06 August, 2008

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the mathematician-turned-dissident-author, has died. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich some years ago. I found it to be a very accessible, short work. I have remembered one line which struck me as a wonderful description of hunger:

The belly is an ungrateful wretch, never remembering past favors, and always demanding more.
(That may not be the precise quote; it's from memory after all. If this webpage is accurate, however, my memory isn't so bad after all.)

I would heartily recommend the novella to anyone. One meets a strange array of characters in the gulag who clearly are not criminals: an admiral and hero of World War II whose crime was to receive a gift after the war from a British admiral whose acquaintance he had made during the Second World War, and a Baptist whose only crime was to be a Baptist. There were others, perhaps Ivan Denisovich too, but it's been too long since I read it for me to remember.

Many atheists like to trot out the Problem of Pain, that is to say, the appearance that much suffering is random, needless, and even meaningless, as the clinching argument against the existence of God. I've read that most theologians agree that this is the most salient argument. I confess that it troubles me myself.

Solzhenitsyn stood as a living counterexample to this accusation. He entered the gulag an atheist. Yet he left it an Orthodox Christian. You can't read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich without seeing that he endured random, needless, and meaningless suffering, but something about it rekindled the Orthodox faith that his mother had planted within his soul.

I haven't read The Gulag Archipelago, and maybe I will one day. Clemens relates an amusing story about that novel at Sententiae.

Here's an interesting conundrum. When reading about Solzhenitsyn's life, one finds that he fought with the Russian army during World War II. According to Wikipedia and a number of other things I've read, he was twice decorated. Again according to Wikipedia, near the end of the war he was accused of enemy propaganda and disseminating false information, and imprisoned. Yet I have heard repeatedly from Russians that Solzhenitsyn's crime was to abandon his company during a battle.

Which is true? In fact it's possible that both are true (I myself don't know), but it also makes one wonder if I was hearing echoes of old Soviet propaganda.

1 comment:

Clemens said...

I would also guess that what Russians know about the case was what was acceptable to know. And it might be true. It doesn't change much. Exactly what got Solzhenitsyn into prison is not so important as that he got there. And got out transformed. That's why I love that "Roads to Moscow" song so much and have ever since I first heard it on the radio decades ago (back when some stations would actually play a 9 min long song about the war in Russia!).

Glad you liked my post on him. I read One Day the in the Life, and also Aug 1914 - the original English translation when it first came out. Now I understand there is a new, greatly improved and expanded translation. Do you know the story on that? I want to read it again.

PS: I didn't know he was a mathematician!