Sunday, February 26, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2017: ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH BY ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN

My first completed read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is for the category A Russian Classic. I read the very short (139 pages in the Signet paperback edition that I read) One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I had read Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward many years ago and thought it was fantastic and One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich also did not disappoint.
Like the title indicates, this is the recitation of one man’s day, from when he wakes in the morning to the time he goes to sleep, as an inmate of a Soviet prison labor camp in Siberia under Stalin’s regime.  It is both horrific and absurd in its depiction of life in the gulag and the lengths that one must go to to survive.  From the moment he wakes, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is calculating how to make the most of opportunities, from cadging tobacco off of better-off inmates, to rejoicing over an extra three ounces of bread at dinner.  Who’s the zek’s [prisoner] main enemy? Another zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another – ah, what a difference, that’d make”.  
There are hierarchies among the prisoners and hierarchies among the guards that must be observed; internal prison politics that must be respected; opportunities must be quickly assessed and taken advantage of, often at another’s expense and all this while living in inhumane conditions, under-fed, overworked and with little protection against the sub-zero temperatures.  But what makes this book fascinating, however, is Ivan Denisovich’s practical and accepting attitude toward it all and his small moments of joy and satisfaction over small pleasures and victories. The simplicity and matter-of-fact quality of the narrative belie the brutal and inhumane environment to which the prisoners are subjected.
Even though the book is fiction, Solzhenitsyn did actually spend 11 years in a Siberian forced labor camp, so this is really a true-to-life dystopic novel of sorts. Apparently, the book was not suppressed in the USSR (my book has an introduction, a forward AND an afterword!) but  was actually used by Khrushchev as part of his anti-Stalin campaign when it was first published in 1962.

8 comments:

  1. If I ever decide to read a Russian novel, I think I'm picking this one...because it's short! :) Most of them are so darn long! Great review.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lark. Yes! This is the perfect Russian novel if you are pressed for time. :) And despite the subject matter, it isn't a depressing book at all.

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  2. I read this in high school, 10th grade I think, and while I've enjoyed rereading books from my schooldays, I never really thought about rereading this one. How interesting that it wasn't banned in the Soviet Union--I never knew that!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Jane! Yes, apparently this novel and its depiction of the gulags was politically useful to Khrushchev, to help support anti-Stalin feelings. All of Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent works were not allowed to be published in the USSR I believe.

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  3. I'd be interested in this one. I've read little Russian literature at all. I'll have to check if my library has it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Tarissa! I hope you find the book as fascinating as I did if you read it.

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  4. Fascinating that Kruschev would use this as propaganda. Very interesting review. I've had good experiences with Russian authors, but haven't made it to the more modern Solzhenitsyn yet. Nice review.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Joseph! I would recommend this title or The Cancer Ward for sure for when and if you are ready to read more modern Russian writers.

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