Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler – Alexey Pehov; TOR

Shadow Prowler is the first book in the Chronicles of Siala series by Russian author Alexey Pehov.  It was originally written, in Russian, in 2002, but published by TOR in 2010 under English translation by Andrew Bromfield.  I bought my copy new – paperback – with the cover art by Kekai Kotaki.  It was a random book purchase – I saw it on the shelf and since this is “read Russians” year for me (sort of), I took it to the checkout.

This novel is at once a very good novel and a very bad novel. At 557 pages, it definitely qualifies as a typical epic fantasy novel. Ultimately, this is what is both good and bad about the novel:  typical epic fantasy.  Pehov nails each and every trope, cliché, and imitation found in epic fantasy novels.  So, in some sense, the originality is lacking. Because if you have read the Dragonlance Chronicles series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, and anything by Tolkien, this will seem obvious and derivative. That’s bad, right? Or maybe not. But it could be.

The main character, Harold, is a master thief and is coerced through fate and scheming to embark on a quest that he’d rather not embark on. He’s presented as some sort of honorable thief. An anti-hero hero archetype.  The real reason he gets caught up in all of the trouble is based on some sort of honor code to the god of thieves regarding commissions. That’s a dubious reason to risk life and limb, right? Or is it? Not that this is new or original to any fantasy novel in history.  In fact, I can name at least two recent novels that share some of this archetype:  The Lies of Locke Lamora and Mistborn.   Thief, antihero. Been there, done that?

There are orcs and elves and demons.  And goblins. And dwarves. And gnomes. Yep – the whole gamut of races that one would find in World of Warcraft and EverQuest.  There are magicians and there are also shamen.  And priests.  So do you see how this book really takes the cake at stuffing the usual suspects into the “typical epic fantasy”?  This is a good thing. No, wait, it’s a bad thing. Or what is it?

Most of the characters act and speak precisely how one expects them to. The grizzled magician, the mentor of the main character, the band of rogues that join the quest, the elven royalty, the bad-guys, the tavern keeper:  they are stereotypical and obvious.  Only the main character has any depth, and honestly, he’s somewhat sarcastic and witty on a mild level. The only other character is a goblin who is the king’s jester and who is spunky and obnoxious.  Everyone else is carbon copy fantasy stock character. Which is a bad thing, right? No, no. It’s a good thing. Things do as they be.

The thing is – as derivative and obvious as this novel is (and it is, folks) – it’s also fun and interesting. As discerning, literary readers we can critique it to death regarding all of it’s obvious flaws. However, at the end of the day, I’d be lying to you if I said I did not enjoy it.  In fact, there are parts that were actually really (dare I say it?) gripping and interesting. Overall, this is a very fun novel. And I read novels to have fun and be entertained. For example, the part where the main character goes to the Forbidden Area of the city dabbles in ghostly Lovecraftian-scary stuff. (There are phantoms and zombies!!!!!)  And, honestly, this was a thrilling part of the novel – I could have read just a whole novel of the main character’s exploits in this scenario.  There are several “flashback”/hallucinations that take place that fill in background. And these were fun. I usually dread flashbacks because they tend to bore me. But, I cannot lie, these were actually kind of fun to read. And they did serve the purpose of filling in background. Late in the book, there is a death of a character and I have to admit, I was saddened by it. Silly ridiculous flat character died – but I sure did feel the tug on my Grinch-heart!

Another horrible thing (no! it’s not horrible at all. Yes it is. NO!) is that the storyline is spread out.  Some fantasy novels introduce characters, setup quest, go on quest. This one takes a multitude of “sections” that would be perfect for TV series.  We do not immediately jump out on the quest and head toward the main goal. Instead, the main character has a bunch of challenges and proximate goals to overcome before we even set out on the main storyline quest.  In fact, and here’s the kicker, by the end of the novel – our noble heroes haven’t even made it where they are going to accomplish the big goal! So if you really want to know – you gotta buy book two (and probably book three).  Not that the time in between was wasted or uninteresting, but it was surprising that the author did this. I mean, gutsy move, dude. And I am certain this turned off a lot of readers.

