“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is, as the title suggests, a simple story of one day in the life of Ivan Shukov Denisovich, a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp. Shukov, a simple Russian peasant fighting for Stalin in WWII, is imprisoned for treason — a crime he did not commit — and has spent the last 8 years in concentration camps. Shukov’s day begins at 5.00 a.m. with the clang of the reveille— he is, along with the other prisoners, marched out into the bitter cold, stripped and searched for forbidden objects, and then sent to work until sundown. Without rest, without a full stomach. In this slim 143 page-novella, we follow Shukov’s grueling routine and see how he struggles to maintain his dignity in small, subtle ways. On this day, he has scored some small triumphs for himself – he has swiped an extra bowl of mush at supper, found a piece of metal that can be used as a knife to mend things, replenished his precious tobacco supplies and also has had a share of a small piece of sausage before lights out. Thus, at the end of the day (and the novel), he thinks to himself that it has been “A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.” He must survive only another 3653 days more.
In 1945, at the height of the Cold War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in forced labor camps and later exiled to Kazakhstan for making a derogatory comment about Stalin in a private letter to his friend. Drawing from his own experiences, Solzhenitsyn wrote this book in order to expose the horror and the staggering injustice of the Soviet gulags. When it was first published in 1962, it became a loud, courageous public statement against Stalin’s terrible regime in the Soviet, and his publisher famously said, “There's a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.” For his bold novel, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is a short read, and is written in the third-person perspective. Because it is not driven by a grand plot, Solzhenitsyn focuses on the minutiae details of his characters and of life in labor camps, and manages to bring out the personality and history of the supporting characters through the protagonist. His style is taut and compact; he uses carefully crafted language and wastes no words. Without sentimentality, without exaggerating details, he brings home the horror and desperation of his prisoners. More interestingly, he manages to make the text sparkle with endurance and grim humor even in the face of extraordinary adversity.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is a tale without a real plot, but it is rich with compelling details, strong emotions, ironies and implications. Ivan’s quiet rebellion, his unpretentious fight for dignity touches the reader deeply. Towards the end, Ivan says, “We’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing, till it’s over.” It is this kind of simple strength of a simple soul that remains with you for a long time after finishing the book. You will not regret picking up this book.
Book Reviewed by Manjushree Hegde
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