One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005. 182 pgs. Fiction
Into the backlist for one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag because as a Soviet soldier in World War II he was captured by the Germans and after his release, accused of treason since he had been hanging around with Germans. The book begins as the zeks, or prisoners, are awakened by the banging of a hammer on the railing of the admin building and are happy that it is only thirty degrees below zero instead of the expected forty. During the remainder of the day, Ivan Denisovich is working hard: to stay warm, to form up the brickwork well on his day's assignment, to get a little extra bread here, some gruel there, and to avoid going to The Hole for hanging on to a bit of steel blade which he can form into a shoemaker's awl. What is most astonishing about Ivan's life, and that of his campmates is not the suffering, which from our perspective of comfort and peace is unimaginable, but the matter-of-fact manner in which the prisoners accept their situation and adapt to it. Based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences as a prisoner who served ten years for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend, One Day in the Life of Denisovich is a classic in both expression and themes. Best not to read it if you are having a whiny day.