One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Review

Name: One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich
Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Year: 1962
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤

How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?… The temperature out there was -27; Shukhov’s temperature was +37. The fight was on.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is in prison and the novel traces one day of his life in it. For a premise, it might seem to be a pretty ordinary premise. I mean not that prison life is dainty and lovely, but that books and movies have sucked out the shock element from it.

I couldn’t be more wrong. As I turned one page after another I realized, and so will any reader who takes the time to read this slim novel, that there was something very intrinsic missing from this prison diary.

Prison diaries invariably talk about the inhuman conditions, the ruthless officers and the tough life that inmates leads. This one does it too, but there is a slight nonchalance with which it talks. The book is written in the voice of an omniscient 3rd person and his manner of narrating incidents are lacking the overtly dramatic tone that usual prison diaries take. The issues at stakes are never exaggerated and no ploy is played merely to get the reader’s attention to the sad and the dreary lives that inmates live.

One Day In the Life of Ivan DenisovichAlexander Solzhenitsyn simply talks to the readers. He places himself in Shukhov’s head at times and simply speaks about events and issues without wanting to elicit sighs and moans. This part of the narrative was what really caught my attention. A prison is a prison. It holds inmates in varying degrees of unbearable pain and this is not any prison we’re talking about. We’re talking about a soviet era gulag.

For someone who is not aware what a gulag is I would suggest imagining a prison where the inmates are mainly imprisoned so that they can be kept alive only to that extent wherein the production of their machinery doesn’t suffer. The inmates are alive, but only just. Shukhov was given 550 grams of bread rations that included a cube of sugar for breakfast.

Food is what drives everyone. With a tight hold on how much one gets, nobody wants to miss even a morsel of this hard to get ration. Even in the very beginning of the novel Shukhov is taken to the office when the orderly realizes that he wasn’t up at the right time. Shukhov is not feeling well so, unlike his usual self, sleeps in for a few minutes beyond the call. He is taken to be thrown in ‘the can’. The can is the prison blockhouse that inmates are thrown into for whatever reasons the orderlies can fathom. Despite the painful duties attached with it, Shukhov thanks his stars because inmates in the can get hot food instead of the plain gruel served by the canteen. What is to be noted in this scene is that Shukhuv pleads with the officer, and the narrator makes it a point to mention that he doesn’t grovel and slavishly begs, but he does plead all the time, secretly hoping that he gets thrown in the can. The protests are just a part of the game. It’s obvious to beg when you’re being punished.

There are many passages that talk about food, but the best one is this:

More than once during his life in the camps, Shukhov had recalled the way they used to eat in his village: whole saucepans of potatoes, pots of porridge and, in the early days, big chunks of meat. And milk enough to split their guts. That wasn’t the way to eat, he learned in camp. You had to eat with all your mind on the food – like now, nibbling the bread bit by bit, working the crumbs up into a paste with your tongue and sucking in into your cheeks. And how good it tasted, that soggy black bread!

Shukhov is a hard worker and is liked by all his gang members for being a decent and a hard working fellow. After all, a slow worker means punishment for the whole gang. A hard worker is a boon.

If I was to sum the novel up I’d say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short account of any human beings life dramatized through the scope of a prison life. The difficulties faced, to some extent, desensitize the prisoners to the aspects of life that an ordinary person would balk at. The author has written about food shortages, about the insane weather of the Russian lands, about the shortages of clothes and even the pros of having a rich inmate in your gang. The dramatic day that Ivan Denisovich Shukhov faces is just one day to the reader. But, when one sits back and imagines it, it is 10 years to him!

It is, after close scrutiny, a question of mind over matter. Shukhov’s character is brimming with optimism. As we reach the end of the novel, despite it being as tough a day as any, we come face to face with never dying spirit and the rawest emotion of survival as it spills forth. Shukhov has had a good day. He was content. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. The author, again, puts it rather nonchalantly. He says:

Shukhov went to sleep content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent the teams to the settlement; he’d pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he’d earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d get over it. A day without a cloud. Almost a happy day.

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.

The three extra days were for leap years.

The effect of reading this novel was not of shock. It didn’t make me drop my novel in disgust at the brutality of the guards or shed a tear for the painful lives lost in those gulags. It was something more. Just like the muted writing of the author had a tone of nonchalance to it, the reaction was something similar. It wasn’t a deafening bomb that explodes and ruins lives in an instant. It was something like a timed fuse hand grenade that explodes after a while. It hits you, yes it does, even while you’re reading it, but the total brunt is felt when one reaches the last page. The last few paragraphs bring the sum total of desperation and the quiet struggle, the silent yearnings, of a prisoner who has decided already to look to the future with hope, but at the same time, the effect of imprisonment sets the tone upon which the hope balances.



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