Monday, May 21, 2012

International Fiction Book Club Meeting - May 2012

         The International Fiction Book Club met on May 16th to discuss, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Two members chose the same quote as their favorite line from the book.  “How can you expect a man who's warm to understand one who's cold?”  That certainly is a starting point for appreciating this story of a prisoner in a Siberian work camp.  Although there are slight differences, Shukhov’s experience mirrors the imprisonment of the author.  Shukhov was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Second World War.  When he escaped from the Germans he was considered a spy for the Germans and sentenced to ten years.  Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was given eight years for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a relative.  The “fictionalized” account was a topic for discussion as well as the ways in which Stalin used the work camps not only to intimidate would-be protesters but to people work gangs that were supposed to build damns, bridges and complete may other collective projects that would move the country forward.

         In Shukhov’s case it was a power station that had to be built in thirty degrees below zero weather and with a lack of proper tools and machinery.  The author makes no bold conclusions about the worth of the work by the prison gangs.  We enter into the mind of Shukhov who is mired in the here and now of getting by one day at a time.  Spotting a chance of scrounging a butt, finding a shard of metal in the yard, managing to avoid being placed in the hole and laying brick after brick in a hurried manner so the mortar doesn’t freeze before its applied all take on the immediacy so necessary for Shukhov to survive without thinking about tomorrow.  Anticipation of a fellow inmate receiving a bountiful care package from relatives has become part of Shukhov’s routine.  He performs small favors for Tsezar, the cinematographer, who was imprisoned before he could make his first film.  In return Shukhov receives tobacco, sausage and other assorted treats.  There is no desperation in Shukhov.  He simply has the will to survive.  Hiding a piece of rationed bread inside his jerkin, Shukhov manages to save the bread so he can use it to clean every last drop of his rationed gruel later in the day.  This behavior is juxtaposed with that of an inmate who is caught licking bowls.  He is severely beaten.

         There are not many references to the world outside of the camp.  One that spurred some discussion also involved Tsezar.  As Shukhov enters the room, Tsezar and another inmate are discussing the relative merits of the Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein.  ...”or the baby carriage rolling down the Odessa steps”... A vivid image from the father of montage in film.  I instantly knew what Tsezar was talking about.  Its a famous scene from the silent film “Battleship Potemkin”.   The inmates disagree on the standing of the director.  Tsezar thinks he is a genius but the other disagrees.  What are we to make of it.  Solzhenitsyn was religious and advocated a return to a Patriarchal form of government.  So, it is unlikely he would have ben swayed by the notoriety achieved by Eisenstein whose work was brilliant but certainly worked as propaganda.

         Perhaps the most telling incident occurs at the end of the book.  Shukhov gives the extra ration of bread that he got from Tsazar to another inmate in an act of kindness.  This gesture as a comment on a bit of wisdom doled out in the yard,... “who is the convict’s worst enemy?”  The answer, “another convict”.  Everyone liked this book and the IFBC next meets on June 20th to discuss the Umberto Eco novel, The Prague Cemetery.  Everyone is welcome.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk