You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner in the Soviet gulag. It details one day in the main character's life, from waking to going to bed again.

The day starts with the banging of a rail in the prison yard. Ivan Denisovitch Shukov wants to stay in bed because he doesn't feel well and it's cold. For not getting up right away, a guard pulls him out of bed and takes him to the guardroom where he has to mop the floor. The guards there treat him like a subhuman. His work squad saves his breakfast. He visits the infirmary but they have already kept back the only two they can for the day.

The workers leave for their work sites, and are made to open their coats and pull up their shirts in the cold air, to make sure they don't have more than the regulation number of shirts. They make it to the work site, and are forced to improvise in order to get their work complete. They have to add bricks and mortar to an old unfinished building, but the water and mortar will freeze if they sit too long, so they have to work fast. Shukov works quickly as a mason, setting the pace for the rest of the crew. At lunch he manages to trick the cook into giving the squad two extra bowls of oatmeal, and he gets one of them.

In the evening, they workers march back to the barracks. They get soup for supper, after making through the "Limper", who bashes men with a club if they approach the mess hall before their squad is called. Shukov gets more food again, after standing in the package line for one of his squad mates. After supper, he buys some tobacco, and relaxes in the barracks before the guards force the prisoners to march outside and back in for a final count. The narrator finishes by saying that the day has been a pretty good one for Shukov: he go extra food, could buy tobacco, didn't end up in solitary, and did some work that he was good at and enjoyed.

The story is a depressing one, but one of the emerging themes is survival. Shukov doesn't think about his former life, or creating a new one when he leaves prison. The prison has become his life, and he has adjusted. He and the others are all resourceful, finding ways to get more food and stay warmer just a bit longer. They work together as a team. Whenever more food comes in, they often share it with their squad. In a way, Shukov has joined a more perfect communist society. All the prisoners are in the same boat and share rewards and punishments, especially inside the squads.

Shukov is contrasted with others. There are two baptists who urge him to pray with them, but he won't have anything to do with their paradise or hell, and it won't get him home any faster. The former navy captain is new to the system, clashes with the guards, and ends up in solitary. Shukov would never let himself get noticed by the guards; he stays quiet and keeps his head down. Tiurin is the squad leader, who exemplifies the relationship between the prisoners and how they relate to the guards. He makes sure the squad gets what they need, and manages to bribe the guards with salt pork to keep them from sending the squad to a faraway work site without shelter. Other prisoners don't work as hard as Shukov, or aren't as crafty, and many don't get extra food.

The book is interesting, though it definitely lacks drama. There's some tension between the prisoners. There are squealers, thieves, slackers. But for the most part it's the story of one man and how he copes inside a system that degrades human beings, much like the Soviet system as a whole. The writing is good and illuminating. I found it more informative than entertaining, so I'll give it a B.


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