One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)

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This is the first novel I’ve read by Solzhenitsyn, though I’ve heard good things about his writings. I didn’t know what to expect, except that it was a fictional man’s experience in the Soviet gulag camps… and that although fictional, it was based on the author’s own experience in the gulag.

I hadn’t read anything about the gulag before. I had read some things about the Nazi Holocaust; all those were written with the overwhelming message that “you need to know how terrible, awful, horrific this was–let me show you the horror”. And that mood pervades the works I’ve read about the Holocaust.

I was expecting the same thing here.

But… that’s not what this book feels like. Oh no, it’s worse than that.

Reading this one, you’re overwhelmed by how normal it all seems to the novel’s protagonist. The zeks (prisoners) in the gulag weren’t in a continual state of horror. The atrocities of the gulag system somehow became normal. And that’s ten times scarier than the “let me tell all the horrors I’ve seen” approach. Instead you read thoughts like, “Heck yes! We don’t have to stand barefoot in the snow at -40 degrees Celsuis today. Not like those poor sops over there! This might actually turn out to be pretty good day!” And “Sweet! I managed to not get thrown in the hole for ten days. I’d probably die if that happened.” And “I managed to swipe a second breakfast AND a second dinner! I actually feel almost full! What a good day I’ve just had.”

As a follow-up to this one, I’m going to read The Gulag Archipelago… or at least the first volume, because the entire thing is in three volumes and something like 2,200 pages long. I’ve heard it described as a 2,000-page scream. Unlike One Day in the Life, this is nonfictional. Solzhenitsyn wrote it after compiling records and accounts from gulag survivors. I don’t know how well I’ll manage emotionally while reading it, but it’s supposed to be THE book that once and for all revealed the horrors of communism to the world, so I’ve decided I have to buck up and read it, because it’s important to know the truth about things like this. Wish me luck.

Jenna

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