Kolyma Books

12 Dec 2020

Kolyma is a region in the far east of Russia. It’s brutally cold, sparsely vegetated, mostly covered in permafrost, and has huge mineral reserves. It was a “favourite” destination of convicts in the Soviet penal system.

I’d not even really heard of the place until a few months ago, but since then I’ve read two books set in Kolyma. Two very different books, one a modern thriller and one something completely other.

The “completely other” was Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shamalov, a record of his time in Siberian labour camps in the 1930s and 40s. It’s not a very long book, as such things go, but it took me a while to read it. The bleakness and dehumanisation Shamalov describes were just too much to take in one go. I’m a fairly cold-hearted person in some ways, but the descriptions of the reduction of life to the cold, the hunger, the apathy of existence in Kolyma really got to me. I’ve read memoirs of life in North Korea’s prison camps, and there, it’s all about the hatred of the regime for the people who resist. I’ve read Primo Levi’s accounts of Nazi death camps during World War 2, and there, you somehow feel that the mechanised insanity of death is the natural consequence of things that have gone before. In Kolyma, no-one seemed to care very much. The convicts were in the system, they weren’t allowed to leave, they were used as labour without much concern whether they lived or died, but there’s no feeling that anyone in charge or involved in running the camps has any human feeling for the people in their charge, or that they have an interest in anything other than fulfilling the production targets passed down to them from above. (And even those targets are mostly fulfilled by fraud and deception.)

Surviving in the camps wasn’t just a question of enduring the weather and the work. You also had to negotiate relations with “the criminal element”. I’d heard something about this before, but Shamalov’s depiction of it is horrifying. The Soviet authorities had the great idea of sending political prisoners and common criminals to the same camps, and treating the politicals as a lower and more dangerous class. This worked as a method of repression because the political prisoners were mostly middle class, more educated, perhaps even intellectual people, while many of the criminals were murderously violent. You slowly get an idea of how this works as you read your way through the stories. Shamalov doesn’t directly confront the situation until some way through Kolyma Tales, and there’s a very effective sense of growing dread as you come to an understanding of the way things are.

Some words about the writing: it feels strange to comment on things like dramatic effect and pacing when you’re talking about what is effectively a chronicle of evil in the world like this, but it’s an important feature of Kolyma Tales, so you can’t avoid it. Shamalov uses a mixture of his own direct experiences and fiction to paint a detailed picture of life in the camps. Many episodes are presented in a form that makes them feel like parables or folktales. This might have been one of the factors that contributed to the very strong effect of the book on me: Shamalov’s language allows a feeling of a unreality to creep in as you read, a feeling that persists until you’re slapped with the recognition that this was real.

All in all, not a pleasant book. But an important one, I think. I lost a few nights sleep with it, but I’m glad that I read it. (Top tip: Kolyma Tales is not something to read in bed just before you turn out the light. Hours spent staring into the darkness in despair don’t contribute to a sparkly morning the next day.)

But now we can segue from suffocating in horror to gently taking the piss, which is much more fun (and so the review will be longer, because it’s much more enjoyable to write about than the shit that Shamalov went through). The second book set in Kolyma is Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson. If I had to summarise this, it would either be as "Carry On In Kolyma" or as something like “deep-frozen competence porn with a side serving of post-Soviet weird science”. I’ve not read anything by Lionel Davidson before, but the more I’ve been thinking about this book, the less likely it seems that it isn’t a brilliantly dry satire. Satire of what, I’m not exactly sure, but maybe that’s the joke. In evidence for the defence, I have to offer up Philip Pullman’s assertion that it’s the best thriller he’s ever read. Maybe I have no taste. Or a grossly inflated cynical organ. You might need to read it and decide for yourself.

Anyway, to the first premise of the book: there’s a remote closed research station in Kolyma, so closed that no-one who agrees to move there is ever allowed to leave. Scientists there are researching, well, something very odd. Something to do with genetics and pure Neanderthal stock from strange cadavers recovered from the permafrost? Definitely. Something much more metaphysical, capable of displacing and/or confusing ICBMs in flight? Maybe. Something so far beyond the bounds of normal human experience that it’s ineffable and inexpressible? Well, maybe that too. We’ll get to that.

