Saturday, August 6, 2011

Great Novellas: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Moving forward in the series, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of my favorite novellas ever.  And yes, it is actually a novella this time.  The story quietly follows one plot line with a couple of characters, but it has a profound message and impact by the end.  In fact, it was this novella in particular that contributed to Solzhenitsyn winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

As you may have guessed or already known, Solzhenitsyn is another wonderful Russian author.  However, he is the first one from the 20th century I have mentioned so far.  If you are a regular follower of my blog, you probably know that I love Russian literature of the 19th century.  Truly, this was a flourishing period for Russian writing, full of genius authors who brought well-deserved attention to their country and changed the landscape of literature across the world.  Unfortunately, when the Soviet Union came into power in the early 20th century, the government restricted and censored almost all of the creative work among its people. Solzhenitsyn himself was sent to a prisoner labor camp for eight years because of some derogatory comments he made about Stalin in a letter to a friend.  Thus, I am absolutely amazed by the courage and skill he demonstrated by writing this novella just nine years after his release.  I mean, imagine sending this manuscript, which specifically details some of the injustices of the Soviet government, to be published in Russia so soon after living through years of torment for a less offensive letter!  Wow!

With this in mind, I would probably be inclined to like the novella even if it wasn't written well.  But fortunately, I don't have to consider this possibility because One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is pieced together masterfully.  The tone of the narration is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the story.  The gritty details of life in labor camp is considerably toned down, and the misery of what each person must be feeling is pushed to the background of the story as an undercurrent as you read.  Remarkably, the novella ends on a somewhat optimistic note, brushing past the dehumanizing nature of the situation and focusing on the ways this particular day was better than others.  However, the optimism is deceptive because I sincerely doubt Solzhenitsyn wanted readers to think about the silver lining of life in Soviet labor camps.  Instead, you are flooded with the crushing despair of the situation and the protagonist's need to find anything positive in order to survive it. 

The main character is Shukhov, (aka Ivan Denisovich), who wakes up feeling feverish and miserable from the unrelenting cold of the Siberian winter.  The various leaders within the camp refer to the prisoners by number only, devaluing them in every way possible.  Nevertheless, we continually see little ways Shukhov fights to maintain his dignity to the best of his ability, such as regularly removing his hat when he eats and preventing himself from coveting other prisoners too obviously.  These little details are precisely the kinds of things to notice in a novella.  When we don't have lengthy passages and dramatic descriptions, we see the little details so much more clearly.  We must hold on to the small moments and thoughts of Shukhov as carefully as he holds on to the tiny portion of bread he is served each day.  When you have less, you savor it more.

Significantly, the majority of the fellow prisoners Shukhov describes are faithfully religious and/or kind to one another.  The prisoners of Shukhov's gang view themselves as a unit, and they work together as one body who experiences the trials and successes of each person as affecting the whole group.  We forget that these people have been condemned by the Soviet Union as wrong-doers and enemies of the State.  Instead, we doubt that they could have done anything against another person, and we do learn that Shukhov was wrongfully imprisoned.  The person Solzhenitsyn describes as the most religious in the group is Aloysha, which is also the name of the profoundly religious brother in Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.  I believe that this is a specific reference to the earlier text, as Solzhenitsyn is subtly paying tribute to the great works of Russian literature from the past and carrying on the tradition despite the danger he faces.

Thinking about this novella now as I write makes me want to read it all over again.  And one of the great things about a novella is the task of reading it is not too daunting.  I hope that you are intrigued and will add this very worthy piece to your reading list.


Falaise said...

Amy - I loved this when I read it at school and reading your post has wnated me to re-read it. Thank you.

Falaise said...

Of course, I meant to say "made me want to reread it"!