Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A very intelligent reader suggested I should read Solzhenitsym after the Russian writer's recent death. This seemed good advice, as I’ve yet to come across a Russian writer I didn’t like. I’m happy to write that Solzhenitsym has not broken my successful run with Russian literature.

What is it about the Russian character that they can be so ironic? They seem to be in it up to their ears. They can describe such horrid details with such a light heart and a gentle, wry humour.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short novel, some 150 pages, that describes its main character’s day ‘from bell to bell’ as it is lived in a Russian Gulag. (The author spent several years in one for writing critical comments about Stalin in a letter whilst serving in the military during the Second World War.)

The novel is written in a wonderfully neat, light, gentle style, with a strange warmth and gently humorous and ironic tone. Considering the subject matter, you would expect a different literary tone. Indeed, half way though I wondered if Solzhenitsyn had actually been in one of these camps, and had to check the biographical details.

Actually, the book, in its light tone, reminded me somewhat of Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man – another book that describes horrific details yet is not morbid or depressing and self-pitying.

What’s the ‘take away’ from this novel? I don’t know. That one can survive constant hardship and remain optimistic? That this is perhaps the basic human condition, to try and eke out happiness despite such privations? That, when we are all stripped down to such essentials, our humanity still remains, and is a dignified and worthy thing?

Let me share a quote I enjoyed from the end of the book that perhaps highlights what I’ve just said:

‘Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinner time. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at searchpoint. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco. The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.’

This book is a perfect little gem, and if you want to learn about our most basic humanity, and its most optimistic features, then you should read One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.

Note on above photo: Solzhenitsyn upon his release from the Gulag in 1953

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