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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Signet Classics
by Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn
Publisher: Signet Classics
Mass market paperback, 176 pages
Price: $5.95

The wrongfully imprisoned Shukhov's optimism is at once uplifting and heartbreaking. Of course it's not unadulterated optimism—it's the optimism of a man resigned, a realist's appreciation of the small (to us, the smallest) joys in life, not least of which is life itself. Solzhenitsyn's biting exposé of Soviet prison camps in the arctic Siberian desert is also a hymn of tribute to the men inside, and a challenge to the Soviets that the human spirit is stronger than the burden of torture and forced labor.

You might think a whole book about one day of a prisoner's life would be pretty boring, but you'd be wrong. Though Solzhenitsyn manages to convey the boredom of the workers, the narrative is crisp and well-paced (and far shorter than most Russian novels). Perhaps because his circumstances are so foreign to Western readers, even the most menial duties are fascinating, though that could simply be the author's brilliant use of language and have nothing to do with the content.

Which is uncompromisingly brutal at times. The deprivations to which the prisoners are subjected bring out in some of them gentleness and quiet faith (as with the Baptist), but far more often behavior resembling that of caged animals. They fight, they are selfish, they swear mightily because that is the last refuge of men without autonomy, the only rebellion of which they are capable. But Shukhov moves quietly through routine, upsets no one, eats in silence and finds a measure of satisfaction in performing his work with the same care he would as a free man. The tragedy of such nobility unjustly brought to heel by a faceless dictatorship is only surpassed by the prisoner's glorious ability to deny the Communists by making of their inhumanity his own redemption.

Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 while the Soviets still ruled Russia. Having experienced the gulags himself as a prisoner, his writings about them are far more immediate and compelling than mere fiction can usually achieve. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not just about one man—it is about the whole Russian people, oppressed for centuries yet unwilling or unable to capitulate. This is an incredibly dark, gritty novel, and yet one finishes it not with a sense of despair, but with the sense that mankind does not and never will have the power to destroy itself, as long as common men breathe and have souls.

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