By coincidence, an American spy satellite gets a peek at the station when there’s an accident, with what look like apes out on the ice lined up at some sort of role call. By further coincidence, the director of the station decides to try to get a message out to an old colleague/rival/acquaintance in Oxford. The station isn’t quite so closed after all, although the route that this message takes is convoluted. The book opens in Oxford, following the story of this message and its decipherment, which leads to the academic contact there getting in touch with “someone from the ministry” which sets off the chain of events that follow.

So far, so good, not much more unlikely than a hundred other lightweight thrillers. But it did throw up the first stone in my shoe. When you read a book like this, you make a deal with the author to suspend some portion of your disbelief. You know things are going to happen that aren’t realistic, all in the service of diverting you with a ripping yarn. In return, you expect the writer not to abuse your good nature. Part of the encoding of this secret message used abbreviations of books from the English King James Version bible, hence indecipherable to Russian intelligence, whose Orthodox bible is entirely different. Wut? Really? Really? It’s the FSB, not the Keystone Cops! This sort of thing makes me sigh a little. If you don’t know enough about the details of something to write about it convincingly, be vague. Don’t make up details that just don’t make any sense.

Once the message is deciphered, it boils down to the director of the (closed, remote, cold, secret) research station asking for a mutual acquaintance to be sent to be told the station’s secrets. Some sort of redemptive confessional for the director, to get the secrets out to the unsuspecting world. If it had been me, I’d have tried a bit harder with message smuggling to get the whole message out. But that would have made for a short book, and is why I’m not a multi-million selling thriller writer.

This mutual acquaintance is the protagonist of the story. I hate to accuse Davidson of doing a Gary Stu, but he totally did a Gary Stu. Linguistic genius, published anthropologist (romantic interest turns out to have his book, in remote Siberia, natch), able to drive more or less anything (big Russian trucks, snowploughs, ships), malleable of personality in the best tradition of secret agents (while simultaneously being magnetic and enigmatic), maverick loner (yet entrusted with beyond top secret information), cold-weather commando skills as and when required, he’s got it all. It’s a bit silly, but okay, there’s an element of wish fulfillment that this sort of character can allow.

The problem is that, stacked with all these skills, the man is just a cipher. He goes places, does things in the service of the plot/mission, has a mostly unelaborated mysterious backstory, but he feels like an empty vessel constructed solely to contain his capabilities. It’s one of the features of this book that makes me think that it would work better as a video game.

By a long chain of spy-like goings-on, our hero arrives in the area where the station is. (Along the way spending pages being obsessed with a crane on the ship he’s going to travel on. Davidson was really down on this crane. I have no idea what the idea was with the crane. Maybe he was scared by a crane as a child?)

One key point is that this protagonist (whose name I can’t even remember, that’s how cipherpunk he was...) is a member of the Canadian First Nations, and can consequently (warning: slightly strange racial essentialism coming up) pass as a member of more or less any of the Arctic indigenous peoples. This is helped by being fluent in every Arctic language you can name (not in-group passing fluent, to be fair, but fluent enough to fool members of nearby groups who presumably have frequent contact with people of the group he’s pretending to be from). One minute he’s pretending to be Chukchi, the next Evenk. Not impossible, to be sure, but unlikely. The suspensions of disbelief are piling up quite precariously by now. I didn’t want to spoil the fun by relating the madcap adventures we had to get to Kolyma, but there was quite some disbelief suspension required there too.

I don’t want to bash this too much, because some of it was quite a lot of fun, so let’s get to the central point of disappointment. Overall, the book looks like this: the setup—the journey—the infiltration—the apotheosis—the escape—more of the escape—yet more of the escape: are we there yet?—the dénouement. Let’s talk about “the apotheosis” because the long and twisty build-up gave the impression that this was going to be something really special. After inveigling his way into the community of ice transport drivers that service the region around the station, seducing (or being seduced by) the girlfriend of the man whose apartment he’s sort of hijacking, making contact (in all senses of the word) with the female medical officer who’s (coincidentally) an old friend of the station director and in on the plan to get someone in to see him, etc., etc., our super-spy gets into the station and gets to have a chat with the director. So yeah, now we’re going to get to hear what all this mysterious stuff is about! Yeah! Let’s go! Super-weird post-Soviet science secrets! Bring it on!

