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One day in the life of a Siberian concentration camp

  • Jan 3, 2010
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"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's first book, a classic of modern Russian literature and the title that propelled him onto the literary world stage. As for the plot - well, the title itself serves as a synopsis. The story, such as it is, describes a single day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov who is serving a term in a Stalinist labor camp for offenses against the state. That they were never clearly described is surely Solzhenitsyn's method of making his readers aware of the fact that millions of prisoners were suffering the same fate on meaningless charges fabricated from thin air with nothing by way of evidence to support them. The novel, clearly built on a foundation of Solzhenitsyn's personal experiences spent in a gulag, is a courageous (and, under the circumstances, perhaps almost foolhardy) critique of the tyranny that was the Russian experience under the dictatorship of Stalin.

The story that Solzhenitsyn tells could hardly be categorized as compelling. In fact, it's anything but. Solzhenitsyn has expertly portrayed an overwhelming atmosphere of dreary darkness, hopelessness, despair and exhaustion through the banality of the prisoners' daily existence - the hunger, the cold, the de-humanization, the repetitive grinding work, the isolation, and the stark paucity of everyday living in a setting without joy. It wasn't so much that there were physical punishments, cruelty or the terror that one reads about in other prison stories such as "Papillon", "The Shawshank Redemption" or "A Tale of Two Cities", for example. The punishment in Shukhov's camp arose more obviously out of the deprivation and unutterable tedium of an inhumanly spare existence devoid of pleasurable experience. Indeed, it was clear that even the guards and prison staff were probably suffering only a scant degree less than the unfortunate inmates.

On hunger:

"How often had Shukhov in his youth fed oats to horses! Never had it occurred to him that there'd come a time when his whole soul would crave for a handful of them."

On sleeping in the inhumanly cold Siberian winter:

"He must make his bed now - there wasn't much to it. Strip his mattress of the grubby blanket and lie on it (it must have been '41 when he last slept in sheets - that was at home; it even seemed odd for women to bother about sheets, all that extra laundering). Head on the pillow, stuffed with shavings of wood: feet in jacket sleeve; coat on top of blanket and - Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over."

As I said, spare writing that is itself a metaphor for the very things it so powerfully describes.

Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss

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From the icy blast of reveille through the sweet release of sleep, Ivan Denisovich endures. A common carpenter, he is one of millions viciously imprisoned for countless years on baseless charges, sentenced to the waking nightmares of the Soviet work camps in Siberia. Even in the face of degrading hatred, where life is reduced to a bowl of gruel and a rare cigarette, hope and dignity prevail. This powerful novel of fact is a scathing indictment of Communist tyranny, and an eloquent affirmation of the human spirit.
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ISBN-13: 978-0374529529
Author: H.T. Willetts
Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux
Date Published: March 16, 2005

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