One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (review: 5/5)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you’d be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself from running away. After that—get building.

I knew I would love this book when I came across those lines, about five pages in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about a labor-camp worker/political prisoner named Shukhov. It’s only one full day, from just before sunrise until lights-out. I love the restraint to focus on one day, one character, one setting. That aside, I think my favorite part of the book was a sort of underlying optimism. There’s plenty of bold, revolutionary exposé-type stuff about injustice, deprivation, dehumanizing treatment, etc. (It’s probably because I grew up after this devastating period that I can write it off with an “etc”…) But more interesting to me were the little glimmers of endurance and good humor in truly awful conditions.

“Call the gang.”

Gopchik ran off.

The great news was that the gruel was good today, the very best, oatmeal gruel. You don’t often get that. It’s usually magara or grits twice a day. The mushy stuff around the grains of oatmeal is filling, it’s precious.

Shukhov had fed any amount of oats to horses as a youngster and never thought that one day he’d be breaking his heart for a handful of the stuff.

“Bowls! Bowls!” came a shout from the serving hatch.

Another favorite bit is a sort of emotional shift that I found pretty remarkable. The oppression became sort of a background feature for me. With all that given, conscious sympathy sort of fades until you get about 90% finished…

Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. He walked past the whole team without looking at anybody, not trying to hide his tears, climbed onto his bunk, and buried his face in his mattress.

You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn’t see his time out. He didn’t know how to look after himself.

Very much a Literary Wow Moment for me. Our hero still manages feelings of pity for his fellow slave-laborer, while the reader has gotten kind of worn out. Just when you’ve gotten numb from reading about a full day of hardship, you feel the pang again because this one guy probably won’t make it. One last cool thing, also evident in the paragraph above, is that the third-person omniscient narration is peppered with asides and reactions from Shukhov himself:

The bosses were afraid the zeks would scatter and waste time in warming sheds. A zek’s day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. Every man entering the compound stooped to pick up a wood chip or two. Do nicely for our stove. Then quick as a flash into their shelters.

It’s a fairly short read. Totally worth it.

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