Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn poignantly captures the hardships of the Soviet Union’s labor camps in Siberia, as well as the arbitrary unfairness of living in that regime in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , and I’m glad I read it for that reason. Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested after criticizing Stalin in a personal letter. He was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp, and permanent internal exile following his labor camp sentence. This sentence was, however, apparently commuted after he was treated for cancer. He was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned in 1990 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much of Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s experiences in the labor camp must have been modeled after the author’s own.
I found the novel difficult to read. In order to preserve the narrative thread, which captures one day in an average prisoner’s life in the camp, the book is not divided into chapters. This lack of division made it difficult to stop reading. I am generally not a reader who can read an entire book in one sitting. For one thing, I’m a slow and generally careful reader. Even if that were not the case, however, as a mother of three I don’t have the luxury of reading in one sitting most of the time. Therefore, with Ivan, I had to frequently re-read passage so I could pick up the thread of the narrative again. To be honest, having to re-read so much made the book something of a chore to get through. I would imagine a few of my more politically-charged students might have found the book interesting, but I would be surprised if the majority liked this book more than Siddhartha or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I didn’t find the book difficult to understand; H. T. Willetts’ translation was accessible. However, the unfamiliar names did impede my comprehension somewhat. I’m not sure I did a very good job keeping the characters straight. For example, I would imagine most American readers would have no problem understanding if a character named Robert were suddenly called Bob. Likewise, it probably throws off no Russian readers when Ivan is addressed as Vanya, but it didn’t immediately occur to me that Vanya was a nickname, and I was confused. I started to look up the name, thinking perhaps it was a term I was unfamiliar with and then it hit me as I looked at the name that it was a nickname. In general, however, the book’s footnotes did an excellent job helping Western readers understand the allusions in the book.
I think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential text — a true-to-life account of what life was like in the Soviet Union, and I think people who read this book may come away feeling more thankful for the freedoms they have. However, I can’t really say that I found it enjoyable. Perhaps a book about a Soviet labor camp shouldn’t be described as enjoyable? Let’s say it wasn’t gripping, then — at least not for me.