Set in a post-war Stalinist labour camp, this novel, as the title suggests, centres on a single day in the life of ‘political prisoner’ Ivan Denisovich, from (before) sunrise to (well after) sunset. As one might imagine, Ivan has little to look forward to on this ‘typical’ day in the camp; ultra sub-zero temperatures, horrendous food, forced labour, and incessantly picky guards all await him, and his fellow inmates. As harrowing as the day is though, this day actually turns out to be one of the ‘better’ ones, which although bringing a little cheer to Ivan, leaves the reader puzzling (and more than a little shocked), over what must constitute a ‘bad’ day in one of these places.
Comprising of a mere 143 pages, I finished reading this classic rather speedily, although perhaps not as ‘speedily’ as I would have, if I were reading a novel that originated in English. As a qualified historian I’m wholly familiar with clumsy translations, and sadly this translated novel is no different. So if you’re planning on reading this yourself, then be prepared to re-read a number of the sentences, in order to fully decipher their full meaning. Don’t let that put you off though (or from reading any translated Russian literature for that matter), as the minor hindrance caused by having to pause and re-read, is completed negated by the quality of this work.
Along with other works that he penned during the 1960’s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got himself into a lot of bother from the Soviet authorities for writing this novel, and after reading it, it’s clear to see why. Aided by more than a liberal dose of anti-Stalinist sentimentality, Mr. Solzhenitsyn pulls no punches in describing the conditions in Soviet labour camps. Given that he himself spent eight years in these camps, after the war, this is no surprise, but because Mr. Solzhenitsyn was able to infuse his own experiences into this novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an absolute ‘must read’. Just don’t expect to leave your chair in any kind of cheery mood.
Favourite quote: “There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning muster – in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work. You lose your tongue. You lose all desire to speak to anyone.”
Favourite scene: Breakfast in the mess-hall. The description of what the prisoners ate and how they ate it is gross ‘to the max’. Very memorable and hugely powerful!!
What this novel has taught me about writing: Life experience can enrich a novelist’s work immeasurably. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent 8 years interned in Russian labour camps (followed by 3 more in exile) and this is clearly evident in the detail of this novel, and the depth of emotion it contains. Perhaps this advocates, although not exclusively, a policy of choosing a subject to write about that you have personal experience and knowledge of.