Monday, April 28, 2008

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a very funny name. It sounds like, if rap ever decides to embrace Russian lit, like the sort of name that people make into a rap pun: Snoop Dogg's "Smokin' a Bowl', remix by Soulja Gnat-sin. I don't know that Solzheinitsyn would like me saying that, though. I don't know, maybe he would. I guess he probably wouldn't care. Once you're Alexsandr Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, probably having a two-bit book reviewer on an obscure blog in Texas think your name sounds funny is probably not such a big deal to you. Who knows, maybe he likes rap, for all I know. I know after the iron curtain fell that Russians were crazy about all kinds of American stuff, like McDonald's, Levis, that sort of thing. Rap music is pretty American. I have this great image of this skinny white Moscow kid, now, going 'Bow-wow-wow-yippie-o-yippie-ah' with a thick Russian drawl, and wearing gold colored tin jewelry like they sell in the dollar stores here. I wonder if they'll still like Snoop now that he's going to church, I'll have to ask Amanda...

By the way, that guy you see there is the self proclaimed 'King of Russian Rap'. I'd tell you his name, but on his website it seems his name actually IS 'King of Russian Rap'. IT seems like a small kingdom to rule, I would think, but perhaps not. Still, you have to give the guy credit, actually naming yourself 'King of _____' would seem to be pretty clever ploy to obtain the position of King of _______. I think I'll change my name to 'King of People Who Need Not Work For a Living.' See how things turn out.

Which brings me to prison. Well, hopefully not, but the possibility is there. But for Ivan Denisovich, he didn't even have to do anything, really, to end up in prison. Honestly, with a little very simple tweaking, this book could have read like Catch-22 - then again with tweaking the other direction it could have read like Schindler's List. The fact that it reads like neither, I think, is the wonderful thing about htis book - Mr. Solzheinitsyn, creates characters who are amazingly human, in a world that is frighteningly inhuman, without making 'amazingly human' mean 'amazingly compassionate, wonderful, and heroic' and without making 'frighteningly inhuman' mean 'wildly caricatured and utterly absurd.' Not that there's anything wrong with the other choices he could have made, but I loved this book because it felt, truly, confessional, int he best of ways, that you felt like what you - or at least me - would feel like iin this situation, not what the really amazing person you met once would feel like, and then the situation is more real. I woudl adapt, and that almost makes it worse - I don't think I'd have the strength to survive, but I wouldn't have the strength to refuse to survive either, I would meld into the culture like everyone else, and march along and try to do a job that I was not strong enough to do, and then one day I would do something stupid, get locked in a cell and die, not heroically, not hauntingly, but painfully, embarrasingly, and with no semblance of strength of will left by the end. I'd be ready to sell my best friend and comrade for a bowl of hot porridge, even if I wanted to be heroic about it all. The characters in Ivan Denisovich make you love htem because you can really understand them, not because you worhsip them. And in the end of the book, I think you feel much of what Ivan and his fellows feel - a sense of the immediacy of not being dead, and a subliminal undercurrent of overpowering bewilderment at the world you're in. At least that's what I felt. Lots of poeple apparently read this book and want to go march in peace parades and galvanize around causes of human rights and such. That's wonderful, I'm very happy for them, I don't think I have the strength to protect these fellows, I'm just sort of embarrased and lost, and not sure what to do with myself at the end... but in a good way, I suppose...

3 comments:

Amanda said...

So the book is also, then, not "the Diary of Anne Frank" or "Invitation to a Beheading" either...

I think I'll put this one on the list to read soon. I always worry about the russian writers (except Nabokov) after agonizing over Anna Karenina, but this sounds interesting, and like Solzhenitsyn (hopefully I spelled that right) wasn't too big into 100-page-long chapters of prose on how butterflies flit around fields.

Jen said...

Jason, I must say, I like your reviews. Who knew the first half would be about Russian rappers. Anyway, it made me want to read it.

Byron said...

Nice review, Jason! Funny, deep, and unique. Your insight and comfortable, informal manner of writing is great. I think you have a gift; I am consistently impressed by your writing. Can't wait for the next one.