One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich demonstrates the utter inhumanity of Russian gulags. It’s worth reading just for this reason. However, I don’t feel it has much more to offer other than a unique look at a horrific time period.
As you might expect, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel follows the protagonist Ivan Denisovich (more commonly referred to as Shukhov) for an entire day. It portrays the grueling work the prisoners were subjected to, the savagery of the camp warders, and the injustice that seeps into every single part of camp life.
The book is made particularly poignant by the small details and intricate knowledge of gulag life, which can be provided since the author was himself in a work camp for two years. His experience is said to have haunted him, and it serves the text well. All the details leave a clear imagine in the mind, even if it is a disturbing one.
Shukhov is a very likable character. Despite all his trials, he still remains somewhat upbeat. A sense of positivity exudes from him in parts, as well as a ‘true Russian grit’, a kind of keep your head down and get on with it attitude. The camps somehow haven’t killed his generous nature or his spirit of camaraderie – an inspiring story of survival and determination.
Throughout the novel, many other characters are referenced or described. This was one of the books highlights for me, as we get a window into other lives within the gulag. The multitudinous perspectives amplify all the messages of the book, from the corruption and sadism to the camaraderie and survival-instincts to the self-interest and inhumanity.
Overall, the writing holds up well. The dialogue is sharp and insightful, bringing the many characters to life. The exposition is rarely flashy, but often focused on that which is important to the prisoners, and gives the sense they don’t have time to let their minds wander to superfluous thoughts. While it might take a while to adjust to the writing style (as you are throw right into it), once you do it’s actually a surprisingly quick read.
Many main complaint with the book is the plot is relatively weak. There is very rarely moment of tension to break the monotony – although I guess you could argue that’s the point. I just would have liked the story to go somewhere, or to see some character development.
My rating is 5 out of 7. Just thinking back to the story for my review made me realize that I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I did. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in the Soviet Union, and a worthwhile use of an afternoon even if you’re not. Learning about the atrocities of history will hopefully help us prevent them from happening again – never more relevant with the Uighur camps in China.