Prisoner Rights with Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a “slice of life” novella that describes a single day in a Serbian labor camp through the eyes of a single prisoner who is only a few years away from the end of his ten-year sentence.

Generally speaking, when an author (or a movie) is trying to introduce a brand new world, they use an audience stand-in, a new person who is going to ask all the same questions the audience has.  Using Ivan Denisovich, or Shukhov, as he is usually referred to in the book, was better in this instance because he knew all the nuances about the prison and how the system worked.  He would occasionally comment on them or suggest someone else was violating an unspoken norm.  When we hear about his former life, they are only vague glimpses, and he acts as though it is another world long dead whereas a new person may still be hopeful of going back to it.  Mostly, this highlights the cruelty of the system.

He also does this with his descriptions of the setting.  Obviously, the area is below freezing, and describing how quickly the mortar freezes is an indication of how difficult it is for people to work like this.

The people in the prison make it even worse, as the policies are designed to turn the “zeks” (prisoners) against each other and to give power to the guards, who treat them more as cattle than people.  This results in a world where everyone is distrustful of everyone else.  You have a small group of people you look out for but, otherwise, you must do what you can to help yourself.  The authorities will not ensure you have enough to eat, warm clothes, or that your possessions are safe.  Only you can do that.

The most important thing to remember is that it is titled “one day.”   The book is less than 200 pages long, but the single day fills every one of them, showing how long it is.  Most writing advice you will hear when beginning a story is, “What makes this day different than all of the others?”  But Solzhenitsyn chose a different path.  “There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch.”  This further shows the cruelty of prison, if this is the work they have to do every single day.  In fact, Shukhov calls this a “good day” because he did good work and got a little extra food.  If that is considered a good day, who wants to imagine the bad ones?

The reader is almost halfway through the book before they are told what Shukhov was arrested for.  We have already seen his cold, aching back, and grumbling stomach so that we are sympathetic towards him and his condition before we find out that he didn’t even do anything wrong.  This is Solzhenitsyn’s way of showing how truly inhumane the system is: that the punishment is unfair regardless of the crime.

This is obviously a cause close to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s heart.  The book is told in omniscient 3rd person, but, with less than 30 pages to go, he breaks that barrier and joins the prisoners.  “That’s what everyone used to say: ‘Going home.’  We never had time to think of any other home.”  It pulls you out of the story just enough to cause you to think about who is telling the story, and whether or not it could be more memory than fiction.  Reading the author’s description, you see that he did experience life in a labor camp.  Adding in this personal tone solidifies the problem for the readers, and forces them to consider it in terms of real life rather than fiction.

It is a short book, but it is a huge statement, and every word in it works towards that purpose.

(It’s also the book I used for the “set in another country slot.”

Book Challenge

My most favorite thing about this book:  Towards the end, Shukhov looks down his nose on someone for being nice to people but not trading favors the way prisoners have to do, and then turns around and is nice to the guy anyway.  I think it sums up his character: cynical, hardened, but overall good.

My least favorite thing about this book: The format.  Even in a book as short as this, not being separated at all makes it seem longer.  Of course, this also goes to show how long the day is and works towards the author’s point of the system’s cruelty, but it makes it a difficult read.

Who I would most like to recommend this book to: My poli-sci nerd friend, Caroline!  (Mostly because we discussed this already.)

Where this book sits on my bookshelf:  Well…it’s going to go between The Egypt Game and The Talking Eggs, but…my shelves are kind of in chaos right now, so at the moment, I’m going to stick it in front of The Library Card, until I can get the chaos in order.

(Mom’s putting in new shelves, so my books are a bit homeless just now.)

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