I finished “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” in a rapid two days, caught up in the Kazakhstan snowstorm that is this novel. A scarcity of language that matched the bare exposure of the gulag system, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s controversial work gave me a new light on how much can be said with very little. There’s a scene where the zeks (prisoners) are out at work, laying bricks, smoothing mortar. It’s freezing cold. Colder than you or I can fathom. (“It’s warmed up a bit,” Shukhov decided. “Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying.”) The pace of the writing matches the pace of their bricklaying. It’s a genius scene! There I was, reading about people placing bricks, and I can’t remember the last time I so invested in a piece of writing. I tried to pull a quote out of the PDF so I could put it here, but the writing does not achieve what it did when I read it in chronological succession, alongside the rest of the brutality revealed within “One day.”
Having read primarily Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I was used to the plethora of characters which populate Russian literature, each distinctly rendered in a few words. In “One day” the characters form a complete bond, to the point that it’s difficult to tell them apart. They are rendered nameless by the camp. Everything seems to move as a kind of entity. Yet, the characters form such a complete image in the reader’s head. To be able to transport you straight to a Soviet gulag, Solzhenitsyn is a genius. From the quarrels over food, to the rare generosity of the camp-staff, the world of “One day’ is utterly real. It’d make sense, as Solzhenitsyn did spend time in a labour camp. A lot of Russian fiction is autobiographical in nature, and its because of this that its known for its simplicity of expression and emotional accuracy.
Next, I read “Cancer Ward“, another that follows in the Russian tradition of semi-autobiographical fiction. After escaping the labour camp, Solzhenitsyn was taken to a cancer ward due to an untreated and unrecognised cancer spreading through his body. The main character, Kostoglotov, echoes Solzhenitsyns own life. Deep political undertones, with remarks and comments that go over most uneducated heads (including mine!) Cancer Ward is a rich novel, almost non-fictional in its attention to detail. Again, Solzhenitsyn employs a tactical scarcity of words and a deep characterisation to transport you to this slightly dingy cancer unit somewhere in rural Russia. This dark novel exposes some of the horror of an understaffed, underfunded hospital unit. With radiation poisoning for the staff and patients, this novel somehow manages to retain some semblance of hope. I won’t tell you why – this book is definitely worth adding to your list.
Next is Vladimir Tendryakov, a random find, but a brilliant one. His short story collection “Three, Seven, Ace and Other Stories” is a masterclass in succinct writing. Characters are imagined up in a few short lines, and incredibly delicate issues of morality and human thought are laid out easily, with the logic of a very accomplished author. The stories in Three, Seven, Ace focus on the element of crime in an otherwise sedate society. The lengths that people will go to make sure that they are not held responsible, and the effects seemingly small actions can have on a greater situation.
The first story, the eponymous Three, Seven, Ace focuses on the introduction of a dark character to a rural lumber-camp somewhere in the wilds of Russia. Tense from the moment the story starts, at the very beginning you can only wonder: why is this so tense? There’s nothing in the events that are happening which is particularly moving, but its a mundane world that you expect to be destroyed. Flicking between characters, Tendryakov illuminates the inner workings of the human mind with grace and simplicity.
With a focus on primarily male characters, I worried that Tendryakov had excluded the female from his works. They occasionally appeared as doctors or officials in the first two stories, but the last story “Creature of a day” focused entirely on a champion pig-farmer driven crazy by fame and guilt. I can’t spoil these stories, they’re full of hidden twists. Once you’ve finished the first, you’ll understand the pattern in the following two stories, and you sit with bated breath waiting for the inevitable disaster to strike. A masterclass in narrative!
If you haven’t read Russian literature before, I recommend it. The harsh simplicity of the writing is something we can all learn from. If you have anymore recommendations for Russian writers I’d love to hear them. I should note that Solzhenitsyn’s work struggled to be published for decades: his controversial message was not one the Party enjoyed. These days, it is a crucial insight into some of the unknown, almost-forgotten history of Stalin’s Russia.