This book’s greatness lies not because of any complexity but because of its seeming utter simplicity, which when taken in context of the subject matter leaves the reader with a sense of horror.
The crime of Soviet Russia under Stalin against its own people is today a well documented fact and it is Solzhenitsyn, a victim himself, who was one of the first to start the movement. Even though the facts are well known, they in no way prepare you for a personal journey through the mind and eyes of someone who has been directly a part of it.
The book is a chronicle of one day of a prisoner called Ivan Denisovich, a carpenter, who is numbered S-854, in an unnamed Siberian camp. What makes this book so believable in the first place is that Ivan Denisovich (or Sukhov as he is called in the book usually) is an absolutely ordinary person who would normally be living a quiet unobtrusive life somewhere. He does not have an ‘education’ and has lived the life of a craftsman – a carpenter. For this reason, he does not have an ideological or political underpinning to his condition and this is what make the book and its account an account of the ordinary men and women. Because the book then becomes one of survival – while trying best to maintain a modicum of dignity and self respect. It also becomes an account of compromise, in many strange ways.
Sukhov makes the reader go through his day with its difficulties and small joys and peppers it with his observation. Any person who has read prison accounts would know that prison changes priority of things and small things become things of great importance. We understand that in theory. What Sukhov does is that he makes the importance of those small things so obvious that you would find yourself believing in it and agreeing even before you know it – like the spoon that has been with him for eight years or a piece of steel that he risked punishment to smuggle in to the camp. He makes these things seem so much like everyday life and of so high importance that you are forced to jolt yourself out of the book at times to realize that what is being described is a part of history that is shameful, a part in which the prisoners were treated as mere commodity and worse and that this was a life that was utterly brutal and inhuman. Then you realize that the perspectives are different – you would be looking at the experience from a distance in time and would be taking a mere historical overview. Sukhov, on the other hand is trying to get by each day and things that would not strike us as essential to us becomes a matter of life and death in the camp – something that an old hand like Sukhov understood implicitly without dwelling too much on them.
For example, the need to keeping some bread on the side (hidden, sewn away in his mattress)for emergency or the cunning needed to get a second helping of a bowl of mess food which was more water than food is given the importance that it had in their lives. The importance of the work gang in their lives and the small things necessary to keep their body warm while working in freezing cold on things which seem unnecessary is shown starkly.
The slow and unconscious dehumanization or should we call it de-civilization is shown brilliantly . He lives only in the present out of sheer necessity and out of habit. At one time he dwells on the fact that he does not have any responsibility except for himself – the higher ups make all the decisions for him and it suited him just fine. He makes references to the casual and often unnecessary brutality of the guards but not out of any real anger – they are just doing what they are supposed to do and you did your best to do things without getting caught. His personal references are scant – we are told he has a family in his village. He had told his wife not to write letters anymore since there was nothing that he could write and he could not relate anymore to the ‘outside’ world. We are left to judge for ourselves whether this is escapism or realism or both working in tandem. His family is his work gang and his father is the gang boss who takes care and looks out for them. He wonders whether he actually wants to go back to his village if the authorities ever let him go. He realizes he does not know whether he can fit back. The things which we hold to be so self-evidently important and feel so emotional about have become a world which exist only in the abstract for him.
It is a Kafkaesque world which is a truth in itself. There are higher-ups who are mysterious and the only point of contact for the prisoners to this mystery are the wardens and guards – victims of different sorts themselves.
There are two parts of the book that I found particularly terrifying. The first one is that when the prisoners are hurrying to get back to their own camp from the work camp before its gets cold and before the other work gangs come and fill up the places they want to go – mess, barber etc. We understand that this is one time of the day that they get for themselves and they want to get there as soon as they can. When one of the members is missing because he had fallen asleep, the prisoners howl at him like animals and are literally ready to kill him with their bare hands because by being late, he had ended up making everyone lose time. Even a normally sane Sukhov is ready to tear out the late prisoner’s limbs. The guards count again and again and then they set off. On the way they see that another work gang was coming late. On seeing this, Sukhov’s gang start running inspite of exhaustion just so that they get ahead of this gang and save some time. The race is shown as vitally important to their survival. This almost necessary anger born out of lack of anything else to direct it to is one of the chilling passages.
By far the most terrifying part comes at the end when Ivan Denisovich looks back at his day and feels that it has been a ‘great day’ – he could preserve the extra bread he had saved, he was able to get two extra helping of the food, he managed to smuggle a piece of steel that he could use for making a knife, he had felt good making a wall as prison work, he had bought off some tobacco and he had not been put in the cooler (punishment cell). He felt good and he felt at home…