Sunday, November 02, 2008

the last book I read

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an inmate in a Siberian prison camp for dissidents against the rule of Josef Stalin. During the course of a single day he has a series of zany slapstick adventures, while trying to avoid finding out the result of the top-of-the-table clash between Moscow United and Omsk Rovers.

Actually, no, it's not quite like that. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an inmate in a Siberian prison camp for dissidents against the rule of Josef Stalin, and the novel does take place over the course of a single day, but otherwise it's more in line with what you might expect: the grinding hardship, the dreadful food, the forced labour, the boredom, the bitter cold and snow, the arbitrary brutality and injustice, and the relentless de-humanising of the inmates. Solzhenitsyn was writing from bitter personal experience, as he'd been an inmate in a prison camp in Kazakhstan for eight years between 1945 and 1953 (the novel was first published in 1962).

It's very short (143 pages), and written in a very stark and no-frills style; oddly enough though it's not nearly as grim as you might imagine. Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that the day being described here is actually a pretty good one by prison camp standards; Shukhov manages to wangle some extra food (grim grey fishy soup though it may be), his work team spends a day building a wall (a job he quite enjoys), and he even manages to scrounge enough tobacco for a quick snout before bedtime. Of course the very fact that these small victories constitute a good day throws what an average day must be like into sharp relief, and of course Shukhov has ten years' worth of days like this (or worse) to endure.

There must be a sub-genre of books whose plot plays out over the course of a single day (without too many digressions or flashbacks, which would be cheating) - Ian McEwan's Saturday (one of his lumpier and less satisfying novels, in my opinion, incidentally) is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Needless to say Wikipedia has a list, though.

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