Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back to School: A sunny day at the gulag

This 'Back to School' challenge is a great way to return to certain literature I've always wanted to read, even bought, but just could get into. It's a perfect excuse to invest time into more classics (some contemporary), to be more aware of the modern book conversation.

I had bought One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last year when the author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had died. Solzhenitsyn, a Russian with a great big bushy beard, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, although didn't collect until four years later after he was deported from the Soviet Union. (The USSR wouldn't allow him to go to Stockholm to be pick up the diploma; the Swedes wouldn't schlep through the Nordic seas award him in Moscow.) One Day in the Life... is perhaps the author's best known work, a short novel about a particularly 'pleasant' day in a Siberian gulag during the Stalinist regime, told in bareboned prose on sad yet amusing scenes.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been imprisoned for espionage against fellow comrades. Unfortunately for Shukhov, that isn't true: Back in 1941, he escaped a German prisoner of war camp, fell into fellow Soviet hands, but said Soviets immediately believed that he really was working for the Germans. So a ten year sentence in Siberia was in order. Every day he has to worry about the men barking orders at him, the other prisoners if they will misbehave and get everyone else in trouble, the weather that is so cold everything freezes except for blood. A trip to the 'box', a solitary confinement chamber, may be a ten-day sentence, but the result is tuberculosis and ill-health for the rest of your days. You might as well adopt death instead.

Very few things happen in this story, and the way the narrator tells it you feel almost removed from the situation entirely. As if this were some sort of sterile experiment. Shukhov wakes up, fails to qualify for sick bay (due to the two person quota already reached), takes his hat off before eating 'soup', lays some bricks more precisely than the others, makes a couple of 'rude' comments, and goes to sleep somewhat happily. The narrator isn't interested in building suspense, in embellishing detail. He's just there to document. This is how it was, and this is how it will be tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

We don't find out that Shuhkov is Ivan Denisovich until 25 pages in, when someone formally calls him by name and patronymic, unlike everyone else (including the narrator). And although Ivan Denisovich is a bricklayer by trade and perhaps has gone a bit atavistic and doesn't think about the family he left behind since there's no use in doing so, there is a sensitive and beautiful side to him, shown in perhaps my favourite section of the book, the only one in this whitewashed world of Siberia where beauty and sarcasm simultaneously permeate the page:

The captain spat in disgust. "I never met a sailor as stupid as you. Where do you think the old moon goes, then? . . . Go on, tell me."
Shuhov sighed and delivered his reply with a slight lisp. "Where I come from, they used to say God breaks up the old moon to make stars."
The captain laughed. "What savages! I never heard anything like it! So you believe in God, do you, Shukhov?"
Now Shukhov was surprised. "Of course I do. How can anybody not believe in God when it thunders?"
"Why does God do it, then? . . . Break up the stars. Why, do you think?"
"That's an easy one," Shukhov said with a shrug. "Stars fall every now and then, the holes have to be filled up."

While reading, One Day in the Life was a bit hard to swallow. But thinking about it after completing it, the drudgery resonates soundly, like a rustle in the woods. Perhaps not the most enjoyable read, but one that makes you consider what life would mean when you can only have 200 grams of bread a day.


Kari said...

I've never heard of this. Sounds dismal! (in terms of may actually be a good book)

Rebecca Reid said...

I've heard of this and I think I have it on a shelf somewhere, but I've always avoided it because it does sound so "hard to swallow." Definitely sounds worthwhile and important, though, so I'll get to it.

ChristinaO said...

Not dismal! Okay, maybe imagining yourself living that existance where each day is like the last - not so pleasant. And why he's there, also tough (I hate movies like Meet the Parents where you know the truth and the other characters just make things worse/harder for the nice guy).

Anyway, despite the fact that it's tough, it's not completely gut wrenching and its simplicity is actually quite beautiful. Solzhenitsyn does a fantastic job of capturing the sameness and uniquness of of Shukhov's days - a harder job than it sounds.

Salvatore said...

I agree, this book wasn't as depressing or as morose as I thought it would be - and that was an interesting surprise. It's also an oddity that the author would choose a particularly 'good' day, perhaps in order to make us fear what anything worse could be.

But absolutely, there's beauty in its simplicity. And in that it's kind of refreshing. In a dark way.