"Almost a happy day."
Most of the articles that have appeared since the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Sunday have focused on his political role as “the conscience of a nation whose writings exposed the horrors of the Communist Gulag and galvanised Russian opposition to the tyranny of the Soviet Union” as The Times put it.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Solzhenitsyn’s deeply political books should be viewed in this way, especially as he ended up on the right side of history, but it’s a shame that these early judgments have underplayed his greatness as a writer.
I spent much of my childhood in the Scottish version of the Gulag, known as a boarding school, and I can still clearly remember my absorption in both The First Circle and One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich; I have the well-thumbed copies beside me now. The genius of a great writer like Solzhenitsyn is both to both make his fantastic and distinctively Russian world as unique as a Siberian snowflake and yet to let it cover the earth with its truths about the human condition.
I read Cancer Ward when Frayed and I took the Tran Siberian Express to Moscow a few years ago. I took it up without enthusiasm—does anyone start a book with such a title eagerly?—but within a few pages I was drawn into the claustrophobic world of the hospital as completely as I had been transported to the prison camps 30 years earlier. Cancer Ward is a wise, readable, and even funny book—I was so delighted to rediscover my old friend Aleksandr as I bumped over the rails of his native land. What makes Solzhenitsyn's books so strangely alive is the way the characters’ little lives are starkly etched against the vast immovable backdrop of the institution, whether the hospital, prison camp, or simply “the system”, as in another great novella, For the Good of the Cause.
As`any Singaporean will tell you, it is the littleness of things that drives the totalitarian state. This is something Solzhenitsyn understood so well.
It is the minutiae that will get you committed:
She swallowed: “I don’t understand … What was it you actually did?”
“What did we do?” He drew on his cigarette and blew out the smoke. What a big man he was, and how tiny the cigarette looked. “I told you, we were students. If our grants allowed it, we drank wine. We went to parties. And you know, they arrested the girls as well. They all got five years.” He looked at her intently. “Imagine it happening to you, being taken away just before your second semester exams and put in a dungeon.” (Cancer Ward)
And it is the minutiae that will pull you through.
Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him cells; they hadn’t sent his squadron to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought the tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.” (the end of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich)
Anyone who has fought the suffocating power of the institution will understand that passage.