I finally finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, liking it much better than I did at the beginning. It’s not easy to get into, either linguistically or as a story; Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is as barbed as the wire around the camp he writes about, full of nonstandard grammar and lexicon, both the “real Russian” words the author salvaged from the nineteenth-century pages of Dahl and the slang of the Gulag. If I hadn’t had Rossi’s The Gulag Handbook (which now, I see, costs $163.83 used—thanks for convincing me to pay $10 for my copy in Ojai in 2002, Eric!) and Carpovich’s Solzhenitsyn’s Peculiar Vocabulary (which isn’t available at all now—again, I paid $10 for my copy back in 2000)—and the unfailing assistance of frequent commenter mab, who checked with her Gulag-survivor friend when she didn’t know the answer to my recondite questions—I’d never have been able to hack my way through it. But I’m glad I did; once I got into the story (and got used to his sentence structure), it became more and more riveting, and I gobbled up the last twenty pages or so in a rush.
What makes the book work is the fact that it’s not (as one might have expected) a catalog of horrors, in which the protagonist suffers every sling and arrow the Gulag could toss at him. Instead, Shukhov (as the author calls him—he’s called “Ivan Denisovich” only by fellow inmates) has a good day; at the end he gives thanks for his extra bowls of soup, the bit of metal he smuggled into his barracks to use for shoe repair (by which he earns a little money on the side), and the fact that he had escaped punishment and his brigade hadn’t gotten sent to the freezing work they had feared. One man from his barracks, who had mouthed off to a guard, is given ten days in the camp jail, and Shukhov reflects: “Ten days! If you had ten days in the cells here and sat them out to the end, it meant you’d be a wreck for the rest of your life. You got TB and you’d never be out of hospitals long as you lived. And the fellows who did fifteen days were dead and buried.” (I quote the translation by Ronald Bingley and Max Hayward, which is truly excellent; unlike many of the translations I’ve seen lately, they never fake it or just skip the hard parts.) We learn about the worst aspects from stories prisoners tell, but our hero, who has learned the art of survival in his eight years in camps (the story is set at the beginning of the year 1951), makes his way through the obstacle course with aplomb, even wondering as he finally lies down for a night’s sleep whether he’d be any happier outside.
Observations on the mores of the camp occur in mordant asides like “Украинцев западных никак не переучат, они и в лагере по отчеству да выкают” (“They simply couldn’t teach Western Ukrainians to change their ways. Even in camp they were polite to people and addressed them by their full name”) and “Чтоб носилки носить — ума не надо. Вот и ставит бригадир на ту работу бывших начальников.” (“You didn’t need any brains to carry a hod. That was why Tyurin gave this work to people who used to run things before they got to the camp.”) By the end, you’ve learned some survival lessons you hope you will never need, and been thrilled by unexpected adventures involving trying to get bricks laid before the mortar freezes and discovering a bit of sharp metal you’d forgotten about just as your brigade is about to be searched. It’s not a cheerful book (and as usual with Solzhenitsyn, there’s hardly anything you could call humor), but I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what Gulag life was like but doesn’t want the grimness of, say, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.
Incidentally, I asked here, “does anyone know if the film made from Aksyonov’s book [Звёздный билет (A Starry Ticket)], Мой Младший Брат, is any good?” I watched it on YouTube, and no, it’s not very good, but one actor, Oleg Dahl (who plays the bespectacled would-be writer Alik) is astonishing—when he’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off him. I was sad to learn from Wikipedia (English, Russian) that he hadn’t even made it to the age of 40. If any readers would like to recommend any of his other movies, I’d be grateful.