One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I have just finished reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn. It is not a long novel, and as a novel, you can surely finish reading it in a short time. But that is not the case with me. It took me some time to finish this novel, well, because I found it quite boring. And so I read it on and off. But perhaps I just couldn’t appreciate the value of this masterpiece.

The novel tells the story of Ivan Denisovich Sukhov. The setting is a Stalinist labour camp, in the freezing cold Siberia. And as the title reads, the story is about one day in a prison life. It starts with a reveille and it ends with a reveille–exactly one day.

There are so many details in this novel. Bread, watery soup, bunk, mortar, etc. A significant number of pages are filled with graphic descriptions of the zeks’ (the prisoners’) masonry work. Perhaps because I am not familiar with masonry work, this was the part where I felt bored. But I guess this is what a prisoner’s life about–boring, especially when you don’t know when your term will end (probably it lasts all your life). There will be thousands of days as boring as that one day. In that case, this book has actually succeeded in bringing the boringness of life in a prison to life throughout the pages. Moreover, we usually read hungering for some kind of a tension or climax, but here, as you read on, you will find that it never comes.

It is not all that boring, actually, because in a prison like this, anything can happen. Anything can cost you your life, anytime. The short sentences add a tone to the harshness and brutality of prison life. And these aspects of humanity are depicted frankly and as-a-matter-of-fact-ly.

But one thing which I would like to note, interestingly, is the character Alyosha the Baptist. He doesn’t appear often, but I think his presence adds a difference. The conversation he has with Sukhov at the end of the book, I think, sort of gives a summary of the whole book. What is that hope that continues to uphold you, knowing that you may never taste freedom again?

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