One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Pertinent Issues of the Time
There are books we know not simply or even as literary masterpieces but also, or even more so, as political interventions: books whose aesthetic significance is not easily extricated from their socio-political usefulness, nor for their capacity to indicate a problem with the world. We might think of Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and Voltaire's Candide. We needn't worry here whether they are great works of literature. they are certainly great liminal novels that exist between the fictional and the political. Another such book is surely Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a contained, slim cousin to the brilliantly bloated Gulag Archipelago. While Achipelago is an exhaustive and of course often exhausting account of the means and methods at work in Communist Russia, Ivan Denisovich keeps to the tight regime of a day in the eponymous character's life. It deals less with the ocean of injustice Russians were drowning in, than the rivulet of possibility a few managed to find for themselves as Solzhenitsyn shows Denisovich staying alive. The wider picture of Soviet life in Archipelago is unremitting and factual, with Solzhenitsyn telling story after story of human defeat when confronted by an evil so devoid of specific villainy that we might wonder whether it was en evil at all. "If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being..." (The Gulag Archipelago) Communism successfully found that line; Ivan Denisovich Shukhov tries to walk it. "Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities..."
This would seem to be the point behind One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: to write a book that manages to convey hope within depair by focusing on one individual who survives that day and can await another. Just before the end of the book, the narrator says, "a day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day." The book may be seen within the context of contractive modernist fiction (the sixteen hours of Ulysses; the time covered during a lunch break in Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine) but that wouldn't be how Solzhenitsyn sees it. "I am a traditionalist by inclination" he would say in an interview with Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, with the novelist saying his books "were not created in order to appear modern." We might be inclined to agree. Joyce's book is seen as an important piece of literature that is also an important work within the context of Irish self-governance: it was set in 1904 but published in 1922. It was a book written after Irish independence but Joyce writes about a period while Ireland was still under British rule. Yet this wouldn't be the initial approach a critic would be inclined to take while inquiring into the book. Very few would be likely to write on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich without taking into account that the novella was written during the Soviet regime. We could imagine as a long-winded but appropriate title One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in a Siberian Labour Camp during the Soviet Era. The most important books of the 20th century would seem to escape such a ready designation, from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (during the period of the fin de siecle) to Kafka's The Trial (during the period of transition from the Austrian Hungarian Empire to Czechoslovakia as an independent state). Perhaps the point of our opening claim partly rests here: that the very best books are not read sociologically, because they escape the limits of social milieu to achieve the status of transcendent objects.
Let's not exaggerate, but there is a feeling that certain books are symptomatic or reflective, they sum up well a given crisis in consciousness (like the failings of communism in Animal Farm), the rise of totalitiarianism more generally (in 1984), the question of eugenics in (Brave New World), the need for social equality through radical social change (The Jungle). Others cannot so easily be pinned down - hence the inadequacy of the subtitles we offer Proust and Kafka's works. This needn't lead us to see decadent, apolitical novels on the one hand; engaged works on the other - more that some writers create much closer to the surface of the culture than others. Orwell is a brilliant writer of this social surface. Solzhenitsyn is another figure who engages with the most pertinent issue of his time, but it nevertheless remains an issue. Other writers capture their moment without reducing it to the singularity of an issue - they manage to abstract the problem without necessarily disengaging from the nature of power. Kafka is at least as great a writer as Orwell on power, while Proust often makes us muse over the nature of cruelty: the way humans take advantage of each other on the most emotionally complex terms.
Two writers who address this question of a writer's responsibility to literature as a social issue without falling into the societally paramount are Camus and Sartre. As Sartre says in an interview from Sartre in the Seventies, looking back on his early book, Nausea. Drawing a distinction between himself and Paul Nizan he says, "it was because I had an enemy: the bourgeois reader. I was writing against him, at least partly, while Nizan wanted readers he could write for." For much of his life, Sartre sided with communism, but if his work matters it will not be for this sympathy but for his bourgeois antipathy. What this means is that rather than writing for the Communist party with all the expectant compromises in form and content, Sartre writes against the bourgeoisie and deforms the expectations placed upon the writer, those that demand he or she conforms to notions of style, presentation, characterization, thematic relevance and so on. As Sartre puts it in Literature and Existentialism, the bourgeois public "feared nothing so much as talent, that gay and menacing madness which uncovers the disturbing roots of things by unforeseeable words and which, by repeated appeals to freedom, stirs the still more disturbing roots of men." Camus thought that the internal paradox was more important than the external issue. "When man submits God to moral judgement, he kills Him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God? Have we not arrived at absurdity?" (The Rebel) Both Sartre and Camus understood that the idea of wiring for bourgeois tastes was untenable, but that doesn't mean one writes for the proletariat either. To write for the latter would be to publish pulp fiction and popular romances, to work in genre convention as if an exaggerated form of the expectations placed upon the writer by the bourgeois readership. So for whom does one write? The answer might be all the better expressed in the inability to find an answer. The closer the answer is to hand, the further away the writer might find him or herself from producing what constitutes literature. If we believe that Kafka and Proust are more important figures than Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, it resides not least in the ontological freedom Sartre would seem to invoke, the absurdity that Camus acknowledges, and the question that cannot easily be answered that we are proposing.
