Wednesday, 23 February 2011
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
Synopsis: This novel, as it says in the title, is all about one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, sentenced to ten years in the gulag for escaping from a German camp (they assumed he was a spy). Solzhenitsyn follows him from waking up to going to sleep through the harsh working conditions, bribes and other features of camp life.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
I thought this was a very clever book, especially the format of focusing on just one day in Denisovich's life. It really emphasised how every day in Denisovich's life was the same, how everything had blurred together to him and how he could only think about the camp. At one point he even wondered if he wanted to be free anymore, because having all the major life decisions made for him was in a way easier than going back to looking after himself and being responsible.
It was also very clear how harsh the gulag was to live in - at one point some of the prisoners had to strip for an inspection in temperatures of minus 27 Celcius. The amount of food was very little. They were inadequately protected against the winters. One of the characters was a baptist who had been sentenced for 25 years just because he was a baptist. Everyone got the same sentence regardless of crime and freedom was a carrot dangled in front of them to be removed at the last moment when sentences were extended. All links between the crime and the convict's punishments had long been lost, making most of the prisoners apathetic.
But what I found most powerful was when Denisovich complained: "A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is, they worry about the same thing continuously. Will they poke around in my mattress and find my bread ration? Can I get off work if I report sick tonight? Will the captain get put in the whole or won't he? How did Tsezar get his hands on his warm vest?". For me it really showed how the gulag took over the whole being of the prisoner - Denisovich admits that he never though about his family back home or about the outside world at all.
I found this book easy to read and the translation (by H.T. Willets) was very clear and understandable. I don't think I'm quite up to War and Peace yet, but I will be looking out for more of Solzhenitsyn's books.