Tuesday 26 May 2009

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Review)

'This is no time for my country right or wrong/
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)

Copyright 2009


  1. My first and only reading of this novel was in the late 1970s, when the "Cold War" was still very cold. Your review, CiL, raises three thoughts in my mind.

    The book was as much a political tool for the West as it was a literary masterpiece in those times. It would be impossible for me to separate those two elements. I suppose I am slower to tear down mental walls than I would be to reduce concrete ones.

    My own life experience includes working inside a state prison, and the contrast between life in a gulag and life for "real" criminals in an American prison system is stark. This adds to the absolute horror of the then-Soviet system as it once existed.

    Finally, I would have hoped for you to share some personal expressions regarding your native land and its modus operandi for "handling" political dissidents. Maybe another time for that?

  2. Whoops! I left out the most important words. Thank you, CiL, for another most excellent commentary and review.

  3. I am glad, you featured a book of Solhenitzyn, or 'Solzeniczyn' as we would write in some Slavic languages. Reading reviews from your book brought me memories from my childhood. We read many of such books, learning about horrors of communism, and preparing for changes that later happened accross the bloc in late 80'ies. I personally read some of Solzeniczyn's books in Polish, or Russian, so it is difficult to comment on quality of translation into English. However, I would happily read the English version to check, whether 'the feeling' of reading the book would be similar.

    In any case, THANK YOU for this. Well done!


  4. Many thanks to you both for your kind comments. In regards to the link between the Soviet labour camps and their replicas in Cuba, we did have them, Fram. They were called ironically Military Units in Support of Production (UMAPs) and they appeared in the mid 60s. To say that they were terrible would be the understatement of the century. Anyone with long hair, religious beliefs, effeminate gestures or just out of the template that that stalwart of Latin American machismo, Che Guevara, called 'the new man', ended up in these camps. I did not want to include this type of experience in my review for two reasons. Number one is that 'A Day...' is harsh enough as it is, it doesn't need adding up. And secondly, it would have made the review a bit too long for my liking and repetitive, too. I included my own life experiences in the Marilyn French one.

    Kacper, I have nothing but respect for someone who has read this monumental novel in both Polish and Russian. It must read and even, more importantly, sound so different and so much better, dare I say.

    Many thanks to you both for your comments. I'll pop round your cyber houses tonight.

    Greetings from London.

  5. You know, it often shocks me how much pain you can experience just by the realization that all that actually happened to someone living, someone real.

  6. Good evening to you Mr C,

    When I see the title of that book I feel cold and I remember I felt cold all through the reading of it.

    Happy Days

  7. Cuban this is a wonderful review. I know exactly what you are talking about regarding the labour camps. As to your new blog look, I am so impressed and so pleased!!! It is BEAUTIFUL!!!!!

  8. This is important material, but I don’t think I could bear reading the book. Your summary still makes me feel like I did. Thank you! I read many holocaust books that still haunt me. There’s a wonderful and disturbing novel about prison life – The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly. It’s all especially relevant now with Obama reviewing Guantanamo Bay prison policy. If we could only get beyond hunger and pain....

  9. Cubano,
    Love, love the new look! That quote sums up Cuba so well. I have always found Russian writers to craft prose that is much like their landscape--stark, harsh and bleak. I experience everything I read on an emotional level so I can't stomach too many novels like these but I feel like you relayed enough of the idea so I get the picture!

  10. I have just finished teaching this book to my sixth form group...it is hard for them to understand that this is the first time that the horrors of the Stalin Regime were exposed. I think it really exemplifies one of Levi's conclusions in his text that just as perfect happiness is impossible so the reverse is true and perfect unhappiness is impossible...for Ivan to find such happiness in such dire circumstances is really testament to the triumph of the human spirit... and I always feel some satisfaction when my students grasp this and other important point made in this book. Thanks for the review...Greetings from the Big taco..

  11. Fantastic new banner, and thanks so much for the review.

    What do you think, Cuban in London, about the fact that such great works of art are created by people who are oppressed. What has come out of Russia since the end of the Soviet era, that can compare?

    Is it true that suffering is one of the ways that humans access the creative matrix? I'm so curious to hear what you think.

