Ivan Denisovich

Один день Ивана Денисовича – Александр Солженицын

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded two prizes for the role he played at the front in World War Two yet in 1945 he was arrested and sent to a series of Soviet work camps in the Arctic Circle for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He remained in these camps for 8 years until Stalin’s death, when he was released. Published in 1962 with the approval of Nikita Krushchev, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of Shukhov, a work camp prisoner. This story has been drawn from Solzhenitsyn’s personal experiences and it is for this reason that it is such an informative and insightful book.

This novel is set over the course of a single day. It is a day that starts at 5am and ends at 10pm under the strict orders of the camp officials. Despite not having much of a storyline this book is extremely easy to read and manages to keep its readers’ attention throughout. But how does it do this if there is no plot? Whilst reading this novel I felt like I was continuously being educated about the Stalinist era and learning a much more personal side to it, a side you don’t get to study in the classroom. I was introduced to the characters in such a way that I felt as if I knew them, I could picture them clearly in my mind and most of all I could see how most of them were just normal people. Work camps weren’t full of spies and criminals, there were many people who confessed to apparent crimes in order to put a stop to the interrogations they faced mainly in the form of different methods of torture and there were even prisoners of war who had escaped the Germans and were then accused of being spies. I learnt about the importance a small stone could have in a prisoner’s life and the different mentalities prisoners adopted in order to survive day-to-day without going crazy. One fascinating aspect of the camps was the politics that took place. Each zek (camp prisoner) had his place within his work gang meaning that some zeks enjoyed privileges that others could only dream about. Call me ignorant but I had no idea prior to reading this novel that the politics amongst the prisoners played such an important role in camp life. Of course I knew there were camp officials and guards who maintained order but I discovered that the main authority actually came from the other zeks and the knowledge that one man’s actions could affect the rations his whole gang received for the day.

Due to the theme of the book, it is a nightmare for translators. Solzhenitsyn uses prisoner’s slang and colloquialisms to create the atmosphere that was present in these work camps and as a result, very few translations have captured the essence of his original story. One version that has been personally approved by Solzhenitsyn is Vintage Publishing’s English translation. The literary style of this novel is highly intelligent, switching seamlessly between author and narrator, rather than telling it simply from a third person point of view. This narrative style allows the reader to gain factual knowledge about this era whilst simultaneously gaining an understanding of Shukhov’s character and the mental strength required to survive in those harsh conditions.

One little word of advice: Don’t read this just before going away to Siberia as it doesn’t exactly fill you with hope for the coming winter months and below freezing conditions.

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