One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
It is said that when this novel was published that it was a shock and a surprise, not least because it was published (in a redacted form) with the full backing of the post-Stalin Communist regime of the Soviet Union. Reading this book is still bracing today, as a free man in a generally free country, and it is easy to understand how this spare and unadorned but immensely beautiful work would be shocking to an audience that was used to the pablum of socialist “realism” and was shocked to see a stellar example of realism be accepted by the Soviet government and published in official channels. As a novel, this book is a short one, but its power consists in its restraint and in its approach, as it delivers exactly on what it promises. There are no sermons here, no obvious political pointscoring or grandstanding, no attempts by the author to claim a sense of importance himself by saying, “I was there” in these momentous historical events . On the other hand, those fellow zeks would have known that the author was there because of his mastery of the life and language of those who had been in the gulag archipelago and had been released into freedom.
This book consists of a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. This character, who also goes by the name of Shukhov, is a somewhat simple and credulous common laborer who had been imprisoned as an escaped prisoner in 1941 whose return from POW status meant a tenner–a ten year sentence in the gulag. He struggles to get up in a cold Russian winter morning and finds himself in danger of a few days in the hole in solitary confinement. We see him perform a variety of small tasks that help make life easier for his fellow political prisoners (all of them have numbers to help identify them) in the ward, and we see that the survival of the whole group depends on a great deal of cooperative action in which the support of the foremen as well as those who set the norms helps determine how all of them will fare. He attempts to shirk work by showing his fever, and after lunch works hard on the building of a wall for a prison furnace as a bricklayer. We see the press of people to return “home” to camp, the banter between prisoners, Shukov’s shrewd judgement of the character of others, and the ability of a successful prisoner to scrounge food in legitimate ways by serving the interests of others. After a long day of work and the shirking of work, we see the evening roll call and the attempt to get a good night’s sleep, and the novel ends rather surprisingly with the judgment that the day in question of hard labor in this Soviet prison was indeed a very good day.
The power of this short novel comes from several aspects. For one, the author is able to write from the perspective of a fairly ordinary everyman who is an able judge of character and a person filled with kindness and a strong sense of survival instincts but who has clearly human flaws such as resentment against those who make his life more difficult. This distance allows the book to serve as a realistic portrayal of a day in a Soviet prison camp rather than as a sermon against the gulag system. The author speaks in an informal tone with a mastery of camp language, which further increases the verisimilitude of the book, and puts the day in the context of many other days like this as well as the general insanity of the Soviet prison system as a whole. Additionally, and critically, the author writes with such skill that the reader, even a reader with little or no familiarity with the prison camp system being portrayed, has a great deal of compassion and concern for the characters. We are rooting for Ivan and the rest of the zeks of 104 to do their labor and eat their bread and drink their soup in relative peace. Despite its grim material, the book is written with a sense of hope that in the midst of Soviet Russia’s horrors that humanity and faith endured, but this comes organically from the story itself and is not bashed over the reader’s head to try to convince one of it. All in all, this novel is a deserved classic of Russian literature.
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