One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
I don’t like “best of” lists: it removes the identity of the things you are listing. Likewise, I don’t think it makes sense to name one single book my favourite. But inevitably I’m asked to do so anyway from time to time, and I have to give some kind of answer. Over time my answers have varied, but Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece has been a constant in them.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich will get you an intimate understanding of what life in a Stalinist gulag was like, of course. You’ll get up with Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, early in the morning, and follow him throughout the day, from sleeping hut to sickbay to mess hut, through the labour camp and back. You’ll get to know the complex social rules that governed this environment: the hierarchical status from camp commandant over warders and foremen down to convicts like Shukhov himself, their crafty solutions for gaining some warmth or food, their unpitying harshness toward one another, the way they’d go easy on the relative newcomers.
Above all, you will feel the hunger and the cold. Even when Shukhov rhetorically asks you “Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?,” you will still feel chilled yourself. You’ll fear that others will have been eating Shukhov’s puny breakfast when he arrives a little late in the mess. After Shukhov’s gang is assigned to finish a building in the coming week, in temperatures of twenty below, you’ll cheer when they finally manage to get a stove going, and you’ll feed on the sliver of warmth it produces.
But all that is beside the point, really. The real strength of this book lies in its style. It is direct. It is straightforward. It draws you in and doesn’t let you go, which for a book of only 159 pages is a pleasure. It is just about life in the camp: busy, simple, day to day — no time for any psycho-analysis, deep emotions, or political rhetoric. Not once does Shukhov complain about the inhuman conditions, or otherwise indulge in self-pity. Which convict would have time for such nonsense, anyway? Instead, all his energy is devoted to the struggle for warmth and food — to living. To positive things.
The book’s ending reminds me in a weird way of that of 1984 — that other great classic challenging totalitarianism: