At the beginning of the year I was round at my Dad’s and mentioned that I had made a pledge to read at least 12 Classics this year. He asked me what I meant by the word “Classic” and I have to say that I’d given it little thought other than that terrible lazy definition of “Old”. I decided that’s the loose definition I’m going for.
Dad then produced a very thin book called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and said I should read that because after all “It’s only one day so it’s not going to take you long to read is it?”
I have to admit I was a little unsure. I’d never even heard of this book, can I call it a classic if I haven’t heard of it? Thankfully, Mooncalf and Helen both separately and coincidentally recommended exactly the same book. Phew. Drama solved.
So this is officially the first classic I’ve read this year. (Let’s not talk about Midnight’s Children ok?)
For those of you not in the know, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of, well, Ivan Denisovich, prisoner working in a gulag in Russia in the 1940s and known as Shukhov to the other prisoners. He has served 8 years of a 10 year sentence for who knows what crime (he has been sentenced for treason but was forced into signing the false confession), but has little hope that he will see the end of his sentence and frequently refers throughout the day to the tendency of ‘them’ to add another 10 years on to your sentence for no reason at all.
We’re with Shukhov from when he rises at 5am, through breakfast, through the day at work, through dinner and final roll call.
This is a grim book. Very grim. And whilst you’re reading about his just plain horrible life all you can think is that this day is like every other day for 10 years. This book doesn’t need to be any more detailed, one day is the same as every day. Same routine, same faces, no changes at all – everything, down to the way the guards are going to react can be predicted by Shukhov after his 8 years.
Food is in the form of gruel, if they’re lucky, thin fish water if they’re not. There’s a bread ration of 200g a day which is rarely full after various people down the chain have taken their cut. In a life this miserable, Shukhov can gain pleasure from relatively small ‘wins’ in the form of successfully hiding some of his bread in his mattress and managing to save the final crust of his morning portion until lunch.
When the gangs head out to work you realise the full chaos and nonsense that was the very premise of the Soviet regime at this time. Men are in gangs, led by a foreman. They’re not kept on the same job until it’s finished but hop between unfinished jobs. On this day, Shukhov’s gang is sent to work on a power station which was started some time ago but has never been finished. Not only are they expected to work for 11 hours a day, but they have to do it without access to suitable tools. The gangs resort to stealing materials from one another in order to get their jobs done. It is sheer, terrifying lunacy.
And let’s not forget the conditions they’re working in. We’re in Russia in the middle of winter. Zeks (prisoners) are not allowed to work if it gets below -40c. Shukhov declares -18c as a “great day for bricklaying”. They are allowed to dry their boots out every third day and the guards can, and do, make them strip off for searches whenever they see fit.
What struck me most about this book though is that it turned on its head my notion of prisoners all rallying together. The idea that they might be in this situation but at least they’re in it together. Not in this place. It is literally every man for himself. There is vague allegiance to your Gang and for your foreman (a fellow zek) but no sense of comradeship with any of the other workers.
“Who’s the convict’s worst enemy? Another convict. If zeks didn’t squabble among themselves the bosses would have no power over them.”
You would think that Shukhov would be looking forward to his release but it’s not necessarily the case,
"He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. To begin with he'd wanted it very much, and totted 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 packed off into exile. And there wa no knowing where the living was easier - here or there."
He’s no fool is Shukhov, although it might seem like he’s given up hope I don’t feel that he has done so in a negative way. Rather he’s learned to not look too far into the future, if ever there was a person who took one day at a time then it’s Ivan Denisovich. And in a strange, and almost unbelievable way, he’s not unhappy with his situation, maybe it’s just that he’s used to it but there is no pitying tone in the book. Shukhov isn’t asking the reader to feel sorry for him, he’s just relaying the facts of his day and the facts of life in a camp. In fact at the end of the book he declares,
“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day.”
It was brilliant. And proof in quality rather than quantity (something which I can’t say about Midnight’s Children at the moment). Thank you to Mooncalf and Helen and of course my Dad for recommending it to me.
Go and pick up a copy today – if you don’t like it? Well. You won’t have wasted much time reading it will you?!
- It is thin thin thin. If you had a full day of nothing ahead of you you could easily settle down and get this read and I actually think you should read it in a day, I would imagine it works even better when you don’t have gaps in your reading time.
- You cannot help but feel better about your life. Work might be crap but at least you’re not building a power station in -18c.
- There are no pauses. Of course there isn’t, it’s one long, relentless day, the prisoners don’t get any pauses so why should you? This does make it difficult if you are putting it down and picking it up like I was.
- In a way, you do want to know more about Denisovich – you want to know what led to him ending up in there, you want to know what happens to him afterwards, if he ever does get out. All signs of how brilliant this book really is.
(My copy was published in 1991 by Everyman's Library and is Translated from the Russian by H.T. Willetts. Just so you know.)