remember what that brought'
'There Is No Time'
By Lou Reed
'Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper'.
If you can read the sentence above without feeling a twinge of discomfort or a lump in your throat, then you could have possibly qualified for Stalin's entourage. Although that alone would not have bought you any life insurance. Even going against Mr Reed's words and holding onto the typical true believer's philosophy of my country right or wrong would have been insuficient.
I had a sense of déjà vu when I read the first fifteen pages of 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich', the famous novel by the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And of course, I had indeed read a similar work, only that it was a memoir and it was about incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. Primo Levi's personal account of his time at the hands of Hitler's hordes is harrowing in its restrained and subdued approach. And Solzhenitsyn's tale of the horrors endured by a prisoner in a labour camp in Siberia is just as painful to read.
It is almost an accepted truth amongst readers that certain memoirs and biographies read and, more importantly, feel like works of fiction. The same could be said of certain novels and how they mirror and feel like real life and 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is one of those. It describes in detail a day in the life of a prisoner sentenced to one of Stalin's gulags. During the course of this journée we are introduced to a myriad characters and situations that reveal the horror of that period in the former Soviet Union. Even though it is written in the third person singular, not even for a single moment could I shake off the sensation that I was Ivan and that it was me withstanding the adversities suffered by him.
The novel stars with the five o'clock reveille, which as usual 'was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters'. From then on, the quest for survival begins, as Shukhov (Ivan Denisovich's second surname) tries to take advantage of the ninety minutes he has before being called to work. There were various ways in which to secure a living, 'by sewing a pair of over-mittens for someone out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich lag in the team his dry valenki* right up to his bunk (...) or doing the rounds of the store-huts...' This operation was repeated everyday methodically and endlessly. Early in the morning, whilst it was still dark outside and with sub-zero temperatures to face, the only companion prisoners had were their own thoughts: 'There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning muster - in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work. You lose your tongue. You lose all desire to speak to anyone.'
There are two elements that make 'One Day...' a valuable and timeless literary piece of work. One is structure and the other one language.
At least in my Penguin copy (first published in 1963) there are not breaks in the story. No chapters or middle-of-the-page dividers to indicate that the action will change place or focus on another or other character(s). This set-up allows the reader to follow the plot continuously and without interruption and it helps understand the main character's plight better.
The language is short and snappy and since I can't speak Russian, I don't know whether this works in the novella's favour or not. As regular readers, fellow bloggers and followers will know by now when it comes to translation I am usually cautious. But, although I am unable to speak that Slavic language, I think the translation from Russian to English was very professionally and accurately done and as a consequence the narrative flows effortlessly.
The reason for Ivan Denisovich's imprisonment is a stupid one and it exposes the cruelty and political blindness of Stalin's dictatorship. Shukhov is sentenced to ten years for allegedly being a spy. The reality is rather different, though. Ivan is captured by the Nazis and manages to escape. Yet, instead of finding empathy in his comrades from the Red Army when he re-joins them he is immediately arrested and sent to Siberia.
The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had first-hand experience of life in a gulag since he spent eight years in one for having criticised Stalin. It is this personal touch that gives the novel its authenticity and its resemblance to a memoir and the reason why I think it ought to be a must-read for anyone keen to find out the calamitous effects of absolute power and the cult of personality.
*Valenki: Knee-length felt boots for winterwear.
Next post: 'A Cuban In Cuba (Music)' to be published on Thursdy 28th May at 11:59pm (GMT)