Book Quote Friday: One Day in the Life

     Using a day to represent a lifetime; a lifetime to represent an era; a man to represent a people; a place to a represent a country. Everything in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' uses a part to represent a whole: it is synecdoche made Nobel Prize winner made compellingly readable book about the real experience of far too many Russians under Stalin in the first half of the twentieth century. 

     It's shocking material, but it doesn't feel like it's overtly trying to preach about the injustices of the gulags or the epic forbearance of Russians. Instead it's just desperately sad, and you really feel for Ivan Denisovich (referred to by his surname ‘Shukhov’ for the main part) as he stands there freezing in the snow, teetering on illness, trapped in a prison on the edge of despair. Every tiny detail of his world is a major battle won or lost, every despair is the despair of everyone imprisoned or oppressed, anywhere, ever. Its meaning and message travel without limit. And, for something written by a Russian, it’s short. VERY short. (Praise be).

     ‘Pavlo looked up. 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)     ‘So they didn’t put you in the lock-up, Ivan Denisovich? All right?’ he asked with a marked Ukrainian accent, rolling out the name and patronymic in the way West Ukrainians did even in prison. 

     Picking up Shukhov’s bread-ration he handed it to him. A spoonful of granulated sugar lay in a small mound on top of the hunk. Shukhov had no time to spare but he answered properly (the deputy team-leader was also one of the authorities, and even more depended on him than the camp commandant). And, though he was in a hurry, he sucked the sugar from the bread with his lips, licked it under his tongue as he put his foot on a support to climb up to make his bed, and took a look at his ration, weighing it in his hand and hastily calculating whether it reached the regulation five-fifty grammes. He had drawn many a thousand of these rations in prisons and camps, and thoughhe’d never had an opportunity to weigh them on scales, and although, being a man of timid nature, he knew no way of standing up for his rights, he, like every other prisoner, had discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting. There was short weight in every ration. The only point was how short. So every day you took a look to soothe your soul - today, maybe, they won’t have snitched any. 

     He decided he was twenty grammes short as he broke the bread in two. One half he stuck into his bosom, into a little clean pocket he’d specially sewn under his jacket (at the factory they make jackets for prisoners without pockets). The other half, which he;d saved by going without at breakfast, he considered eating on the spot. But food gulped down is no food at all; it’s wasted; it gives you no feeling of fullness. He made to put the bread into his locker but again thought better of it; he recalled that two barrack-orderlies had been beaten up for filching. The hut was a big place, like a public yard. 

     And so, still clutching the hunk of bread, he drew his feet out of his valenki, deftly leaving inside them his footcloths and spoon, crawled barefoot up to his bunk, widened a little hole in the mattress and there, amidst the sawdust, concealed his half-ration. He pulled off his hat, drew out of it a needle and thread (hidden deeply, for they fingered the hats when they frisked you; once a guard had pricked his finger and almost broken Shukhov’s skull in a rage). Stitch, stitch, stitch, and the little tear in the mattress was mended, with his bread concealed under it. Meanwhile the sugar in his mouth had melted. Every nerve was strained to breaking-point. At any moment the roster-guard would begin shouting at the door. Shukhov’s fingers worked fast but his mind, planning the next move, worked faster.’ 

     It’s unimaginable, isn’t it? There’s also a passage (p14-15 in the Penguin Classics edition) that will make you ashamed to think you might ever have not had enough shoes. An important book, and an educational one, I think.

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