by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?”
“There was a short weight in every ration. The only point was how short. So every day you took a look to soothe your soul–today, maybe, they won’t have snitched any.”
Mmmmm, One Day. Possibly one of my most favourite novels ever. If you don’t know, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a pretty important bloke. He was sent to the gulags (forced labour camps) for criticising Stalin in a private letter, and then later exiled to Kazakhstan. His book, One Day, an autobiographical account of his time in the gulags, exposed the horrors of Stalin’s regime to the Western world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and is generally considered as one of Russia’s greatest modern writers.
One Day is what it says on the tin: it is an account of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov during his time imprisoned in a labour camp. From morning to evening, Solzhenitsyn introduces a range of characters, mainly from his work team 104th, that are all too human. During this one day, Shukhov initially feels ill, yet unable to stay in sickbay. At -31°C, Tiurin the team leader, successfully bribes the office workers to be sent to a building site with shelter and heating. Shukhov, as a mason, is dedicated to his work and becomes almost obsessed, in order to forget about the cold and the aches in his muscles. With a successful evening meal of two portions, and quality tobacco, Shukhov summarises the day, for the reader, as a “red-letter day”.
Solzhenitsyn presents Shukhov as an ordinary man in the camp: he is not the lowest of the low, but neither is he talented enough to rise in the prisoner hierarchy. Despite being a first person narrative, it is not written as one–the reader is only given access to Shukhov’s thoughts. This style of writing only enhances the novel, as it allows the reader to understand the thoughts going through Shukhov’s mind, but still remain detached: after all, with no pens and paper allowed in the camps, One Day is not a diary, and can never be conceived as one.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about this book is that it is not about the plot. In effect, there is no story, no grand beginning, no grand end. It is a slice of the middle part of someone’s life. Instead, Solzhenitsyn relies on the characters to bring the novel to life, and does so incredibly skilfully. The reader comes to care about Shukhov’s life, supporting him and wishing him to have a “good” day.
Through Shukhov, we come to understand other characters, and, despite being supporting characters, they have personality and history. Solzhenitsyn weaves these characters’ stories around this one day, so the reader becomes interested in the short history bites to find out what happened to these people and how they ended up at this gulag. Shukhov’s life is other prisoners. If Solzhenitsyn had chosen to focus on just one or two extra characters, the book, I think, would be poorer off for it. The other members of Shukhov’s team create (and are) his world. These characters show how people must change to survive in camps. And how sometimes they don’t.
Ultimately, though, as an autobiographical work, what hits you the most is that it is not a story. I’m not sure how I can emphasise this further, all the degrading torture, the conditions these prisoners go through, the food they eat, the desperation they feel, the loneliness, the backbreaking labour, the attempt to find hope where there is none, all of this happened. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t need to exaggerate certain details to make the story appealing to readers. This is why this book is special; it confronts the reader with the horrific part of human nature that exists in some.
The ending is suitably thought-provoking in an incredibly satisfyingly depressive way. Yep, sounds weirdly contradictive, but it’s not. It is so perfect for the tone of the book that the reader does not crave the answer of what happened to Shukhov. I was tempted to quote it here, but it is a line that would be out of place anywhere else, and the full emotive force would be lost, I believe.
I honestly cannot think of anything negative about this book, and even if I could, it would be nitpicking. One Day is one of those books that need to, and should, be read at least once in your life.
Even Unshelved agrees.
Rating: five out of five books
Next Week: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke