Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a Gulag prisoner in Siberia in 1951.  The day in which this book takes place is actually one of his better days, despite the frigid cold, meager gruel, endless body searches, and back-breaking work.  Shukhov has figured out a few tricks to survival, including hiding tools and bread, but what he’d really like is a sick day.  I thought at first that he must be a political prisoner, but actually he was released from a German WWII POW camp and then arrested in his homeland on suspicion of being a German spy.  If this misconception isn’t ludicrous enough, consider the state of the prison camp.  Incomplete buildings and broken machinery abound.  One of the reasons that everything is in disrepair is because the work reports, in which productivity is always exaggerated, are apparently more important than the quality of the work.  The convicts break off a railing to use as firewood, thus giving us another glimpse as to why the camp is in disarray.  Shukhov periodically has to reassess the value of his dignity, as he considers how low he is willing to stoop to survive.  This dysfunctional prison camp is perhaps a microcosm of the USSR in many ways—unable to feed itself with a workforce unmotivated to build an infrastructure.  This novel may be a standout as social commentary, but as literature, it underwhelmed me somewhat.

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