Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is just that. 24 hours with a man whose life is not his own. Ivan Denisovich, known for most of the book simply as Shukhov, is serving a sentence at a hard labor camp in the Soviet Union. His crime was ambiguous at best, a farcical excuse for a harsh regime to dramatically shift the course of his life. We spend the day with Shukhov at this labor camp in Siberia and see the world through his eyes. We freeze with him in the bitter temperatures, we starve with him as he lays bricks in brutal conditions on scraps of food, we dream with him of getting warm, and we feel the bitter absurdity of his condition. What happens in the plot of the book itself is not insignificant, but rather, ancillary. It feeds the larger picture of Shukhov's world, and it paints a vivid fictional portrait of a very real phenomenon, but you don't walk away from the book thinking about which character did what; you walk away from the book with the labor camp's frosty imprint still on you, the hunger and anger and confinement still in you, wondering how humans could ever have done this to each other.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I have been absent for quite some time, and I really should apologize, since I finished this book several weeks ago, but between the holidays and strep throat and a national conference in Miami, my mind was elsewhere. Now that I have a little more leisure time to myself again, here are my thoughts.
This book was... striking. When I initially chose works for this second set of books, I added 'politically repressed authors' almost as an afterthought, which I realize now is a mark of the privilege of living and creating and breathing in a country that doesn't suppress speech or dissent. And while there are so MANY things wrong in this country right now, that is one right thing that we have had since we started out, and that is a true treasure.
"One Day..." had a fascinating and tumultuous journey to publication. I don't usually read about context for a book, so I made myself wait to read about it until after I'd experienced the novel. Here's what I learned:
- Solzhenitsyn wrote "One Day..." in 1957 after being released from exile that followed his imprisonment at a gulag (labor camp) from 1945 to 1953. The camp in the book is one Solzhenitsyn spent some time at, which was located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
- He was imprisoned for "writing derogatory comments in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin". So basically, he had an opinion, like everyone does in America today, and he spent 8 years imprisoned in a labor camp.
- In 1962, Solzhenitsyn sent his manuscript to 'Novy Mir', a Russian literary magazine. The editor submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it (given that until this time, Soviet writers had not even been allowed to REFER to the camps' existence). It was passed on to Khrushchev, who ultimately authorized its publication (STILL WITH SOME CENSORSHIP).
The rest of my thoughts, in no real order:
- A good book can be about miserable things and still be captivating. I wrote this down in the margins soon after I started. I kept not wanting to read 'Out of Africa' not because it wasn't describing nice and often beautiful things, but because I never felt compelled to continue. A good book should compel you to keep reading it. Not in a Dan Brown, 'page-turner and then forget everything you read' kind of way. More like a J.K. Rowling, 'sticks-with-you and makes you shift your worldview a little" kind of way. There was no MYSTERY here. The book is called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". So you knew immediately he was in a labor camp, and you knew pretty much from jump that he wasn't going anywhere. And yet, the book was stunning. It was captivating not because it was about sadness or adventure, but because it so thoughtfully and articulately and intimately shared the excruciating and nonsensical and never-ending pain brought about by politicians and despots.
- The feel of a Russian novel, even in translation. By my count, I've now read 8 novels by Russians, and while there's certainly a marked difference between Kafka and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there was something about this book that felt very distinctly Russian. Given that so much of this work was colloquialized, and almost slangy in nature, I think this is a huge credit to the translator for capturing this feeling.
I thought a lot of about what this would look like if it were happening in America today, and I couldn't quite grasp it, in part because we just don't have a place that's quite that cold! How convenient for the Soviet Union that it was so large, and that so much of it was so unspeakably cold. A few lines on the temperature:
- If it showed forty-one below, they weren't supposed to be marched out to work. OH OK. Yes, we draw the line at forty-one below. I mean, that's just unReasonable, amirite?
- It's warmed up a bit. Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying. This is a line from Shukhov, and he's NOT joking. He legit thinks this is pretty good weather for bricklaying.
Spitting bones out on the floor is considered bad manners." I laughed super hard at this line and spat out some of my coffee on the airplane. It's so delightfully hilarious and desperate and grotesque all at once. It reminded me of Gollum spitting out his stolen fish in the cave.
Camp rules are different than the outside world
"It was the sort of thing that happens only in camp: Stepan Grigorich had advised Vdovushkin to call himself a medical orderly and had given him the job. Vdovushkin was now practicing intravenous injections on ignorant prisoners and meek Lithuanians and Estonians, to whom it would never occur that a medical orderly could be nothing of the kind, but a former student of literature, arrested in his second year of university." This was a fascinating flipside view -- certainly, not helpful for the prisoners that the medical orderly had no qualifications, but an interesting reminder that in times of war or desperation or imprisonment, often opportunities arise in mysterious ways.
