Kolyma Stories -- Out of the millions whom Stalin sent to the Gulag, Varlam Shalamov was one of a handful who not only survived but made a work of genius out of his torment. Frostbitten, louse-ridden, beaten, and starved, he hacked at the face of a gold mine in Kolyma, in the far northeast of Siberia, so remote it could only be reached by sea. He was a "political," arrested for the crime of publicizing Lenin's last testament, which had urged the Communist Central Committee to remove Stalin as its general secretary. In 1937 he was rearrested and sent to Kolyma, not to leave it until Stalin died in 1953, and Lenin's testament could at last be published in the Soviet Union. There was no thermometer in Shalamov's camp, but none was needed, because everyone knew how to measure the vital temperature: when a gob of spit froze solid before hitting the ground, it was 40 degrees below zero. He endured for 17 years altogether, in part because he was treated by a doctor who took allowed him to train as a medic, so he could and remain in the comparative safety of the hospital where he'd been sent to die.
As translated anew by Donald Rayfield, his Kolyma Stories have been published by the admirable New York Review Classics in two volumes. Most are very short, reminding me of the Paris edition of Hemingway's In Our Time, in which life is pared to the bone, like the body of a Gulag slave. I found the book hypnotic, and at times had to force myself to put it down. As a free man, Shalamov began to write poetry, and he tells us that what kept him alive in the camps was the poems he remembered: "This was the only thing that had not yet been crushed by fatigue, sub-zero temperatures, starvation, and endless humiliations."
The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America's Elite Alpine Warriors -- Maurice Isserman is a historian. I don't know if he has ever skied or seen military service, a veteran, but he has written one of the best unit histories I've ever read. "Tenth Mountain"had a bumpy road to war. It was the brainchild of upmarket skiers from Dartmouth and the National Ski Patrol, abetted by immigrant ski instructors from Germany and Austria, and it trained in the gorgeous Rocky Mountains not far from Aspen, which its veterans would help build into America's premier ski resort. Somehow, no one seemed to notice that neither in Europe or the Pacific was the US Army likely to fight at 10,000 feet -- or on skis, for that matter. (The Finns who embarrassed the Russian Red Army in 1939, and whose feats helped inspire Tenth Mountain, were Nordic skiers, on comparatively level ground.) The division's first deployment was to Kiska Island in the Aleutians -- a sea-level invasion of American territory in 1942. It was a fiasco, with 19 mountain troopers killed by weather or friendly fire. The Japanese had abandoned Kiska weeks before the Americans came ashore.
Nearly than three years after it began, with half its men trained neither as skiers nor as alpinists, Tenth Mountain was sent to Italy and saw its first combat on Riva Ridge, southwest of Bologna. For four months it battled over the Appenines, through the Po Valley, and to the Swiss border. There was never any skiing, and though the mountains were tough, they was never as tall as those of New England, never mind Colorado's. The cost was high: a thousand men killed (including the great Norwegian ski-jumper Torger Tokle) and three thousand wounded (including the future senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who'd never put on skis or climbed a mountain before joining the division in February 1945). The Winter Army is a great story, well told by Mr Isserman.
The Jungle is Neutral: A Soldier's Two-Year Escape from the Japanese Army -- Freddie Spencer Chapman graduated from Cambridge as an avid skier, mountaineer, and explorer, and in the 1930s he joined expeditions to Greenland and the Himalyas. By 1941 he was in Malaya with the British Army, training "left-behind" parties to harass the Japanese if they should capture the colony, a notion dismissed by higher-ups as extravagant and defeatist. In the event, Malaya was conquered in a ten-week campaign, and Captain Chapman himself was left behind. He makes it all sound so easy! "We found a woodcutter's track leading steeply uphill into the jungle.... Here, beside a stream, we found a very pleasant place to spread out our groundsheets and go to sleep. In lieu of a sentry, we fixed up a booby trap consisting of a [vine] as a trip-wire attached to a pull-switch and a short length of instantaneous fuse. We slept all next day without being disturbed...." Altogether, it's a wonderful yarn of survival in near-impossible conditions. What's missing, alas, is actual guerrilla warfare. There are Chinese Communist guerrilla bands, much training, a lot of singing, and even some firing of weapons, but the only encounters with the Japanese are accidental and soon over. Nor do I understand why the sub-title speaks of "two years," when Lieutenant Colonel Chapman (as he was by the spring of 1945) actually spent three years and five months behind Japanese lines. Out of print, but used copies available on Amazon. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted February 2020. Websites © 1997-2020 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.