Russia: cold comfort
January 24, 2012
‘How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?’
I’m being a bit self-indulgent here given the hundreds of excellent and intriguing contemporary Russian novels out there. But the truth is, I’ve been wanting to read this book nearly half my life, ever since one of my A-level English teachers described how she’d spent one Christmas absorbed in it in her teens.
I’m not the first to feel this way. When it was published in the journal Novy Mir (New World) in November 1962, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s portrait of life in the Siberian Gulag, which drew on his own eight years imprisonment in labour camps, flew off the shelves, causing the magazine to sell out, whipping up international outrage and eventually leading to his deportation on the grounds that he opposed the principles of the Soviet Union. (He was allowed back and award the Nobel Prize in the end, but not for long time.)
One of the Ronseal school when it comes to titles, the novel does exactly what its name suggests: it follows one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich (or Shukhov), through a single day. Yet this window of time and experience becomes the prism through which Solzhenitsyn diffracts the Gulag system, separating out its psychological, political, emotional and sociological impact on the prisoners, the guards and the wider world for all to see.
When your world is shrunk to a single punishing routine, little things come to matter very much: the mittens you hide under your pillow, the piece of bread squirreled into an inner pocket, the trowel concealed in the wall because it is slightly better than the others and will help you work faster. Dignity and identity also shrink but are not extinguished: they persist in your pride at not scrounging, in playing fair with your peers, in finding little loopholes through which to gain an extra portion by rendering someone a service.
Likewise, the guards are diminished and hardened by their daily efforts to limit and control the existence of others. Meanness glimmers in the thermometer placed in a sheltered corner so that it never drops below the -41 degrees that would enforce a day off work and in the carelessness that sees prisoners hauled out of bed again and again to be recounted.
The narrative reflects this shrinking, slipping into the present second person now and then, as though the reader is a new arrival whom Shukhov has taken under his wing and is showing the ropes. So engrossing is the text (which features on the Translators Association’s list of 50 Outstanding Translations from the Last 50 Years), that it can be quite jolt to find yourself looking up and realising you are not in the Gulag anymore.
All of which is doubly impressive because, really, this is a novel that shouldn’t work. If Solzhenitsyn had submitted it to the weekly workshop on my UEA Creative Writing master’s course, I can imagine the group sitting round, shaking its head, telling him that though the prose was well-written, there was a fundamental problem with the plot. ‘A man getting up, going to work, going back and going to bed is not a story,’ we would have told him. ‘Nothing happens. Nothing changes. Try again.’
What we would have missed is that the change that this book brings about is in its readers. Through immersing us in the details of the Gulag life and making us feel what it is like to have to bank all your happiness and comfort on the ability to secure an extra minute’s rest or a slurp more of cold gruel, Solzhenitsyn bridges the barrier between the imprisoned and the free.
How can a man who is warm understand one who’s cold? Well perhaps he can’t. But he could try reading this book.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated from the Russian by Ralph Parker). Publisher (this edition): Penguin Classics (2000)