This isn't to suggest at all that Solzhenitsyn has produced anything less than literature. Indeed, perhaps he has produced something more than literature, just as an obvious genre novel produces less than literature. If one of the problems we may have with popular fiction is that it lacks a broader concern than entertainment, Solzhenitsyn's work moves in the opposite direction. Speaking of the cycle of novels The Red Wheel, Kramer notes, "his research has been prodigious. He had first of all to master what he called 'the rich literature on the Revolution' in Russian. Then, he said, 'I have collected almost 300 written [unpublished] testimonies on the experience of the Revolution. These witnesses were not speaking about 'historical' events but about personal experience. I learned what I could from witnesses in Russia, and then, when I came out, I had contacts with many survivors of the Revolution who are now in the West, where people could write about their experiences openly.'" This is literature as testimony, an immensely important and dignified task that nevertheless might result in work that is compromised as art by its need to attend to a given truth. Just as cheap fiction can be hidebound by the conventions it is expected to use; so the sort of testimonial writing Solzhenitsyn often practices (and never more so than in the astonishing labour of loss, The Gulag Archipelago) cannot generate the type of freedom Sartre suggests is vital to the aesthetic. In Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn says in the preface "this book could never have been created by one person alone." He also quotes a proverb, "No, don't! Don't dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you'll lose an eye." But Solzhenitsyn adds that the proverb goes on to say "forget the past and you'll lose both of your eyes." This is the one-eyed literature of testimony that has many important books to its name: from Eli Wiesel's Night to Primo Levi's If This is a Man, but if the writer plays hard with the facts then the public hits hard the writer. If we can allow ourselves a digression, we can think of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who published what he claimed was a memoir of his time in Majdanek and Auschwitz, but an investigation after it was published proved that there was a large gap between Wilkomirski's account and the facts. His publicist according to the Guardian, claimed, every time he recounted his story to an interviewer it took a terrible toll on him. He is an emotionally scarred man; whatever you say about the book, there is no doubting that. Wikomirski moved from a survivor to a mythomaniac, and someone who had no longer written a memoir about Auschwitz, but an elaborate account of his own derangement. Elena Lappin, writing in Granta, said "If only he would admit that he was a writer. He is obviously a good novelist, but he will never admit it. The whole point of the book was that he wasn't a writer, that it was just the fragmented memories of a child who had witnessed these appalling events and come through them." Interestingly, Stefan Maechler in The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, claimed, "once the professed interrelationship between the first-person narrator, the death-camp story he narrates, and historical reality are proved palpably false, what was a masterpiece becomes kitsch." "Every act of reading takes place within a horizon of expectation... when faced with a text we must first and foremost decide what genus or species it belongs to..." So claims Anna Vaninskaya in the Edinburgh introduction to Studying English Literature. Wikomirski's book was an extreme example of that, but perhaps works that are more or less than literature, that intend to work within generic expectation, or demand to be seen within the context of the factual world, struggle to achieve the literary because of the limits of their reception. If we have talked about the Wilkomieski case we do so to understand just how important context is for some books. If for example, we discovered that numerous incidents in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were completely made up, they would impact on the novel far more strongly than if we were to know that Kafka made up numerous details in The Trial. The Russian's work is propped up by the facts; Kafka's is not.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is nevertheless, of course, a work of fiction, with a third person narrator exploring the life of the title character over a course of a day, but at the same time it feels a lot like a metonymic account of the much bigger The Gulag Archipelago as readily as a work of free fiction. Solzhenitsyn we sense writes with a feeling of responsibility that reminds us of the magnitude of the situation, while an ostensibly similar book, Dostoevsky's House of the Dead contains within it the freedom that allows us to think of the Dostoevskian universe. The Siberia the great nineteenth-century Russian explores is contained within the writer's vision. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the 20th-century writer's vision is contained within the enormity of the Gulag. Dostoevsky uses his experience to generate a world; Solzhenitsyn uses his experience to generate a testimony, whether fictional or factual. Taking into account Vaninskaya's remark, vital to the reception of House of the Dead is Dostoevsky's phenomenology. We might believe we need to know more about the gulag rather than Solzhenitsyn to comprehend One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.; more about Dostoesvky than Siberia to understand House of the Dead.
