Roy Chen On:
Condensed Milk by Varlam Shalamov
Varlam Shalamov spent 20 years in Stalin’s gulags – the Soviet forced-labor camps, through no fault of his own. Upon his return home, he discovered his wife was forced to divorce him, burn all of his manuscripts and stick to the government decision that he was an enemy of the people. He was forbidden to live in a city with more than 10,000 inhabitants. He attempted to find work as a paramedic, in vain, as nobody was willing to assist an ex-convict. He slept on benches at the train station and lived without belongings, friends or family, betrayed by all, abandoned and fatally ill.
His collection of stories “The Kolyma Tales” (in which this story appeared) is an astute testament to the unlivable life in the gulag. Kolyma, which is situated in north Siberia, is endowed with breathtaking landscapes: pine trees, berries, wild life, brooks and natural resources. Sadly, during the period of Shalamov’s incarceration there, not a soul had the freedom or strength to appreciate the view.
Shalamov does not write like others write – he chisels the words, engraves them on the gravestone that is the page. His writing is honest and concise, poetic, but never melodramatic. On the other front of WWII, juxtaposed with the Nazi concentration camps, are the Soviet forced-labor camps, and Shalamov opens a pinhole view into them, into the cry of horror, into the “Never Forget” of the gulag survivors and while doing so, he succeeds to simultaneously turn the personal account into great literature.