Usually, every morning for breakfast, I will have a couple of slices of toast and a cup of tea. The slices are nothing out of the ordinary, rectangular, soft and fresh. The tea is always hot and strong, sometimes with sugar, sometimes without. I never think about the size or the weight of the bread. It’s not necessary. Living as I do, in the twenty first century, in Britain, a modern if not flawed democracy, life is, to a degree, safe. Shukhov, the main protagonist in of the novel One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, has no such liberty, serving time in a Soviet labour camp for being a spy. That he is innocent is inconsequential: the State is law, the State is right, the State is just. When even believing in God will get you time, madness becomes the norm.
Consequently, the composition of bread is very important. It’s fuel. Sustenance. A muse. Therefore, what I take it for granted, Shukhov does not, and early on in the novel, his immediate reaction is not to take a bite but to weigh the portion of bread he has been given. He acknowledges that it’s about twenty grammes light – it’s always light, but by how much? And still he doesn’t get to taking a bite: ‘he thought of eating there and then, but food swallowed in a hurry is food wasted, you feel no fuller and it does nothing for you.’ And so begins another day in the life of Ivan: peculiar and exploitative to us, normal and c’est la vie to him.
The story is a very literal account of any given day in Ivan’s life, beginning with the banging of a hammer that signals reveille, moving on to the back breaking work that makes up most of the day, to finally bed and slumber. In-between there is your usual short sharp banter between men, the politics of work, favours asked of and favours repaid, and most important of all, the time they get to eat. Told in what is essentially a third person narrative, the style of the prose, frugal, concise and absent of superfluous words and colourful language, is fundamentally relentless. There are no chapters, no space between paragraphs to imply closure, but one complete body of writing that equates itself to a huge intake of breath that is maintained with difficulty throughout the entire novel. Only at the end can you exhale, relax, and tear yourself away from the reality portrayed. It’s actually difficult to know when to stop, and deliberate or not, it seems to me Solzhenitsyn wanted you to be aware of the disquiet felt by the prisoners.
Though, as mentioned, the perspective of the narration is in the third-person, it feels anything but. It suggests Shukhov’s voice, though in a very detached sense. It’s as if he has allowed his soul a day pass to view things objectively, to deliver a very factual and detailed telling of a so-called routine day, but with an emotional restraint that is laudable and ultimately tragic. To think and feel is to acknowledge the injustice of their lives, which invariably would lead them to becoming apoplectic, unstable and useless. Better to switch off and knuckle down. Survival.
That said, camp life it is not without its ‘normality’. Even in such monstrous conditions, hierarchy, status and power coagulate, naturally, as though it is, whenever and wherever, an unavoidable outcome of coexisting with one another. As such, trade for example, in a very capitalist sense – the poor get robbed and the rich get plump – exists through parcels, goods which have to be doled out to butter those with the power to ruin you, leaving you with a modest supply of capital to do business with. They remind themselves not to be sad. When you already have nothing, a little something goes a long way.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, written in the 1950s, has an authenticity about it that embodies the maxim ‘write about what you know’. Having served time in a number of camps for criticising Stalin in letters sent to a friend, Solzhenitsyn was able to experience and understand the hardships of camp life, specifically the daily struggle to survive. Though one must not mistake Shukhov as the fictional representation of the author, Solzhenitsyn knows what cold feels like in extremis, he acknowledges the contradiction of backbreaking work providing relief from thinking too much, and he realises how powerful the human spirit is in the face of a harsh Sisyphean existence behind barbed wire. All this is poured into the novel with dignity and without self-pity. The suffering endured by Shukhov, his gang and the rest of the camp population is not explicitly expressed, nor is it hidden in metaphor and suggestion. These men are hardened and, at least for the duration of their sentence, they keep their feelings hidden: ‘…go ahead, he [Shukhov] told them silently, have a feel, nothing here, only a bare chest with a soul inside it.’ In other words, it’s a fuck you to the establishment: you will not break me.
And therein lies the magnificence of One Day. It is largely, and what one initially thinks of as somewhat surprising, an optimistic novel, notable for the main protagonist’s lack of pessimism at the hand fate has thrown him. He’s ill but just not ill enough to get three weeks in a hospital to recuperate, pride earns you respect but little else – ‘[he] didn’t let his belly rumble for other people’s goodies.’ – and what is otherwise passed over as insignificant becomes unusually meaningful: ‘Shukhov drew his spoon from his boot. That spoon was precious, it had travelled all over the north with him’. Yes it is hell, but I have food, I have my brothers and somewhere in my heart I know I will return home. It is looking like a beautiful day:
‘He began eating. First he drank the juice, spoon after spoon. The warmth spread through his body, his insides greeted the skilly with a joyful fluttering. This was it! This was good! This was the brief moment for which a zek lives!’