Turning to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich more specifically, while also attending to its broader context, what we have is an account of injustice, carefully modulated and often containing simple but felt truths. When one prisoner who has a cosy office job asks another, "well, captain, how are things", the captain replies, "a man who's warm can't understand a man who's freezing. How are things? What a damn-fool question?" Something of the same might be true about one prisoner next to another: one has been given ten years and can at least hope to see the end of their prison time; the other twenty-five years and can see only their probable death. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is one of the lucky ones. "What does Shukhov care?", another character, Kilgas, says, "Shukhov, brothers, has one foot almost home". "They'd given Kilgas twenty-five years. Earlier there'd been a spell when people were lucky: everyone to a man got ten years. But from '49 onwards the standard sentence was twenty-five, irrespective." Thus a man who has arbitrarily been given a twenty-five-year sentence might not understand a man who has been given only ten. If the book itself is an account of injustice, then injustice is nevertheless a relative term. But ten years is more than enough to destroy one's health and well being. At one moment Shukhov smiles "ingenuously, revealing the gaps in his teeth, the result of a touch of scurvy at Ust-Izhma in 1943. And what a touch it was - his exhausted stomach wouldn't hold any kind of food, and his bowels could move nothing but a bloody flux. But now only a lisp remained from that old trouble."
To survive even ten years in a forced labour camp is a daily attempt to hold oneself together against the likelihood of falling apart. Many of the camps were of course in Siberia (though much of Solzhenitsyn's prison time was spent near Moscow and Kazhakstan), almost toponymically so. One would be sent to Siberia the way someone would be sent to Auschwitz, a probable rather than a certain death sentence, with hard work and cold weather leaving the Soviet State a moral notch above the Nazis when it came to ethical prison systems, even if Ian Frazier in the New Yorker indicates that a death camp could seem the lesser of two evils. "A prisoner who had survived the concentration camp at Dachau hanged himself when he learned that he was being shipped to Kolyma." Temperatures in a Siberian labour camp could easily reach minus fifty degrees centigrade and when the New York Times headlined a piece on the camps in 1987, "Where Cold and Food are the Tools of Torture", there is much that concurs with Solzhenitsyn's work. The New York Times writer Bill Keller interviewing a survivor notes that "the main meal, at 10:30 A.M., was soup, ''just water with a little fat added instead of meat, and some oil.'' Dinner was porridge. Those, like one Mr. Begun, who were put on a punishment regime, had their rations reduced to 900 calories a day. ''In Chistopol people are tormented by lack of food. The isolation cell is often used, where you get food only every other day." In a BBC story called 'How Do You Survive the Coldest Place on Earth', the reporter said, "when I visited the Badran gold mine, the temperature above ground was -45C. I found it almost unbearable." Hunger and cold are thus absolutely central to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. "The cold was growing keener. Busy as were Shukhov's hands, the frost nipped his fingers through the shabby mittens, And it was piercing his left boot, too. He stamped his foot. Thud. Thud." Frazier says, "Even in 1977, not a lean time, the diet in Soviet strict-regime camps provided only twenty-six hundred calories per prisoner per day, and less in the punishment blocks and sick wards. The international standard for a person actively working is thirty-two hundred to forty-two hundred calories per day. Like almost all labor-camp prisoners, the ones in this barracks would have been hungry almost all the time."
