the fifth are two such examples — and his phrasing often re-echoes in different parts of the story, drawing it even more tightly together. But there are also elliptical sentences that stretch out through phrase after phrase, initially tied together by one common lexical unit, but then frequently shifting to another. At the same time, multiple adjectives extend far beyond the subject to gesture towards an absent repetition, a trace of the noun remaining in each modifier. It is capturing this elusive quality that poses the biggest challenge to the translator, but it also points to the roots of the mystical side of Shalamov that seems an unlikely accompaniment to the generally materialist outlook he presents in his stories. In his memoir The Fourth Vologda, Shalamov writes: 'My father, by birth from the darkest forest of the backwaters of Ust-Sysolsk, from a hereditary priestly family, whose ancestors even quite recently had been Zyriansk shamans for several generations, from shaman stock, who imperceptibly and naturally replaced the tambourine with the censer, but all still in the grip of shamanism, himself a shaman and a pagan to the depths of his Zyriansk soul, was an extremely capable man. Our very surname is shamanic, ancestral — the meaning suggested by its sound stands between trickery, mischief, and shamanism, prophecy.' (Varlam Shalamov, The Fourth Vologda, 1968-71). Shamanistic elements are perhaps more easily identifiable in his poetry, where his feeling for the natural world — also evident in Resurrection of the Larch — predominates, but the invocatory style of his prose indicates that this aspect of his personality is embedded in his stories in a different way.
My thanks to Robert Chandler for his extremely helpful suggestions and advice on revising my translation of Resurrection of the Larch.