the art of stealing bread: reading one day in the life of ivan denisovich

In the last week Australians all around the world came to a halt to commemorate ANZAC Day and after attending my first dawn service, I was reminded of the great and terrible effect war has not only on the front line, but well into history, society and literature.

This week I took a look into one of the trailblazing war novels of the last century and while it didn’t deal with the glorified or sordid details of the front line, I can honestly say it was one of the most haunting and stunning reads I have ever experienced.

Dedicating 150-ish pages to one Russian convict, locked away in some god-awful frozen Gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivers a stirring depiction of survival and companionship against insurmountable odds, where the luxury of a cigarette butt and crust of bread is topped only by the uncountable and radical possibilities of a scrap of cloth.

It need not be said that quirky on-liners were respectably scarce.

Beginning in the early hours of the morning, frozen in the scrounged shelter of a sawdust mattress and a prison issued jacket, we are taken along with Ivan Denisovich, referred to most often as Shukhov, for a single day of life in the Russian Gulag.

The living conditions are as inconceivable as the determination of Shukhov and his fellow inmates to continue surviving, but what we come to understand as the final page turns is just how precious that one day is.

In only 150 pages (give or take a few for your publication) and a single day, Solzhenitsyn takes the reader from disgust to gratitude with only an extra few hundred grammes of bread and the knowledge that there will be many more days much worse than the one we are shown.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a book about the whole experience of the Gulag, with respectable references to the similar Nazi concentrations camps, taking the reader through the paces—showing us how to survive and driving home the recurring theme that (while we read in the comfort of our homes and big red chairs) we really haven’t the foggiest clue how to look after ourselves.

From bribing guards to the prison pecking order, Solzhenitsyn’s character watches the thriftiest and the most naïve of inmates, commenting on their survival and laying rest to the inevitable question of revolt.

“Dig your heels in and they will break you in two,” Shukhov says when a fellow convict complains about his abused rights.

This is a book where the most effective and damning rebellion against political tyranny is survival and the knowledge that, in many cases, the captors and wardens are just as much out in the cold as the convicts.

In the end, this is a book that will challenge your ideas about wealth, security and the value of companionship as much as it will make you appreciate bread, warmth and the sense of assurance that tomorrow is still an option.

 

From the friend who is sparing thought for the incalculable opportunities of a nail,

Curiosity

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