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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

When characters become likeable, it’s easier for me to get behind them and support them. Ivan Denisovich suffers from so many struggles and challenges in one day that it is not long at all before you start caring and rooting for him. This novel, as the title suggests, covers one day in the life of Ivan, who lives in one of Stalin’s forced labour camps in the 1950s.

It is cinematic; reading it, you can’t help but see the action play out in front of you, startling in its cruelty. The long and physical descriptions of the harsh environment and the tough work Ivan experiences grounds the reader. It is a gritty realism. We know how heavy the bricks are which he must carry. We experience the hours worked on an empty stomach. We picture the coldness of the wind when the workers begin their day of labour. Every moment of every hour for Ivan was a struggle for survival. Challenges are layered on him, one after the other, giving us an indication of how torturous life was for these indentured workers. Ivan had to worry about being thrown into dark cold isolation, in which many died. We feel for Ivan, and want to cheer him on, but the novel prevents any glorification of the surroundings. We do not envy the characters or their situations.

It is a difficult read. The prose is short, sharp, and punchy, but it increasingly becomes melancholy. People die, loved one’s names are forgotten, and the natural setting is unforgiving. The book does, however, celebrate daily victories, such as a warm bed, a hot meal, and friends who have your back. Other people’s suffering does not mean we should feel bad about our own situation; just more grateful. The book is also a reminder of how easy it is to look back at the past with the wrong lens. It is fashionable for many who were born in a post-cold war world to glorify Communist Russia without grasping the atrocities of that regime. Stalin’s purges, Russia’s activities in Berlin after World War Two, and the forced labour camps tell another story.

Above all, the novel supports the idea of facing each struggle head on, and playing your part when you’re in a team. There is no time to sit back and complain. It’s a call to stand up and be proactive. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is excellent and I would recommend it to anyone.


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