One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.
Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.
Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.
I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.
I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.
Other books that were serious contenders for O:
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic