Jul/Aug 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Review by Robert Gray

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H.T. Willetts.
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 2005.
ISBN 0 374 52952 3.

Every good reader has a book. You own it as much as the author does. You knew it was yours the first time you read it. Again and again over the years, you've turned to this book when you needed solace, inspiration, or perspective. Each time you've read it, each time you have opened at random to a page, you've found something that speaks directly to you. It's your book, after all.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is my book. This spring, a new translation by H.T. Willetts has given me the perfect excuse to read my book yet again. And while I could pour over comparable texts and deconstruct word choices, I would rather tell you why I staked a personal claim to it more than three decades ago. How did a young American, who was neither a student of global politics nor Soviet history (I was barely a student of classic Russian literature then), connect so deeply with the work of a Soviet dissident?

I first encountered Solzhenitsyn's work in 1970, and quickly devoured The First Circle and Cancer Ward. My book, however, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a tattered, dog-eared copy of which has been within reach on my desk for 35 years. Although there have been several translations, the one I own is Gillon Aitken's. Originally published as a movie tie-in edition, it also contains a shooting script for the marvelous film that about ten people in the world saw. Starring Tom Courtenay as Ivan, and featuring stark but stunning cinematography by Sven Nykvist, the movie version of Ivan Denisovich remains the best evocation of a novel on the screen that I have ever encountered.

I've read the story of a "happy" day in Ivan's miserable life as a gulag prisoner more times than any other book I possess. It dared to look a monolithic Soviet beast in the eye and did not blink. Solzhenitsyn wrote Ivan Denisovich at the height of the Cold War, and even though it was published in 1962 in the literary journal Novy Mir (thanks to a brief, official "thaw" during which Khrushchev apparently saw the novel as a personally useful anti-Stalinist tract), it was still an extraordinary and courageous public statement at the time.

The thaw turned out to be temporary, and Solzhenitsyn paid a heavy price for his dissidence. He was forced to live in exile for several decades, and settled not far from where I live in Vermont, finding refuge, if not happiness (he is a steadfast Russian, after all, and no fan of Western materialist culture), in a small rural town where his children attended local schools and the residents guarded his privacy from tourists and pilgrims alike.

Even though this little novel fought a big fight, it is also just a story, and that is how I first encountered it in 1970, when I opened my copy and read: "At 5 A.M., as usual, reveille was sounded—a hammer banged against a rail just by the staff hut."

Recently, I opened the new translation and read: "The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always."

As usual. As always.

It is this day-to-day ordinariness that first struck me when I read the novel. Solzhenitsyn's Ivan is a workingman, though not in a "Workers of the World Unite!" sense. Stalin bastardized Marxism, and Solzhenitsyn's portrayal of Ivan is both straightforward and ironic in response to this. Ivan is a worker. He has been incarcerated by a system founded upon the illusory rise of the working class. He sustains his identity by working hard in spite of the system rather than for the system.

I recognized Ivan Denisovich Shukhov the moment I met him. I'm a workingman, too. As the son and grandson of marble quarrymen and mill hands, I understood him because, even in the gulag, he lived a life not unfamiliar to me, a life of adapting to circumstance, of getting the job done, of keeping the boss at bay—a workingman's life. I realize this may seem like a simplistic reading of what so many have considered a fictionalized political tract, but Ivan knows that the world outside his captivity isn't so simple, either:

"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."

Ivan is no fiery revolutionary; he is a victim of terrible circumstances. During the war, he was a soldier, "fighting" without ammunition or supplies, when he was rounded up by the Germans and held for a couple of days. He escaped, but upon returning to his own lines, he was accused of being a spy and imprisoned for treason. Neither hero nor coward, Ivan is simply another casualty of Stalinist paranoia.

What I love about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is that it is never simply the story of a victim. It portrays an ordinary workingman coping with extraordinary hardship. Ivan's triumphs on this "happy" day in the camp are so small that they might escape notice in the "free" world. He swipes an extra bowl of gruel at dinner, finds a piece of metal that might be sharpened into a small knife, works hard and well, replenishes his precious tobacco supplies, and receives the rare gift of a tasty bit of sausage just before lights out. "He felt pleased with life as he went to sleep."

The adaptability and resilience of the human spirit in the face of a dehumanizing environment is part of what has made Ivan Denisovich my book. The other key is Ivan's fierce devotion to work as a contributing factor to both his hard-won pride and survival skills.

Waking "as usual" on this ordinary day, Ivan feels ill, but when he is assigned to wash the floor in the warders' room, he has a minor revelation: "Now that Shukhov had a job to do, his body seemed to have stopped aching."

Ivan is not a floor washer. He's a bricklayer, "a job to take pride in." He's as close to a perfectionist as he can be, given the materials and the conditions at hand. He works with purpose and professionalism. He works hard because that is how he sees his world and himself most clearly: "There are two ends to a stick, and there's more than one way of working. If it's for human beings—make sure and do it properly. If it's for the big man—just make it look good."

Ivan may seem to be working for "the big man" in this novel, but it is his foreman and his work gang to whom he gives all of his loyalty and for whom he labors so hard. His captors have cleverly designed a system in which the work gang is rewarded or punished as a unit, which compels the members to pressure one another to contribute equally. Even as Ivan acknowledges the genius of this plan, he transcends it with his own performance. When he starts laying cinder blocks at the Power Station that his work gang has been assigned to construct, Ivan brings a focus to the job at hand that the endless, daily degradations of camp life cannot impede:

"He worked fast and skillfully, but without thinking about it. His mind and his eyes were studying the wall, the faŠade of the Power Station, two cinder blocks thick, as it showed from under the ice. Whoever had been laying there before was either a bungler or a slacker. Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it. That dent there—it would take three courses to make the wall flush, with a thicker layer of mortar every time. That bulge couldn't be straightened out in less than two courses. He ran an invisible ruler over the wall..."

At sundown, Ivan continues working until the last possible minute, loath to waste mortar. Is he an idiot or a flunky for the system? Hardly. In fact, he risks punishment staying at the work site after his gang has left, and is fortunate to make it back to them before his tardiness is detected.

Why should we care about this man? Why have I cared so much and for so many years? On the surface, Ivan's day is nothing special. He wakes, eats three lousy meals, works his ass off in sub-zero weather until sundown, steals a few precious moments for himself at the end of the day, and goes to sleep "happy."

Aitken: "The day had gone by without a single cloud—almost a happy day."

Willetts: "The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one."

Happy? Both translations use that word.

"Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" Solzhenitsyn asks. Yes, I have to answer. The author wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to expose the horrors of Soviet gulags, but he also wrote it to offer us a story of an ordinary workingman. I will only know the gulags through books, but I've known people like Ivan Denisovich Shukhov most of my life. This is my book, and that is why I celebrate the publication of this new translation.


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