Do you ever have that feeling when you read a book where you get to a bit that should be really good, and instead it’s just a little bit shit? And you feel betrayed, because you just spent 200 pages (or whatever) letting the author carry you along in the unlikely meanders they wanted to follow, and now they’ve gone and kacked it all up? That’s what we had here. Komplett upgekackt. The director’s description of his work was just pseudo-scientific gibberish, with lots of floppy stuff about mysterious “harmonics” that made no sense at all, and apparently bore barely any relationship to the work on genetics inspired by the original discoveries in the permafrost. The station itself was nothing more than a placeholder, a place where hundreds of people live and work reduced to some corridors, a secret door and a library, more or less. And conveniently, almost all of the subjects of the genetic experimentation had perished as a result of the accident the American spy satellite had seen. Why fridge the super-apes, Lionel? Why?

So that was a massive let-down. And then the rest of the book is about running away from Kolyma. More unlikely super-competence, more driving of exotic vehicles, one more language community asking “How do you know the tongue?” or whatever gnomic translation of “Hey, how come you speak our language?” Davidson chooses to indicate the fundamental exoticism of Bering Strait Inuit people. And then we go commando. Honestly, I never realised how cut-throat academic anthropology was. Close quarters combat training is a required course for anthropology PhD candidates now.

I’m going to indulge myself a bit now. I don’t know if you remember when you were a kid, there was a genre of story it was hard to avoid writing now and then. (This might be a little boy thing, so forgive me the reminiscence.) This genre I think of as the “cowboy astronaut dinosaur” story. You have so many cool ideas you want to get into your story, but the only thread that binds them is that you think they’re cool. But what the hell, let’s get it all in there anyway! So what if you end up wearing a spacesuit on a horse being chased by a velociraptor? Space is cool! Cowboys are cool! Dinosaurs are cool! And then the teacher asks: Okay, what happens next? And, naturally enough, you say: What do you mean, what happens next? Well, stories usually have a beginning, middle and an end. You’ve got the beginning, so what happens next? Confused child: but there’s an astronaut? who’s a cowboy? and there are dinosaurs? What more do you need, you joy-stealer? Did the day shape my flesh only to fill the yawning gulf at the centre of your soul? There are dinosaurs! I’m a cowboy! Who’s an astronaut! And so you end up with a lifelong aversion to conventional narrative structure.

Kolymsky Heights has cowboys (ice truck drivers), astronauts (super-spy linguist Gary Stus) and dinosaurs (flash-frozen Neanderthals). It’s all a bit much. Show, don’t tell. And even better, don’t even show, but let the reader imagine. And don’t try to put in every single damn idea you have. Sometimes less really is more.

There’s another problem, one that I think about a lot when I read novels. You do want your story to have a beginning, a middle and an end, at least in some sense. Novels that are perfectly “historical” don’t work well (unless you’re Hilary Mantell), because history is a tangled ball of string with events that don’t fit into any narrative, characters whose arcs fizzle out for no reason, emergent phenomena that can’t be ascribed to any plot-worthy character, and so on. So when you write a novel, you need to massage the historicity of whatever sequence of events you’re going to talk about. You have some idea of what might have happened, and you want to make a story out of it. That means that, to some extent, you need to “linearise” the events that you have, to put them into a framework that has some meaning and some relation to characters that a reader might care about. In your big ball of string, you need to find an “interesting” thread to follow. That usually means engineering coincidences to make the lives of your characters interesting enough. It’s a rare person in real history who has “all the things” happen to them. Most of us just aren’t that interesting, so a caring author needs to tweak their characters’ paths through history to make their lives more entertaining (for us, the readers, often not for the characters themselves!). The problem arises when that engineering of coincidences goes too far. Writing a good and believable novel means treading a fine line there, and Kolymsky Heights goes trampling over that line in great big Kolyma-issue snow boots. A few lucky escapes add some spice to the life of your anthropologist super-spy. One lucky coincidence after another leaves the reader (well, this reader anyway) wishing for a horrific misadventure instead of another lucky escape.

But what do I know? Philip Pullman likes it, and it honestly works to fend off the Weltschmerz for a while. And it won’t stop you sleeping at night.