One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I just finished this spring’s One Book, One Chicago book: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander* Solzhenitsyn. It is, as the title suggests, exactly one day in the life of a prisoner in a labor camp in the Soviet Union under Stalin. It’s fiction, but based on Solzhenitsyn’s real experiences in such camps.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov spends most of his day trying to stay warm, thinking about food, and actually trying to get some work done (a work-gang system in the camp encourages production).

My god, this book has depressed me. I mean, it was bad enough that at the end of yet another horribly dehumanizing day, Shukhov remarks that the day was, you know, a pretty good day. I suppose there’s something there about the indomitability of the human spirit or something. But what really depresses me is that I realized halfway through the book was that I was tensed up, bracing myself for the atrocities, and that they weren’t coming. I’m not saying nothing bad happens in the book, I’m saying that by modern standards nothing incredibly, horribly bad happens in the book. And the fact that the god-damn gulag isn’t as bad as what I know humans can do to humans is weighing heavy on my mind these days.

There are a number of upcoming special events around the city. If you’d like to discuss the book there are discussion groups meeting at libraries all through April and the Chicago Public Library is hosting an online forum.

* Or Aleksandr or Alexandr. Crazy Cyrillic transliterations.

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