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11 July 2013

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn translated by Ralph Parker

Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition

I read this book when I was 17 years old, which is a long time ago... I liked it very much and found it dynamic and touching.  My memories of this book included the rhythm of Ivan laying bricks in order to build a wall and keep warm.  I was curious to see how my perspective would have changed and if I would enjoy it as much as I did the first time.  I plunged in and enjoyed.  This book is straight forward, unadorned and unsentimental. By this description I would be tempted to call another book boring but not this book.  Many people who write soon learn one of the best pieces of advice is to tell it (action) not describe it.  Well this book is all action, every gesture and shiver is real and necessary, no extras...

On my first reading, 22 (more or less) years ago,  all I could think of was the cold in Siberia and how Ivan treats the cold.  All the work the prisoners in his camp do is to be able to keep warm through labor.  This time around I notice all the blessings Ivan feels he has received in this day.  He has dignity and gratitude.  His pragmatic approach to life in the Gulag is in keeping with the diminished life he has in terms of love and goods.  But, instead of bitterness or groveling he arranges his life so that he harms none and survives at the same time.  On the other hand, Ivan is no hero. He will steal, cheat and avoid jobs if he can, after all, he must survive.  I am proud to report that I went from noticing the physical deprivations to noticing the inner strengths.

The world was changing at the time I first read this book.  The Cold War was ending, the first Gulf War was going on and young people around me felt extremes... some thought it was the end of the world and some thought it was the beginning of peace, a fresh start.  Five years later I had an email address and was communicating with my family cheaply and quickly over long distances.  We all learnt to type (more or less... ehem...)  Perhaps the horrors of the Gulag and others like it were coming to an end.  Now I look around and wars are still going on, crimes against humanity are still occurring and governments all over the planet are killing their own citizens.  On the other hand, people are coming together worldwide in ways that I could not have imagined, this blog is an example.  Then I look at Ivan Denisovich again.  I realize that the human condition is a personal, private balance between hope and despair.  Technology, guns, fences, mad dictators, ecologists, government agencies etc. are in fact herding cats.  Cats are self contained, you can train them in vague ways but a cat is a cat.  I use cats as an example because dogs have been bred over the millennia to favor certain traits and to look certain ways, but cats, well, in spite of considerable effort cats are the same animals the Egyptians were mummifying several millennia ago.  You see my point?  Human nature remains the same, technology or dictatorships change.

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' shows all kinds of characters.  There are leaders, cheaters, criminals, young, old, powerful, weak, sad, happy, confused, angry... Ok I'll stop now.  My amazement is that one cold, hard day (in a mercifully brief book, I mean I did read 'The Cancer Ward' but it took forever) can illuminate humans at their worst and at their best.  Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition.  Camps like those in Stalinist Russia still exists.  There are still multitudes suffering torture and humiliation; sometimes governments justify these detention centers, camps or reeducation centers with the protection and safety of the same citizens incarcerated.  Weird.  Humans do not fundamentally change.  People will be cowards or rich or greedy or dishonest or (horror) disagree with current authority, but mass extermination and torture will not change humanity one bit.  A book like 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is one of the many signs that this is so.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 
ISBN: 9780141184746 


  1. I think I may re-read the book again too; it was just as long ago and I remember many of the same things. Your post puts life into a broad perspective.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I am happy that it has inspired you to read it again. This short book should be read often...