Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) (translated from the Russian by Ron Hingley and Max Hayward) – Has Solzhenitsyn experienced a sales bump from being name-checked by Jordan Peterson, I wonder? Either way, I picked this one up at the usual getting place, the library sale. He’s been enlisted — volunteered, really — to be the literary placeholder for the totalitarianism thesis, the idea that the Gulag was the same as the Holocaust and therefore we need to destroy Vietnam/cut the marginal tax rate/not use trans peoples pronouns. My understanding is that started backfiring a little once the Soviet Union actually fell and he was still around, saying weird shit about the Jews and publishing unreadable novels, but by then the job had been done.
That’s not quite the figure we have here- the Cold War martyr-saint/embarrassing uncle. In “Ivan Denisovich” he’s near the beginning of his career. The novel is exactly what it says it is- a description of one day in the life of a relatively “standard” gulag prisoner. Ivan Denisovich is not notably political- he’s in there because he got captured by the Nazis during WWII, and it was assumed many of the Soviet soldiers who were captured had been turned into spies. The book is short and the prose is brisk.
Politics doesn’t really enter it, not openly, anyway. No one really seems to care about communism- no “re-education,” no lectures from commissars. If anything, that could be the point- what defines “Ivan Denisovich” is power, pure and simple; its use, abuse, and avoidance. Over the course of the day Ivan needs to negotiate several different power structures, from the doctors to the work gangs to the kitchen gangs and the guards and on and on. He’s always cold and usually hungry, with only porridge to look forward to. He’s not a big man in the prison, but he’s not at the bottom of the pecking order either. He’s a capable worker, which helps. Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of work are probably the highlight of the book. Building walls in the middle of nowhere, presumably to house more prisoners to the do the same thing… if Cold War academics didn’t bound up the Gulag, the terror, the famines, and everything else bad the Soviets did (or didn’t) into one big ball of associations, the takeaway of “Ivan Denisovich” would be the meaningless misery, identical to that practiced by numerous other systems, of what was supposed to be a wholly new kind of society. ****