Sunday, May 15, 2011
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
1962 (Russian); 1963 (English). 139 pages. Genre : Russian Lit. New Author? : Yes. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
The title says it all - the story is simply a single day in the life of a Russian prisoner serving a 10-year sentence at a Stalinist gulag in Siberia. His crime? Escaping from the Germans as a POW during World War 2. The Russians suspect he is a spy for the Nazis.
What's To Like...
The day is an ordinary one. There is no daring escape or dramatic confrontation. The greatest excitement consists of smuggling a stub of a hacksaw blade into the campground. Yet this is a powerful story (and probably more so in its original Russian) that will open your eyes to man's inhumanity to man.
You will spend about 18 hours total with Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. You will feel his hunger and his exhaustion. You will rejoice over a pittance of food; you will freeze to the bone in the Siberian winter; you will ache from back-breaking labor. But you will survive. Because if you can survive one day, you can survive 3,650 days (his 10-year sentence). Plus three more days for leap years.
Not every prisoner makes it. You must learn when to grovel, who to kiss up to, how to fool the guards, how to get extra food, when to share, and when to hoard. Most of all, you must learn how to psychologically deal with your fate. These lessons must be re-learned every day.
Work was like a stick. It had two ends. When you worked for the knowing you gave them quality; when you worked for a fool you simply gave him eyewash.
Otherwise, everybody would have croaked long ago. They all knew that. (pg. 12)
They sat in the cold mess hall, most of them eating with their hats on, eating slowly, picking out putrid little fish from under the leaves of boiled black cabbage and spitting the bones out on the table. When the bones formed a heap and it was the turn of another squad, someone would sweep them off and they'd be trodden into a mush on the floor. But it was considered bad manners to spit the fishbones straight out on the floor. (pg. 13)
Who is the zek's main enemy? Another zek. If only they weren't at odds with one another - ah, what a difference that'd make! (pg. 101. "Zek" is an abbreviation of Russian for prisoner.)
Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (pg. 69)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a riveting story, made all the more believable because it is such an ordinary day. But its importance extends beyond the literary world - its publication was a milestone in Soviet history as well. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a gulag survivor, and this book was the first one dealing with the gulags that the Soviet government (specifically Nikita Khrushchev) allowed to be printed in the USSR.
Overnight, it changed the psyche of the Russian people. Stalinist repression was dealt a mortal blow. To quote Khrushchev :
"It is our duty to gain a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the nature of the matters related to the abuse of power. Time will pass and we shall die, we are all mortal, but so long as we work we can and must clear up many points and tell the truth to the Party and to the people. ... This we must do so that such things never happen again."
ODITLOID is a short, powerful, sometimes painful piece of Russian literature that just might touch your very soul. At 139 pages, what have you got to lose? 9½ Stars.