This was my first taste of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect as I knew little about the author – Russian literature is not my forte. However, somehow he sounded ‘great’ so I was more than willing to give this one a go.
Needless to say, I was not disappointed. This book is painful in its description of the mundane elements of life in a prison camp. Painful in a good way, because the author’s aim is clearly to convey the minuscule elements of the day to day existence in this environment. In this novel, everything has significance beyond itself. A hat, a tool, a piece of bread, each item is loaded with possibility, imbued with the ability to make or break a prisoner. Even time itself is a precious commodity: “He always gt up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities … ”
I found my senses bombarded in this book, everything was magnified and there was no respite from the intensity of this sensory overload. Even the quiet was intense.
Our ‘hero’s’ day spans some 140 pages in my translated version and its ending is a mark to a prisoner’s survival. The irony in this ending is clear… what for the reader has been a painful, intense day, is for the prisoner, “A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”
Will I read more Solzhenitsyn? I’m not sure. This book tore at my soul and I think I need more time before I can subject myself to another onslaught.
Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. It is an outstanding depiction of what life was like for prisoners at work camps in the era that the author describes. It clearly conveys the atmosphere of this experience and even through the translation, it is plain that Solzhenitsyn is a great writer.