One Day in the Life of Ivan Solzhenitsyn

Oops!  Did I put that in the title? 

Indeed, this novel, the chronicle of a single day from sun-up to bed-time and the thoughts as falling asleep, seems to be drawn from Solzhenitsyn's rich background of Gulag time.  What impresses me about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the rich detail with which Solzhenitsyn adorns a story of sameness.

In different scenes we have intimate looks at bricklaying, at collecting food, buying tobacco, at causes for incarceration.  There is obsessive and compulsive detail about food eaten, hoarded, scavenged, hoarded, and at least one bad choice.  (Rather than stowing the fresh bread he's just gotten in the mattress, he eats some of it and keeps the old bread in the mattress--what for?  It's just going to rot.

We have the details of life in a prison camp--the cold, the clothing, the routine, the brutality--not so much physical, although there are clear hints of that, but psychological--getting people out of bed three times during the night to count them again--making an entire group wait in negative temperatures while they are counted again and again. 

The savagery of life is intimately detailed, and yet curiously, there is something flat and dull about it all.  All stemming from the final waking thought of Ivan Denisovich.  "The three extra days were for the leap years. . . " 

Solzhenitsyn's tale of prison life is approachable and accessible.  I first read it in high school as a toss-off read when there was nothing else to hand.  I remembered virtually nothing of it, because there is virtually nothing memorable about it.  And ironically, that is what makes it worth reading and worthwhile.  Because in chronicling this life that is not worth remembering, Solzhenitsyn, speaking from the prison camp, speaks a curious message of mingled hope and despair.  All of our days are like this day, counted out, lived as best we can live them.  Some as prisoners of the state, some as prisoners of the self--never released, never given a rest break, driven on in the same cold bleak midwinter.

Perhaps that is reading too much into it.  But One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is worth reading for what it has to say about how we survive in reduced circumstances and what reduced circumstances do to us as people.  A tale of prison-camp life that has much to say about life in general--where there is hope, where there is a reason for continuing.

recommended ****1/2


  1. Steven,

    What I found fascinating was to read Solzhenitsyn's _One Day_ back-to-back with Dostoyevsky's _The House of the Dead_, which is based on his experiences in a Siberian camp under the czars.


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