The idea that the Zeks are not allowed to wear their crappy overalls but instead must ‘dress up’ when their relatives visit so that the relatives ‘do not get a bad impression of prison life’ is absurd, counter-productive since you want to deter possible traitorous family members, but also kind so that the family doesn’t worry. It’s amazingly complicated and fascinating and neurotic.
Everyone feels as if they are a good person and that they are hampered from being good because of external pressures. Nobody else can see anyone’s goodness, either, because it could land you in prison.
Fear runs everything and everyone is in their own prison – a whole country of prisoners – and nobody can communicate anything meaningful because that could mean treason or give someone an opportunity to rat on you.
Stalin is more of a prisoner than the zeks he sent off to Siberia, he’s a self-imposed lifer. Not that I feel sorry for him (the real man or the character here), but it does complicate things because it can be hard to see Stalin as a human. But the sense of paranoia and fear and mistrust builds an atmosphere that fills every page
Chapter 25 is stunningly beautiful, as good as anything by Turgenev. Great contrast
The scene with Stalin reminds me of the beginning of DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’ with Hoover as well as the scenes with Kutuzov in ‘War and Peace’. Both are fictional accounts of real, powerful men, but are used here to paint a picture of Stalin’s paranoia and self importance.
Caesar is recaled, too with his childhood home and the busts of his family’s ancestors watching over him, motivating him to rise. Stalin = vain
The best voice encryption system ever invented is a man saying one thing to a man when he really means something else. The message is received loud and clear when everyone gets the message.
The theme here is communication of all kinds, perceived, imagined and real.
Bobynin’s rant to Abakumov is the very thing you want to tell your idiot CEO who has no idea what the hell goes on in the company they run.
“Do you know how to make shoes?”
More than anyone so far in this novel, Simochka embodies the typical Soviet citizen. Since everyone is guaranteed work in Soviet Russia nobody is really doing anything worthwhile and even their schooling is pointless. She’s an audio engineer who can barely work a microphone. She was graduated through school because nobody was allowed to fail.
Everyone’s life here is wasted.
Not many (good) books can be read in one sitting, fewer of them should be read in one sitting.
One Day In The Life is an unusual book for other reasons too. First of all, nothing really happens. Oh, sure, plenty does, yet this is the brilliance of the novel. Just out of sight from our hero is a menace. We feel it in everything that does happen and we know, we just know something terrible is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something will, even should, go horribly wrong. And we know the consequences of a 10 day stint: no recovery and certain death.
More unusual is that without a few dates in the book, we would never really know when this book takes place. We could easily replace the tommy-guns with some other weapon and set the novel in the 18th century. Hell, Egyptian slaves probably didn’t fare much better 3000 years ago except they had to deal with heat and sand instead of cold and snow.
By the end of the novel we are relieved but on edge. I really felt like I had lived in that terrible place and I really did feel cut off from all life. And, of course, that is the point. And to know this was a factual account of life in the Gulags, that it took place during my parents generation, that it’s a microcosm and damnation of the failed Soviet communist experiment makes the whole book a terrifying masterpiece.
Yet it’s not the typical bleak Russian novel. There is hope on every page, in every action. There is beauty in the desolation of the camp, the ice on the window, the moon, even in the job of laying the bricks. There is humanity here and while there might not be a hope for a better and different future, there is hope for a good enough now.
Maybe the best we can do is live for the moment.