    Thank you!

  12. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    In terms of suffering begetting greatness, I am with you, Reya. For memoirs and autobiographies all you need to do is check the following names: Mandela, Jung Chang and Primo Levi. I'm sure that they would have preferred to forgo the pain but in the circumstances in which they lived and the monumental books they left behind I sometimes feel selfish when I've gone back and reread one of these books and found it to be as enthralling as it was the first time around. Yes, we forget sometimes that another human being had to suffer for me to enjoy a particular book. So, yes, suffering is definitely one of the ways in which humans display their creativity.

    Catherine, never mind you students, there are still people here in your country of origin who refuse to believe that Stalin was capable of murdering innocent people. Go figure.

    Fly Girl, Sarah and Delwyn, I totally understand you. I felt so cold whilst reading the novel and my eyes began to squint (according to one of my work colleagues).

    Phoenix, I'm the kind of reader who gets really drawn into books. I will never forget about ten years ago the look on the face of one of the passengers who was travelling in the same carriage as me, on the tube. She was looking at me in astonishment. And all because I was crying. And I didn't know it. The book I was reading? Maya Angelou's first volume of her autobiography and the part where she detailed how she was abused by her mum's boyfriend and the silence in which she decided to drape herself for many years thereafter.

    Yoli, many thanks. It was hightime my blog had a makeover.

    Greetings from London.

  13. no chapters or breaks in the story? that's interesting, you don't see that too often.

    and this man's day, it just makes me glad that even though my days aren't great, they aren't like his

    on another note, thanks for noticing that.
    we do decide the aspect of state, I realized that actually while i was writing it. I state it near the end of the post

  14. Your book reviews are so thoughtfully written....you have that third eye my friend......reading between the lines. Another fine job sir and greetings from America :)

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  15. Really like the new look you've come up with..
    and thanks for the re-introduction to "One Day...", read so long ago.
    I remember it as you do, as if I were the prisoner, a survivor of the most wicked.... It's funny about ethnicity, being of Russian heritage, I had a real empathy.

  16. Thank you very much dear CIL to remind me of the half shelf of books in my book case which contains my "Russian Section" (mine the Bantam books 1963 translation by Ronald Hingley and Max Hayward). It has been many years since I read this one, as the yellowed pages of the paperback attest. Having said that, your review has motivated me to pick it up and read it again.

    The edition I have contains Solzhenitsyn's letter of protest against censorship which was a letter written to the Soviet Congress of Writers in 1967. It is an interesting read, particularly as he lays out the injustices he has endured in the censorship of his work. These sort of injustices are still suffered by many writers the world over. I was struck by how much has not changed in this world since 1967.

  17. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Lyn, so you have Russian blood coursing through your veins. That's interesting. Ta muchly.

    Peggy, I think, unless I'm mistaken, that the translation you have was the more accurate one and the one with which Solzhenitsyn himself was more satisfied. Thanks for passing by.

    Greetings from London.

  18. Hello dear Mr Cuban,
    oh..you take me back to my college years when i read this book..
    arrgh...the goulag's reality is something never to be left in oblivion just like nazi concentration camps...any concentration camp..

    thank you for this great post !

    ps : on a sweet/bitter note, i was sorry your little one got sick after going to los Italianos. In fact, you know, it must be hard to find non-dairy products in the heladerias in Granada. I'll check it up for you ! :-)

    et..félicitations pour ce nouveau look!

  19. Thanks, my castle, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Again, a poignant and insightful review of a favorite from long ago. "A Day in the Life" has always helped to give me a renewed perspective on the blessings and gifts of a life that is free (mine) and how so many who came before me paved and paid the price so that it could be so.

    It doesn't matter that we are in different countries so much but that we are all participants in the human condition. If desired, we can all be influenced, impacted and even blessed by the sacrifices of others who have come before us. If we take the time to read, to learn, to teach and to share, we are able to create that beautiful inter-connectivity that occurs between people and perpetuates itself so that we touch each others lives for good...for progress and for improvement.

    Many thanks again for your apropos insights and thoughtful reviews.

  21. Many thanks to you, Tracy, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.



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