This book is literally what is says: one day in the life of a Ivan Denisovich, a prisoner in a Stalinist labour camp in 1951. But it’s so much more! From the sparse, descriptive but casual writing you get a feel for Denisovich, a farmer representing the Russian everyman. He is collected, dignified, stoic, and also canny and resourceful.
Solzhenitsyn takes you through the ins and outs of camp life: the searches, strippings, marches, meagre rations, the work. The reader learns the little tricks that keep a man alive: standing in a queue to earn a bonus from another man’s food package, knowing which guards can be reasoned with and which ones to avoid or smuggling a blade through a search. As Denisovich loses himself in his work the reader loses themselves in the story, living his ups and downs. It’s that Lolita thing where you get wrapped up in the protagonist and forget the reality of the situation: “Oh wow, he got an extra bowl of really terrible soup? It’s gonna be a good night!”
But by the end of the book when Ivan counts his blessings for the day, it jerked me out of complicity with an unobtrusivley reminder of the real horror and brutality that took place. These were real people who were ground down day after day with starvation, inhumane working conditions and casual violence. Denisovich is lucky to be able to lose himself in work, just as his workmates who he derides are lucky to lose themselves in prayer. They must find some way to get through a place where people are treated in such a way that getting an extra bit of food or not falling ill counted toward “a day without a dark cloud.” It’s a deceptively simple and powerful book.
“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 three extra days were for leap years.”