Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"

A Review of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” - a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

If you haven’t read this Russian classic, that’s okay. There are other Russian novels that are higher up on the must-read list. (“Crime and Punishment” takes #1 on mine). But this novel earned its status as a modern Russian classic for good reason. It’s still going strong fifty years after its publication in Russia and it deserves a read by pretty much everyone.

Why? Well, for one, Solzhenitsyn accomplishes an incredible amount in a small number of pages. The book weighs in at about 55,000 words, making it possible to finish the book in a Sunday. Each sentence is crafted with surgical precision. There are no wasted words, no paragraphs that could be shortened into sentences.

As the title implies, the novel takes place over the course of an average day in a Siberian prison camp. Not much different happens on this day as opposed to the nearly 4,000 other days that make up Denisovich ’s sentence in the prison camp. When the circumstances and environment are so extreme, you don’t need twists and surprises to make the story work. There are no prison breaks, sorry. No one gets shot in the head by a guard. And as much as I might want them to, the prisoners don’t riot and burn down the officers’ quarters while they’re sleeping in their beds.

Instead, we have an 18-hour day of toil, hunger and ice. There are no breaks for chapters or extended flashbacks. The reader gets almost no back story on Denisovich. This book is a great example of what I like to call parachute fiction: the reader is dropped in to a unique environment and left to figure it out for himself. Like a new jack thrown into the prison camp, the reader stands beside Denisovich as he struggles through life under authoritarian Soviet rule. The point of view is so intimate, that the reader is right there with Denisovich as he tries to fend off the ever present dangers of frostbite, starvation and violence.

I won’t summarize the course of Denisovich’s day, because Solzhenitsyn does such a masterful job of taking the reader by the hand and letting them experience it on their own. Besides, what stands out most in this novel is not the plot, but the way Solzhenitsyn takes a frozen Siberian wasteland and chisels an intense literary experience out of it. By ratcheting up the tension, slightly shifting the narrative tone, drawing out some scenes while compressing others, Solzhenitsyn immerses the reader in Denisovich’s struggle. Despite the gray, icy feel of this novel, the reader leaves feeling not depressed, but invigorated.

I first read this novel when I was 15. I remember sitting on a balcony at my parents’ apartment in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine. Even though I was in the former Soviet Union, Siberia was still incredibly far away. It's so far away, I almost cannot imagine it as an actual place. This was the mid-90s, when Ukraine was still reeling from the Soviet collapse. Bread lines still reached down the street and babushkas begged for change in the snow. I read this book, like many other Russian novels, as a way to try and understand the Russian soul. I remember "One Day" being incredibly difficult to read in English, and the overall feel of the book being bleak and disheartening. A dozen years later, I re-read this book for a class as part of Johns Hopkins University’s master’s writing program. The experience was vastly different. Of course, some of this is due to changes in me, personally, and changes in the mindset I bring with me to the reading experience. But I’m convinced that the reason I liked this book so much more this time around is in no small part because of the translator.

During our class discussion, the professor handed out excerpts of “One Day” from three different translations, and we compared and contrasted them as a class. Russian is a terribly difficult language to translate into English, as demonstrated by two of these three translations. They sound clunky, disorganized and are frankly tedious to read. This is how I remembered “One Day,” as a painfully garbled but somehow rewarding read. But HT Willetts has done something very beautiful with Solzhenitsyn’s original Russian text. He has given us an English version that flows smoothly. There’s a subtle poetic tone to much of this novel. It’s a master work of translation, and it kept me turning the pages one after the other.

So if you haven’t yet read this masterpiece, pick up HT Willetts’ translation and enjoy. As always, I’d love to read your comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment