Sunday, 3 October 2010

Banned Books Week

It is Banned Books Week this week, the purpose of which is to highlight the freedom to read what you want without restriction. It is based in the US and came about because of the number of books that are being 'challenged' and removed from use in schools and libraries all over America. I decided to read 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn which was banned in the Soviet Union in 1964 for it's portrayal of labour camps under Stalin's rule. I partly chose it as it is a stark contrast in environment and social class to 'War and Peace', which is set 150 years earlier and written about 100 years earlier, they both contains a strikingly similar attention to detail.

Where 'War and Peace' is a cumbersome 1400 pages, 'One day in the life' is a mere 143 and covers one single day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov who is serving a ten year sentence for unspecified crimes in one of Stalin's 'special' camps, where inmates endure the harshest of regimes; extreme cold, deprivation, hunger and hard labour. The writing draws you in right from the first page with the minute by minute exposition of his existence. Everything about the prisoners lives is designed to grind them down, to destroy their sense of humanity, and yet you get this spark of determination within Shukhov, to work the system, to get any little advantage he can to help keep himself alive. Firstly there is the complex system of rules governing their every waking moment; their movement about the camp, their food allocation, their access to privileges or allocation of punishment, and then there is the way the camp really functions, by bribery and corruption, with the 'teams' having a bond of loyalty that puts them at odds with each other as well as the guards. Although it is written third person you get right inside his head because it describes his decision making all the way through, how he weighs up each situation and tries to find the best outcome for himself. Sometimes this involves appearing to do favours for others, but these are contrived to ensure some comeback, which although not guaranteed, within the give and take of the life that the prisoners share the interdependence between them creates a system that, if you work with it, ensures mutual survival. The third person style however also gives a measure of distance from the situation, as if the reader is looking in, not forcing you to experience it first hand, because of course what these men go through it so extreme it is beyond the true comprehension of people outside. There are moments of real camaraderie where you feel that the men are bound together by their shared experience, but then in the end you know that they are all isolated inside their own heads, shutting themselves off to present an invulnerable front to the outside. The sense of injustice pervades the book; there have been no trials and sentences are arbitrary, and can be increased on a whim by some anonymous official. Their lack of contact with the outside world increases their collective and individual isolation. Their institutionalisation is so complete you wonder that anyone who experienced this could ever go back to a normal life.

I am going to quote from both books to highlight the contrast, firstly 'War and Peace':

"Entering the drawing room where the princesses spent most of their time, he greeted the ladies, two of whom were sitting at their embroidery frames, while the third read aloud from a book. It was the eldest - the one who had come out to Anna Mihalovna - who was reading: a neat, prim, long-waisted maiden lady. The two younger ones, both rosy-cheeked pretty little creates exactly alike except that one had a little mole on her lip which made her much prettier, were busy with embroidery. Pierre was received like a man risen from the dead or stricken with the plague. The eldest paused in her reading and stared at him in silence with eyes of dismay; the younger one without the mole assumed precisely the same expression; while the youngest - with the mole - who had a gay and lively disposition bent over her frame to hide a smile evoked, no doubt, by the amusing scene she saw coming. She drew her embroidery wool down through the canvas and lent over, pretending to study the pattern, scarcely able to suppress her laughter." (p.58-9)

Secondly from 'One day in the life', where Shukhov is observing a fellow prisoner eating his skilly (cabbage soup):

"Now Shukhov looked closely at the man. He held himself straight - the other zeks sat all hunched up - and looked as if he'd put something extra on the bench to sit on. There was nothing left to crop on his head: his hair had all dropped out long since - the result of high living, no doubt. His eyes didn't dart after everything going on in the mess hall. He kept them fixed in an unseeing gaze at some spot over Shukhov's head. His worn wooden spoon dipped rhythmically into the thin skilly, but instead of lowering his head to the bowl like everybody else, he raised the spoon high to his lips. He'd lost all his teeth and chewed his bread with iron gums. All life had drained out of his face, but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone. And by his hands, big and cracked and blackened, you could see that he'd had little opportunity of doing cushy jobs. But he wasn't going to give in, oh no! He wasn't going to put his three hundred grammes on the dirty bespattered table - he put it on a well-washed bit of rag." (p122-3)

This quote near the end of the book kind of summed it up for me, that the prisoners were powerless to prevent what was happening to them, that all that remained for them was to stay alive and preserve what little integrity was left to them. The book has this slightly strange upbeat ending, that Shukhov reaches the end of the day and sums it up thus:

"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 a 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." (p.142-3)

You are left with the feeling that for Solzhenitsyn, in spite of the terrible experience that he endured, he felt that the human spirit could survive.

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