Friday, August 08, 2008

Why the Gulag Speaks to Us

Ashamed to say I'd never read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week. So, with a free morning, I realised I'd a copy of his short novel "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". I'm a great fan of shorter novels - it's a format that seems perfect to certain subjects. Everything in the novel was familiar, I guess, though whether its a case that all prison camps are to some extent the same, or because over the years I've imbibed enough Russian history to recognise what the novel, when it was first published, exposed to the world for the first time. You wonder whether a Guantanamo Bay novel would have a similar effect today - particularly, as the Olympics starts in Beijing, with George Bush, talking about the right to speak freely. Ivan Denisovich is an everyman, and the detailing of his day, with only the briefest of passages about his past life, is a highly effective vehicle to talk about a regime - about our humanity. I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and it is the survival of humanity amidst simply staying alive, which connects the two books. Denisovich, at least in this translation, is a particular type of European literary figure - recognisable from Hamsun's "Hunger" to the workers in Magnus Mills' "The Restraint of Beasts." Even in the straits of his condition there is some dignity in labour - yet at the same time, the worker has to deal with the Kafkaesque absurdities of their bosses. Apparently, it was the dignity of Denisovich's labour that convinced Krushchev of the novel's worth. It seems strange in the modern world, in our advanced, and recently deracinated version of capitalism, how "work" remains such a problematic subject for a novel. I'm not so sure about the dignity of labour; for Solzhenitsyn, I think, in this short novel, its more a case of where work is all there is to keep mind, body and soul together, then it becomes a metaphor for life itself. Denisovich ponders how he, who once provided for his whole family, can now hardly provide for himself. Every step he takes in the novel exposes another absurdity, another compromise.

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