One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel (FSG Classics) Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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This 741-page novel covers four days (Dec. 24-27, 1949) in a sharashka in Moscow known as Marfino -- 300 prisoners and 50 guards. The novel begins with a Soviet diplomat making an anonymous phone call to the American embassy to alert it of Soviet espionage focused on the atomic bomb. The embassy's phones are bugged and the phone call is recorded, but the Soviet security service doesn't know who the caller was. So inmate engineers and scientists at the Marfino sharashka are assigned the task of identifying the traitor, as quickly as possible.
In the novel, Solzhenitsyn adds considerable depth and detail to the portrayal of the life of zeks (Gulag inmates) furnished in "Ivan Denisovich". He also uses the book to deliver a scathing critique of the Soviet system -- its ideological absurdities, its bureaucratic infighting and efficiencies, its dishonesty and hypocrisy, and its cruelty. To top it off, the novel contains a devastatingly mocking and chilling portrait of Josef Stalin (see Chapters 19-23). Solzhenitsyn realized that as originally written, the novel was far too critical of the Soviet Union for it to see the light of day (this was in the mid-60's), so he "self-censored" it, excising nine chapters altogether and revising, or softening, those details sure to be most offensive to Soviet sensibilities. That self-censored version was published in 1968 under the English title "The First Circle", but even as expurgated it was not deemed fit for publication within the Soviet Union (and, indeed, that expurgated version contributed to the decision to expel Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union in 1974).
This is the original, unexpurgated novel, in a form that Solzhenitsyn continued to tweak and revise. It has been brilliantly translated by Harry T. Willetts, who worked closely with Solzhenitsyn. Distinguishing it from the truncated version is the initial word "in" in the title. IN THE FIRST CIRCLE is the best Russian novel from the twentieth century that I have so far encountered in my ongoing survey of Russian literature in translation. It is a masterpiece.
Though nominally covering only four days in late 1949, the novel contains the back stories of dozens of characters, stretching back to the days of the Bolshevik Revolution. It is superbly plotted. Its characterizations of about two dozen zeks (and their wives) are sensitive and endearing. In addition to the penetrating critique of the Soviet system and the detailed portrayal of the Gulag, the novel also contains many perceptive observations about human beings in general. It is rich in historical detail. And, in the best tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it is rich in its exploration of moral and philosophical matters.
For the title to this review, I have appropriated lines relating to the diplomat who made the anonymous phone call to the American embassy that triggered the four days of the novel. Heretofore, he had conducted himself according to the law that "we are given only one life", and thus he married well, accumulated the nicest material objects available on his side of the Iron Curtain, and even travelled abroad. He is soon to be posted to New York as part of the Soviet Union's delegation to the United Nations. But he has a spiritual and moral crisis of sorts, as a result of which he becomes aware of another law -- "that we are given only one conscience, too." "A life laid down cannot be reclaimed, nor can a ruined conscience." That's just one of the moral/philosophical conundrums Solzhenitsyn explores in this great novel.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s literature tends to be thought of as non-fiction, although fiction was cited prominently when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
But the best English translation of his best version of his best novel, “In the First Circle,” has been available only since 2009 and it was worth the wait for the American sensibilities that make Harry T. Willetts’ translation a truly great one.
The 1958 version, “The First Circle,” which Solzhenitsyn self-censored to clear Soviet obstacles to publication, was renowned despite being the second-rate version. Like the original it was set in a sort of white-collar prison near Moscow where eminent prisoner-scientists are forced to try to finger a diplomat who pulled a transgression at a pay telephone at Christmastime in 1949.
But the transgression is far more incendiary in “In the First Circle.” The young diplomat has learned of a Soviet plot to steal the blueprint for the atom bomb, and the diplomat endeavors to warn the U.S. Embassy in time to intercept.
There’s a cast of dozens. A very helpful cast of characters at the front of the novel helps the reader keep the characters straight, but the names, often complete with first names and patronymics when the characters address one another, are still a mishmash that will send most scurrying to the cast list early and often.
Three of the technicians/prisoners form a philosophical triangle that is more at the heart of the novel than the diplomat’s plight. The prisoner , or zek, representing the viewpoint of Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned at a similar institution in the late 1940s, is a pragmatist, and his fellow interlocutors (a term that is well-defined by their often-hostile interactions), are a Christian moralist and a Marxist apologist.
The cross section of characters and ideologies forms a dynamic, if dreary, portrait of the mid-century Soviet Union. There’s even a section of more than 10,000 words assuming the viewpoint of a 70-year-old Joseph Stalin, who predictably cares only about power, not about Communist dogma and certain not about Soviet citizens.
The First Circle refers to Dante’s First Circle of Hell, and even at a relatively nice prison, you wouldn’t want to live there, or anywhere else in Stalin’s USSR.
“In the First Circle” has been called the best Russian novel of the 20th century. I can’t speak to that, but I will say the two months I spent two months reading its 741 pages were an intellectually invigorating challenge that got under my skin.
It is hard to imagine today an author who would write a book which he knew most likely would never be published. In the First Circle must have been such a work, written between 1955 and 1958, still during the time of the Gulag.
But, this book should not only be read because of Solzhenitsyn's courage. Solzhenitsyn has written a great novel that holds the interest of the reader as he retells the history of the Soviet Union and the Gulag though his plot: A Soviet diplomat calls the American Embassy that the Soviet Union plans to steal atomic secrets. A part of Scientific Work Prison is enlisted to identify through a voice print him so that he may be arrested as a traitor.
Around this plot, Solzhenitsyn dedicates himself to write a novel where the characters ring true. Rarely is there a false note. His characters, both inside and outside the camp, are not cardboard spouting ideology. We feel how they feel caught in the system as they seek answers, both great and small, on how to respond to Stalin's regime.
Last but not least, this novel has all the seeds of Solzhenitsyn's great work on the Gulag.