A Light in the Gulag: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Book Review

Book title: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Leo Tolstoy has confounded his scholars for a century by writing in his diary that Anna Karenina was to be his first “novel.” This was, of course, a few years after the publication of his famous masterwork War and Peace, leading the perplexed academic to the obvious question, “If Anna Karenina was his first novel, what then was War and Peace?” Presently, we can only then think of War and Peace as a sort of chimera; a mixture of journalism, essay, history, and fiction.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is another such chimera. If you were to go into Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book hoping for it to take the shape of a conventional novel, then you will be severely puzzled by how the tale unfolds. Many novelistic traits are absent: few of the characters have backstories, there’s no rising action per se, and the climax is much more subtle than what most readers are accustomed to. It is, as the title plainly states, a book about a day in the life of its protagonist, Ivan Denisovich. A fairly average day at that.

Ivan’s life though isn’t the least bit average–at least, not by Western standards. He’s been imprisoned in a gulag during Stalin’s regime, serving a very long sentence we catch but a glimpse of. Little is explicitly described about Ivan–we don’t learn why he’s even in prison until about fifty pages into the book. Instead, we learn of Ivan’s character solely through his actions, as he goes through the herculean tasks that make up his daily survival in the work camp.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was himself an inmate of a gulag for many years due to remarks he made about Stalin in a letter, fills the book with details that could only have come through lived experience. For example, notice the attention to detail in the following passage about searching for a sheet of cigarette rolling paper in a jacket,

“In the meantime, Shukhov unbuttoned his jerkin and groped in the quilted lining for the bit of paper which only his fingers could feel. He used both hands to ease it gradually through the padding towards a little hole in quite a different part of the lining, loosely drawn together with two little stitches.”

It’s hard not to believe that this is what the prison jackets were really like. The fictional aspect of the book becomes negligible.

The horrors of the gulag are not only described in the physical terms of the living conditions. Alexander Solzhenitsyn also includes brief, well-placed insights into Ivan’s thoughts which become devastating in a quiet way. Trying to weigh the time he has left in the camp, Ivan thinks “Only–would they ever let him go? Maybe they’d slap another ten on him, just for fun?”

Throughout One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Stalinist years of the Soviet Union are suggested to be times when every citizen could, at any time, have their lives ruined due to some inscrutable caprice of the government officials. Again, this description seems to apt to be considered fiction.

–If you’re looking for some lighter reading, please check out my books The Madness of Art: Short Stories and A Rapturous Occasion.

How would you review One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

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