Monday, January 22, 2018

Life in a Soviet Labor Camp: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
translated by H.T. Willetts


Mater Amabilis™ ™Level 4 suggests a book of classic literature for each term. (Level 4 is eighth grade.) First Son read Goodbye Mr Chips, then To Kill a Mockingbird, both based on recommendations from MA. The third term book, though, was The Lord of the Rings, which he read (very slowly) the summer before eighth grade, so I wanted something different for him. There was a discussion on the facebook page with lots of alternative choices that might have sufficed, but I decided to choose something completely different, a book that complemented his third term history: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Of course, I hadn't read it myself yet! Just to be safe, I decided to read the whole book before he started it so if it was completely inappropriate, I could change my mind.

First, this book is a translation from the Russian. I did a lot of review reading to try to decide which translation would be best but it was difficult to decide. In the end, I chose the translation by Willetts though I can't really remember why.
The book describes in minute detail every moment of a single day in a Soviet labor camp for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. There are a few words like "zek" (criminal) that are defined in a footnote when they first appear, but I expect First Son to be able to read this book without stumbling over Russian words or names too badly.
Standing there to be counted through the gate of an evening, back in camp after a whole day of buffering wind, freezing cold, and an empty belly, the zek longs for his ladleful of scalding-hot watery evening soup as for rain in time of drought. He could knock it back in a single gulp. For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him. 
Though Shukhov is not the narrator, his thoughts flow across the page. Without chapter breaks, the day streams by, almost in a rush. I even had trouble taking breaks as I read and finished it in a single day, almost in a single reading. Every now and then a question or thought will appear suddenly that breaks into the reader's consciousness as something to ponder rather than something that's happening.
Can a man who is warm understand one who's freezing?
In addition, there are some other revealing interactions to other prisoners, including an Alyoshka who has been imprisoned for his faith.
Looking through the wire gate, across the buildings and out through the wire fence on the far side, you could see the sun rising, big and red, as though in a fog. Alyoshka, standing next to Shukhov, gazed at the sun and a smile spread from his eyes to his lips. Alyoshka's cheeks were hollow, he lived on his bare ration and never made anything on the side--what had he got to be happy about? He and the other Baptists spent their Sundays whispering to each other. Life in the camp was like water off a duck's back to them. They'd been lumbered with twenty-five years apiece just for being Baptists. Fancy thinking that would cure them!
The details and descriptions of life in the camp seem reasonably accurate, as far as I can tell from reviews and critiques, and will be a useful complement to the other studies he is doing on Russia.
He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. To begin with, he'd wanted it very much, and counted up every evening how many days he still had to serve. Then he'd got fed up with it. And still later it had gradually dawned on him that people like himself were not allowed to go home but were packed off into exile. And there was no knowing where the living was easier--here or there.
The one thing he might want to ask God for was to let him go home.
But they wouldn't let him go home.
Despite the harsh conditions and bleak prospects for Ivan Denisovich's future, the day itself is a good one. At the end, the reader feels the satisfaction of it, even while sensing with disquietude the injustice of the whole system.

There is some crude language, though it's rather tame when you consider the book is set in a forced labor camp. I trust First Son to read a bad word or two without starting to spout it. I didn't mark them all down, but it's probably less than you'd hear in a PG-13 movie you'd see in a theater today.

If your Level 4 student hasn't read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I highly recommend it. I think it also is a good complement to the history studies as many of Tolkein's experiences in World War I influence the books. If, however, your student has already read The Lord of the Rings, I believe One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich could be an enjoyable and worthy substitute.

I purchased this book used. The link at the beginning is an affiliate link to Amazon. I have received nothing for writing this post and it contains my own opinions.

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