Reading Russia: One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Posted by @ 1:54 am on May 12th, 2009

8I went through high school without having read One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. I read other common high school books, such as A Separate Piece, Catcher In The Rye, A Tale of Two Cities, and a few ones that strike me as odd for high school (Ridley Walker?), but never this one.

I finally read it in January, and I’ve just now got a chance to type some thoughts, which will be very brief, because I did not take notes as I read this one.

Like Night by Elie Wiesel and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, One Day In The Life tells in rather plain, unadorned language (as far as I can tell through the translation) of how a human copes under massive, institutional cruelty, though in this case Denisovich is ‘fictional.’ I’m assuming most of you are very familiar with this book, so I’m not going to really summarize it or anything: there’s the usual intense description of prison camp procedure, the remarking of odd traditions, the listing of ways one might die, etc. The main character must constantly position himself to survive the day. And what I found fascinating in these books is how the daily routine, the little microcosms of the camps, sometimes gave the prisoners respite. I’m thinking here of how Primo Levi’s background as a chemist helped him receive a work detail as an assistant in a laboratory, thus protecting him from the harsh winter.

In One Day In The Life, Denisovich’s background as a bricklayer (I think) gave him this respite. I mean this in a very relative sense here, for the manual labor forced upon the prisoners was harsh, but in its harshness and repetition, Denisovich finds some comfort. The following passage comes from a part of the book that tells of the labor gang’s working on a building’s wall in dead winter, and Denisovich must help a few others lay a concrete wall in the building. As time passes, Denisovich (Shukhov, as he’s named in the book) finds himself enjoying the laying of the concrete blocks:

“Better be off, foreman! You’re needed there more!” (Shukhov generally called him Andrei Prokofyevich, but working as he was now made him the foreman’s equal. He didn’t put it in words to himself – “I’m as good as he is” – just felt it.) “Bloody nuisance, these short working days,” he called out jokingly, as the foreman strode down the ramp. “Just when you’re beginning to enjoy yourself, it’s quitting time.”

Only himself and the deaf man left. No good talking to him. No need, anyway: he’s cleverer than the lot of them, you never have to tell him anything.

Slap on the mortar! Slap on a block! Press it down a bit. Make sure it’s straight. Mortar. Block. Mortar. Block.

The foreman had ordered them not to worry about wasting mortar, to chuck it over the wall and take off. But Shukhov was the sort of fool who couldn’t let anything or anybody’s work go to waste, and nobody would ever teach him better.

Mortar! Block! Mortar! Block!

“Enough, damn it!” Senka shouted. “Time to be off!”

He grabbed a handbarrow and was away down the ramp.

If the guards had set their dogs on him, it wouldn’t have stopped Shukhov. He moved quickly back from the wall to take a good look. All right. Then quickly up to the wall to look over the top from left to right. Outside straight as could be. Hands weren’t past it yet. Eye as good as any spirit level.

He ran down the ramp.

This passage, or rather, this scene in the book really amazes me because of how it shows Denisovich’s commitment to his labor group, to doing good work (though he’ll have to fix any mess the next day), to the routine of the day. I think it’s fair to say that Denisovich gets some enjoyment out of having done a good job on this wall; I think he gets some pride out of making sure the wall is straight and structurally sound. Furthermore, there’s that interesting bit of community between himself and the foreman.

I think my point is that this passage, this entire scene and so on is amazing to me because it seems to exist beyond the world of the labor camp. This little world of labor exists separately from the scavenging world of the camp, from the diseased world of the camp, from the frozen world of the camp, and it is during this scene that I see ‘normal’ human beings working together to build a tiny little wall.

This scene, of all the scenes in the book, really affected me. I’m sorry for the short post here; I’m having trouble explaining what I feel about this passage. I hope to do a better job explaining myself with the next book.

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