Saturday, February 20, 2010

In the First Circle (Solzhenitsyn)

Abramson was naturally slit-eyed, and when he removed his glasses, his gaze seemed to show more plainly than ever his boredom with the prison world. He had seen it all before; the Gulag Archipelago could hold no new shocks for him. He had been in prison so long that he seemed to have lost all feeling, and what to other people was a tragedy he accepted as merely a modification of routine.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) has, in a very short period of time, gone from an author who I appreciate to one who consistently amazes me. Though this book originally appeared in 1968 (six years before his massive The Gulag Archipelago project), it has only recently been restored to its original state--with the re-addition of nine whole chapters, a slew of details, name changes, and fleshing out of characters. As it stands now, it is a novel of extreme complexity. However, this is not because its ideas are so abstract, but because the care poured into each of the novel's 59 central characters(!) causes every action to send ripples out for miles. Like the sharashka prison where most of the events take place, the book is so packed full of individuals that it is practically a Monadology.

In the chronology of his fiction, one could see this as prologue to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which then leads to Cancer Ward: it is the first circle in Solzhenitsyn's own trip through the Gulag. The sharashka (where Solzhentisyn, himself, spent a few early years of his decade long sentence) is a manner of indentured servitude. It is where the arrested scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were still useful for the Soviet state were placed, rather than sending them to a labor camp. Because of this, the regulations are a bit less strict than elsewhere. The prisoners are allowed to converse, are fed relatively well, can read, submit complaints, and have the occasional visitor. However, the freedoms that they have are kept on such a short leash that it only serves to make their arrest all the more apparent. Conversations are always monitored by informers among the ranks, books are subject to censorship (and personal dedications from loved ones are torn out), complains often go unheard, and prisoners are only allowed to talk about a short list of things with their once-yearly visitor (no talking about work, regulations, status of their case, and no touching, hugging or kissing is allowed), and there is a guard in the room during the entire visit. Each prisoner works at least 12 hour days, and food privileges can be revoked, or simply ignored if a prisoner is interrogated during meal time. For Solzhenitsyn, the sharashka is Dante's first circle of Hell. As in The Inferno, what is most notable in this circle is the pain of separation. Prisoners are given hopelessly long sentences (ten or twenty-five years), and are never sure if the end of their sentence means freedom or simply a second sentencing. They are strung along by their nose, always kept in the dark and in danger of losing what freedoms they have. Those with nothing left have no fears, but those in the first circle are kept in fear of losing still more, endlessly.

And yet, as always, Solzhenitsyn paints with thick strokes of humanity. Though the cast of characters takes up four pages, each feels as though he or she is human, through and through. This goes for the guards and the ministry of state, as well as the prisoners. Nearly 100 pages are devoted to understanding Stalin as a human, though the result is less than favorable. Everyone--everyone--is kept inches from destruction by Stalin's sweeping gaze, and somehow Solzhenitsyn keeps every character's particular interests and investments close at hand, from state minister Innokenty's decision to warn America of the Soviet development of a nuclear bomb, to the prisoner Rubin's unwavering love for the Soviet state; from Yakonov (the chief engineer in charge of the prisoner) who can feel his own time in power running out, to Solzhenitsyn's self-modeled Nerzhin, who can feel that he will soon be shipped out to a hard labor camp. What is amazing is how each characters motivations and actions are not only believable, but understandable. It shows a deep connection to human nature, running from the top to the bottom of the social ladder.

It is very easy for publishers to market his novels as a rallying cry for the West in Cold War terms, but to do so is to completely miss the point of his work. Solzhenitsyn's characters are the victims of politics, but his work is never political: it is all about the human experience in desperate conditions, about retaining dignity in squalor, and simply about the beauty of the written word. He is clearly Russia's successor to Dostoevsky: an author whose works greatly exceed the breadth of their pages. And he is probably one of the best authors the 20th century ever produced.