And many people wouldn't have known what exactly they were imprisoned for except vague crimes against the Soviet State, with spies everywhere - even in the camps. "You could find up to five spies in every team. But they were prison-made spies, they passed as spies in their dossiers, but really they were simply ex-p.o.w.'s. Shukhov himself is one of these 'spies'. This would seem to be a slightly different category from the specifically innocent or the racially guilty. If someone has been imprisoned for a crime they did not commit, they would at least know what they are committed for even if they did not do the crime. The person found guilty of killing a white police officer in a Southern state, for example, may rightfully protest his innocence, but a police officer has been killed and so he thus knows the crime for which he is is imprisoned; it is just that he wasn't the man who committed it. The Jewish person sent to Auschwitz or Dachau will know why they are there even if no crime has been committed at all: their race makes them guilty. But the person in the Gulag will not necessarily know what crime they have been seen to have done, and will thus be close to Kafka's Joseph K in The Trial. It is not as if one can find the true culprit and prove one's innocence; the crime, such as it is, would be the one the Soviet state has done to the individual. The person is not only innocent of the crime (as someone would be in a stitched up case) but innocent without a crime having taken place at all. Is this the worst of all possible worlds, and one which is only alleviated by the relative shortness of the sentence that Shukhov must endure? Life is reduced to the necessity of survival. There is no moral high ground because there is no higher calling, no specific sense of injustice one can even claim as one's own. Only an idiot would assume that they are doing it for their country, even if that might be precisely why they have found themselves there: a product of a great, abstract machine - working themselves to an early grave so that the Soviet Union can compete with capitalism. As Frazier says, "a main goal of the Soviet labor-camp system was to take those citizens the Soviet Union did not need, for political or social or unfathomable reasons, and convert their lives to gold and timber, which could be traded abroad."
In this sense, Shukhov's purpose. like the other prisoners, is to be very unpatriotic indeed. "When they marched out to work in the morning the zeks [the prisoners] walked slowly, to spare themselves. A man who's in a hurry won't live to see the end of his stretch - he'll tire and be done for." For Shukhov on this given day it is especially important. Waking up in the morning ill, and the temperature on the thermometer reading -41, he needs to conserve his energy. Hoping to get the day off work, he visits the surgery too late. The medical assistant asks why he didn't report sick the night before and Shukhov tells him that he didn't feel ill until he woke up. "Well, you ought to have considered that earlier. What are you thinking about? Reporting sick just before muster."
Ivan Denisovich must try and get through his day, a day with numerous micro-events he must micro-manage, whether it is resisting the urge to call out an injustice (which could easily lead to ten days in the cells) or making sure that one could shelter behind "a bit of wall that the old lot had begun on, it would give them some shelter. Not too bad, it'd be warmer that way." Every aspect of one's life is reduced to incremental gestures of survival, aware that one is caught in a system where agency has little place. "No zek ever saw a clock or a watch. What use were they to him anyway? All he needs to know is: will reveille sound soon? How long to muster? How long to dinner? To the last clanging of the rail?" One of the most suspenseful sequences in the book is precisely an example of this incremental survival, detailed almost in slow motion as we pay attention to Shukhov's thought process while he is frisked before going back into the camp. During the day Shukhov had found a small piece from a broken hacksaw blade and while he hadn't intended to take it into the camp with him, there he was with the tiny blade in his mitten. He could throw it onto the snow where it would be found but where he needn't necessarily be held responsible, or he could try to smuggle it into the camp. His choice has to be a quick one as he looks at the gains and losses involved in the risk. Caught he faces ten days in the cell if they decided it passes for a knife. But if he can somehow get it past the guard he knows that "a cobbling knife was money, it was bread."
Let us leave aside this scene for a moment and note that in the outside world bread can be a figurative term for money, but in the camps, it is a literal term: money is bread. When everybody is hungry it has a very high currency indeed. Many words in our culture get transformed from the literal to the figurative and lose their existential weight as they achieve a linguistic lightness. Whether through slang, metaphor or idiom, language gains expression and flexibility through our capacity to access this linguistic fluidity. When someone is on the ropes, down in the dust, breaking the ice, or using words like making some bread, carrying a lot of dough, or packing a piece, language sacrifices the concrete for the expressive. It is this flexibility Christian Metz addresses when discussing film versus literature. "The idea of 'thinness', he says, "is carried over from the pencil to the light in such a way that when it arrives at the second term, the first is no longer present; ie when we speak of a pencil of light, the pencil is in some sense absent." Metz goes on to say that up to a certain point the metaphor is an operation of substitution in which the thing compared (the ray of light) takes the place of the thing it is compared to (the pencil). This doesn't work in film because it holds to the literal. When Charlie Chaplin compares the workers to a flock of sheep at the beginning of Modern Times, he does so by showing us both the sheep and the workers, but as Metz says, "the crowd remains a crowd, the sheep, sheep." (Movies and Methods) Metz's purpose is to explore the difficulty of film adopting metaphor, for our purposes, we want to show by virtue of that difficulty in film how easy it is for literature to fall into the expressive and lose its relative existential immediacy. Now of course as linguists have explored, part of this expressivity rests on the gap between the signifier and the signified. The cat on the page is quite different from the cat we have in our mind so it is very easy to say we let the cat out of the bag or has the cat got your tongue because of this gap. Film, though, is too literal a form to offer the equivalent so easily. But the danger here is that language gains expressivity but loses specificity: that a writer brilliant with figures of speech might subsequently allow that facility to reveal the facile. A writer might wonder how easily he can use figurative language when describing a terrible historical event: when Tadeusz Borowski does so in 'This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen', he offers a coruscating tone that almost defies us to accept the figures of speech he uses. When the narrator who is taking dead Jewish children out of the train at Auschwitz, says we carry them out like chickens, several in each hand, Borowski is well aware of the ethical responsibility in language.
