The debut novel by Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsen, who passed away last week, is a masterful work for both its contents as well as the circumstances surrounding it. Published in 1962, when the truth of life in the Stalinist work camps was a secret both inside and out side the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is exactly what its title implies: a typical day, no more and no less, for a prisoner interned in one of Stalin's "special camps" - those camps dedicated to enemies of the state.
The wonder of the novel lies in a repeated thought throughout the day (and unfortunately I'm paraphrasing because I've poured through twice and can't find the original quote): "not even our minds are free." As we trace Denisovich's day getting up, cleaning the guardhouse, building a wall and coming back to the barracks in the evening, his thoughts are always in the moment, always trying to survive not the next day, but the next hour, the next minute. There's simply no time to do anything else and live when the temperatures drop below -17 degrees and taking a single step out of formation ("form fives" is a nasty refrain through the novel) means getting shot. Solzhenitsyn builds tension from small indiscretions - sewing a couple ounces of bread inside his mattress, hiding the one good trowel in a different spot every day to make his efforts a little easier, hiding a small hacksaw blade in a gloved mitten. Every time you think something bad is about to happen, it doesn't - Solzhenitsyn knows there's no need to ply on unnecessary melodrama when just the description of a "normal" day is enough.
As great as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is, its fame is helped in no small measure by what it accomplished in the world. Serving eight years in a camp very similar to what he describes in the book (for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Stalin), Solzhenitsyn not only opened a dark chapter of Soviet history to the public, but as a record of what it takes to survive under gargantuan oppression.