I picked up a battered copy of Cancer Ward about 25 years ago when I was travelling. It gathered me up and took me away into its strange little world, and I've loved his novels ever since.
I have a first edition of the English translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Wellington a few years ago. It replaced my dog-eared paperback copy which I donated to my Book Club. I think a few people there have read it now, which I'm very glad about. It's a stunning piece of writing, so sparse and so incredibly real - every detail - down to the fish in his soup and the crumbs from his bread - drawn with such precision and detail:
The little fish were more bone than flesh; the flesh had been boiled off the bone and had disintegrated, leaving a few remnants on head and tail. Without neglecting a single fish-scale or particle of flesh on the brittle skeleton, Shukhov went on champing his teeth and sucking the bones, spitting the remains on the table. He ate everything - the gills, the tail, the eyes when they were still in their sockets but not when they'd been boiled out and floated in the bowl separately - great fish-eyes! Not then. The others laughed at him for that.
He laid his mittens on his knees, unbuttoned his coat, untied the tapes of his face-cloth, stiff with cold, folded it several times over and put it away in his knee-pocket. Then he reached for the hunk of bread, wrapped in a piece of clean cloth, and, holding the cloth at chest level so that not a crumb should fall to the ground, began to nibble and chew at the bread. The bread, which he had carried under two garments, had been warmed by his body. The frost hadn't caught it at all.
Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent the team to the settlement; he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he'd earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
The extra three days were for leap years.
It was The Gulag Archipelago that opened my eyes to the true horror of Stalin's Soviet Union. I didn't like history much at school, giving it up in my fourth year, so I never got as far as 20th century history. Which is a shame, because I'm sure it would have been more interesting than all those boring Kings and Queens. Anyway, I was a wee bit hazy on Stalin until I read The Gulag Archipelago. And now I know what a monster he was.
And so the waves foamed and rolled. But over them all, in 1929-1930, billowed and gushed the multimillion wave of dispossessed kulaks. It was immeasurably large and it could certainly not have been housed in even the highly developed network of Soviet interrogation prisons (which in any case were packed full by the "gold" wave). Instead, it bypassed the prisons, going directly to the transit prisons and camps, onto prisoner transport, into the Gulag country.
Solzhenitsyn believed that as many as 60 million people perished during the rule of Stalin between 1924 and 1953. The Gulag Archipelago is an amazing masterwork, a labour of love and a memoriam to all those who died at Stalin's behest.
Author's note on the publication of The Gulag Archipelago: For years I have with a reluctant heart withheld from publication this already completed book: my obligation to those still living outweighed my obligation to the dead. But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately.
In this book there are no fictitious persons, nor fictitious events, people and places are named with their own names. If they are identified with initials instead of names, it is for personal considerations. If they are not named at all, it is only because human memory has failed to preserve their names. But it all took place just as it is here described.
Rest in peace, Alexander. You led an amazing life, and opened so many eyes along the way. Thank you.
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