Solzhenitsyn wouldn't be likely to disagree but would be more inclined to emphasize the concrete rather than ask us to muse over the ethics of the figurative. Returning to the scene with the blade, we notice that Solzhenitsyn's language is very concrete indeed. "Meanwhile Shukhov had removed both mittens, the empty one and the one with the hacksaw, and held them in one hand (the empty one in front) together with the untied rope belt. He fully unbuttoned his jacket, lifted high the edges of his coat and jacket...and at the word of command stepped back." If Solzhenitsyn forgoes the figurative he nevertheless allows for a very good example of what Ian McEwan has called 'narrative hunger': a gnawing need for the reader to know what will happen next. This is a scene from many a suspense novel, as we fear that Ivan Denisovich will be found out. But this is full suspense rather than empty suspense, just as we notice that Borowski can use figurative speech to achieve a radical approach to compassion, so Solzhenitsyn uses a common enough device to give us a sense of magnitude out of the micro-details of everyday life. This is not a particularly forceful weapon; it is a piece of a broken hacksaw. The suspense is full partly because the writer manages to take the smallest of details and amplify them into the height of suspense. As Shukhov frets over getting caught when the guard crushes the first mitten, hoping the guard doesn't crush the second, so he thinks to himself: "one such squeeze on the other mitten and he's be sunk - the cells on three hundred grammes of bread a day and hot skilly one day in three. He imagined how weak he'd grow, how difficult he'd find it to get back to his present condition, neither fed nor starving."
While Joyce's Ulysses was one day in the life of Stephen Daedalus (and others), it was also a book of unequivocal literature: it created a narrative scheme coinciding with Homer's and was so full of wordplay and obscure references that Joyce put in, the book had almost no value in its face value. As he said, it has "so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality" (Time) In this sense Solzhenitsyn's book is closer to a testimony of a nation's despair than a writer's need to guarantee himself a place in the canon. This is partly why we invoked Huxley, Orwell, Sinclar and Voltaire, writers we may feel aren't novelists chiefly but writers imaginatively thinking their way into social, political and philosophical problems. This can be good or bad; it can give the work a sense of necessity that makes it much than a divergence but can rob it of the significance of a self-made object. D. S. Savage says Orwell fails as an artist because of a general inability to transcend and so fully to possess and master his material - ultimately his own experience. He is not a mere propagandist, but his books, rather than having their end in themselves, tend to point to some not always very clear external intention." ('The Fatalism of George Orwell') We may feel Savage is too harsh on Orwell, specifically, but to extend our point we can think of a passage from Paul Valery. "He who has never completed ...the sketch for some project that he is free to abandon, who has never felt the sense of adventure in working on some composition which he knows finished when others only see it commencing...than man does not know either - and it does not matter how much he knows besides - the riches and resources, the domain of the spirit, that are illuminated by the conscious act of construction." (Selected Writings)
Just as we might baulk at the writer who believes that writing is an opportunity to build castles in the sky, as monuments to their own egos, so we may also wonder what underpins a work that has too external a justification for its existence. When Solzhenitsyn says in the preface to Gulag Archipelago "what I express here is not personal gratitude, because this is our common, collective monument to all those who were tortured and murdered" this wouldn't be necessary at the beginning of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, even if the works are very much companion pieces; both exploring the problems of the Gulags in extended or miniature form. If One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not great literature it is also very far from the casual demands of entertainment. It may be a novel as Gulag Archipelago is not, but it shares a sentiment if not a tragedy. One reason why Solzhenitsyn rushed out the latter lay in that remark he offers at the beginning of the book: that it was a book reliant on many others. None more so than a Leningrad woman in whom Solzhenitsyn had entrusted part of his manuscript. "After 120 hours of intensive questioning by Soviet Security Officers [she] revealed where she had hidden it - enabling them to seize it. Thereupon, in her desperation and depression. She committed suicide." Books are rarely made with people's lives in various manifestations quite like much of Solzhenitsyn's work. It may not be the atrocities themselves that indicate what literature happens to be, but certainly so much of it been created out of the truths sought that underpin those lives.
© Tony McKibbin