Empathy/experience/re-framing the world
I wrote this note at the back of my book, and I've thought about it a lot since I finished the book. If you're a consistent reader of my blob, you'll know that I'm a big believer in the research indicating that reading increases a person's ability to experience empathy. This book was a searing reminder; when I got sick, when I felt stressed about work, when I got depressed about my seemingly never-ending debt, I saw Shukhov waiting to be searched in the frozen tundra, unable to feel his toes. When I sipped my coffee on the airplane, it became not a mediocre excuse for a beloved beverage, but an unimagined delight in a world replete with fish soup and inadequate portions. Even now as I write this blog, I feel the distinct pleasure in being warm, a feeling which, at least in my world, is so generally expected and taken for granted.
This, friends, is the magic of books.
Here are a few examples that struck me:
- "In the year just beginning - 1951 - Shukhov was entitled to write two letters." We so rarely even take the TIME to write letters today, and Shukhov had a limited allowance? What joy and luck we have in being able to write to anyone at any time, free from censorship or restraint.
- "Since he'd been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village - whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kohkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting." All the men in the camp were somewhere else beforehand. And I think just about categorically, life was better beforehand. I don't know how you adjust to this new normal, or how you return to what you once had on the off chance that you survive a camp. What would you miss most if it was taken from you?
- "Apart from sleep, an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime." This reminded me very much of the line in "Beloved" about slaves having only Sunday mornings to themselves on the plantation at Sweet Home.
- "No zek [prisoner] ever lays eyes on a clock or a watch. What good would it do him, anyway? All a zek needs to know is - how soon is reveille? How long till work parade? Till dinnertime? Till lights-out?" Can you imagine how you would feel if time was taken away from you? I think I would find it simultaneously freeing and unsettling.
Sometimes I pick up a book and think, this will be interesting, but I don't expect to have anything in common with this narrator. After all, I'm not currently imprisoned in a labor camp, I'm not Russian, I'm not a man, I'm not living in the 1940s in a politically repressed country. And then something like this line happens:
- "'Long time since we had a blizzard! Not a single one all winter. What sort of winter is that?The gang all sighed for the blizzards they hadn't had." And just like that, Shukhov and I are of one mind, longing for a solid blizzard.
taiga - the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, especially that between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America (you know, like that nice frozen part of Kazakhstan where this labor camp was held)
kolkhoz - a collective farm in the former Soviet Union
patronymic - a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor, typically by the addition of a prefix or suffix (i.e., Johnson, O'Brien, Ivanovich)
Referents and reverberations (A section where I place this book on a timeline of other books it reminded me of, coming both before and after it in history, and share quotes that resonate)
The Trial (1925)
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." Kakfa captures this absurd but crazy and very real political world, and I was reminded of it often in reading "One Day..."
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
"What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?" I thought a lot about what it must have been like for Solzhenitsyn to re-enter the world after an experience like this. I wonder how many thousands of men had to learn how to be after this insanity.
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In today's world, communism and labor camps are just words we pause briefly on before we transition to more 'current' ideas or topics. This book injects a face and a humanity that permanizes these words and 'isms' into a very real lived experience.
“History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; WHICH men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” In case you hadn't realized it, war is a fairly constant theme here, which is interesting given that this book isn't explicitly about one war or conflict. I think what resonated with me so deeply was the idea that generations of men were permanently altered; trajectories of lives shifted starkly, and little, if any, choice in the matter was to be had.
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
A Clockwork Orange (1962)
"The night belonged to me and my droogs and all the rest of the nadsats, and the starry bourgeois lurked indoors drinking in the gloopy worldcasts, but the day was for the starry ones, and there always seemed to be more rozzes or millicents about during the day, too." If you've read my blob you know that I didn't LOVE this book, but I did have to admit that the 'zeks' reminded me in a pleasant way of Burgess and his lingo.
"So it goes." This book had a quality that seemed to say, 'and so what?' Sort of like, this awful thing happened, and it was arbitrary and brutal and unfair and deeply disconcerting and also kind of life-ruining, but then also, doesn't life keep happening in the background and before and after?
"For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week." Not the same for a host of reasons, but this book showed a kind of enslavement that was harrowing in its own way.
I often keep a running list of sentences that I think encapsulate the work and would make a good title. Here are the others I considered for this post:
- What would you expect to find on a zek in the morning?
- A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually.
- What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery.
- You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like.
- Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict.
- He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not.
"He knew what those parcels cost, and you couldn't go on milking your family for ten years on end. Better to do without.
That's what he'd decided, but whenever anybody in the gang or the hut got a parcel (somebody did almost every day) he felt a pang - why isn't it for me? And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything even at Easter, and never went to look at the list on the post - except for some some rich workmate - he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say:
'Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you.'
Nobody came running."
Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn, I have a package for you. It's been decades now since you were stuck in that inhumane, absurd hellhole, and almost a decade since you left this world, but I'll send you a package filled with baked treats, and sweet meats, and everything that reminds you of home. Go and get it, Shukhov. I promise this time there's a parcel for you, friend.
Keep each other safe.