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Posts Tagged ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’

This is my second book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. This is the slim 150-page book which launched Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant literary career and made him one of the twentieth century’s important writers.

The story told in ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘ goes like this. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is serving a ten year sentence in a Russian gulag. There is no reason that he should be in a prison camp, but the government has put him there for an imagined offence. Like the other millions of people that it has put there. The story describes how one typical day goes for him in the camp – how he and his campmates are woken up early in the morning, how it is freezing outside (not freezing but probably -40 degrees Celsius, which is beyond freezing, way beyond freezing), how the food they are given is a thin soupy gruel, how one has to fight and cheat and do all kinds of things to get a little extra food, how there are rules like one can wear only so many layers of clothes while going out to work, how the prisoners are expected to work in the biting cold but are not provided the tools for it, how the whole system is geared to crush one’s spirit but it doesn’t kill a person – there is more, but I’ll stop here. We see things through the eyes of Shukhov (or Ivan Denisovich – the author likes calling him Shukhov) – we go through highs and lows and our heart beats faster when we feel that he might be getting into trouble with the authorities and we pray for him, we rejoice when he is able to get an extra portion of soup or is able to hide his bread successfully or is able to find tar paper and use it to block the windows of the building he is working in so that it keeps the room warm. We become a part of the prison camp and we suffer agony and experience little joys as Shukhov and the other characters in the story go about their day. We look at our own lives, at the luxuries we have, at the food and the clothes we take for granted and which we complain about and we wonder how infinitely more privileged we are (yes, even the poorest of us is more privileged than the prisoner in the gulag). It makes us look at the world with new eyes – how totalitarian governments can give hell to innocent people, how those of us who have never gone through this are incredibly lucky. When I read the last passage in the book –

“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinner time. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the searchpoint. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.
The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.
The extra three were for leap years.”

– when I read that, I cried.

It is so hard to believe that someone can be positive at the end of a day like this. But Shukhov is. And so are many of his fellow campmates. My heart went out to Ivan Denisovich. And to the millions of Ivan Denisoviches who have suffered. And my heart went out to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered himself, and came out on the other side to tell the tale. It is so hard to believe that this book was inspired by real events and all this really happened to Solzhenitsyn and his campmates.

I am glad I finally read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘. This is my first Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. And what a book it is. I thought the book would be too heavy and heartbreaking for me and so I have been sitting on it for years. While reading it, I thought that if things got too hard and tough to read, I will push through and read fast and get through the book. But I am glad I didn’t do that. I gave the book the time and space that it deserved and the book opened its heart and sang its song. It was a beautiful song, an unforgettable song, but it was a heartbreaking song too.

Have you read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘? What do you think about it?

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