Friday, October 10, 2008

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Books by Russian authors just continue to elude my comprehension. Well, maybe my comprehension of why said books are supposed to be so great, that is. This is one of those books; it's not an awful read but I also didn't think it was some literary feat of genius, either. I suppose when it first came out it was rather informative and a bit scandalous; no one had exposed the prison camps of Stalin before Solzhenitsyn got this published.

The novel is exactly what the title says - one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, one of the prisoners at a small gulag in Siberia. Ivan has been sentenced to a ten-year term, much luckier than some of his fellow prisoners who are in for 25 years. What horrible crime did Ivan commit to land in this frozen hell-hole? He was captured by the Germans and managed to escape. Yep, that's it; when he finally arrives back in Russia, he is found guilty of - unbelievably - treason, and thus finds himself in the gulag doing hard time. It's a very spartan existence, mostly consisting of trying to get a better work detail, more food rations, and maybe, if he's very, very lucky, some tobacco for a smoke. He gets up early and has only about an hour or so to himself (but not truly alone, as there are always fellow prisoners around) and goes to bed after a long but successful work day.

It's a short book and certainly not a very cheery one. Nothing really happens in the book; it's almost like reading a diary or journal entry, except that it's not written in the first person voice. The one thing that does come across in the book is that, as one of these prisoners, you either have to claw your way to the top of the pile or you have to be on good terms with everyone; make enemies of any kind and your days there will be even longer. No one is really bad or evil; these are all men that have been imprisoned on mostly trumped-up charges. And yes, Ivan states that many of them will die before seeing the end of their terms. He feel fortunate that his stint is almost up (I think he's in his eighth year when this is set). He doesn't let his family send anything anymore; there's no point since the guards get the goodies.

Overall, I guess I'd recommend it. Well written, just not the sort of book to read if you're looking for any sort of levity or intrigue.

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