Speaking of which, Justin (on Goodreads and the blogger of Staffer’s Book Review) wrote this “Review” after giving this book one star. I agree with most of his complaints about the novel. Go ahead and read his commentary – because he’s correct and I think potential readers should read a variety of opinions.  But, and I daresay Justin might agree with me, it was a giggling-ly entertaining puff to read. And if I was so entertained, how can I give the novel one star?  I totally should not like this book as much as I did. And I should also not eat french fries, Taco Bell, or so much pizza………

So what should I rate this book? I am giving it four stars. It is stuffed with the obvious and is extremely derivative. But it’s still so much fun, I just kept turning the pages and I knew it was pulpy and stereotypical – but I was having fun reading it.  So, I totally agree with every one of the criticisms levied against this novel. But I still had a great time reading it. Shame on me: I enjoyed a silly “typical epic fantasy” novel.  And I went and bought book two. Russians gotta do what Russians gotta do….

4 stars

The Defense

The Defense

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in Russian in 1930.  The English translation was first published in 1964 – which is the edition that I read. This is the fourth novel by Nabokov that I have read and it is also the one that I am giving the most stars to:  four stars out of five for this one.  An interesting phenomenon has occurred in my reading of Nabokov.  The first book I read by him was Lolita – which I still despise completely. Then I read Despair, which I reviewed in this blog, giving it two stars.  Then I read Invitation to a Beheading which I enjoyed much more and gave three stars to.  Three stars is probably the closest estimation of an “average” read.  Then I read The Defense and am giving it another star.  So, in theory, if I am to read another Nabokov (the only one left that I have any desire to read is Bend Sinister), the pattern suggests I will give it five stars.

I loved The Defense.  I am honestly surprised and dismayed that most people do not like this novel as much as his other novels.  I mean, in my world, between The Defense and Lolita there is no comparison – Lolita is dreck and The Defense is the magnum opus.  I have speculated in my other blog about why The Defense is not so well-loved. I have only two ideas (feel free to share any you have):  (1.) people are turned off by chess; (2.) it’s way more Russian than the other novels (and therefore difficult to immerse oneself within).

All the great praise that I hear about Nabokov’s writing (that I found to be absent in the other novels) is here in this novel.  Here it is – all the marvel and fame and glory and skill and insight and so forth.  Finally! After four novels I found the Nabokov I was waiting for!

The main character, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, is one of my favorite characters of all time.  He just has to be.  I feel like he is autistic, though there is no mention of this in the novel whatsoever – this is just me hypothesizing.  He is indeed loveable and wonderful.  Sure, he seems surly or distant to the other characters, but Nabokov somehow understands this character so well.  Nabokov writes with insight and intuitiveness that makes Luzhin accessible and yet not fake or overdeveloped as a character.  Nabokov understands Luzhin and he writes so that we can understand too.  This means the author is able to cause sympathy in the reader for the character – the sign of a masterwork novel.

Luzhin does not really understand us.  When he is a child there is a line in the novel that I absolutely love because it’s amusing and it truly depicts an autistic child’s viewpoint.  His household is having an argument and the adults are edgy and grouchy:

Luzhin reflected disgustedly that today everyone had gone mad and went to his room.

That is an awesome line.  I love that Nabokov uses the word “disgustedly” and I love that Luzhin views the incongruous moods of his parents as having “gone mad.”  Nabokov’s genius is right there in that line.  He understands the character and in a short sentence allows us to understand Luzhin, too.

Luzhin proposing to his girlfriend is epic awesome.  He bustles, out of breath, into her room and starts pacing nervously. He says:

And therefore in continuance of the above I have to inform you that you will be my wife, I implore you to agree to this, it was absolutely impossible to go away, now everything will be different and wonderful.

He sits, exhausted, in a chair and starts crying.  So, he does not really ask her to marry him, but rather has it all sorted out in a sort of chess-like way which only seems reasonable to him.  His girlfriend responds to his outburst and tears by stroking his forehead and taking a good look at him.  She comes to this conclusion:

It was then that she realized clearly that this man, whether you liked him or not, was not one you could thrust out of your life, that he had sat himself down firmly, solidly and apparently for a long time.

This line is reminiscent of Oblomov.  Both Luzhin and Oblomov actually have some similar characteristics (though I say only the former is autistic).  Both characters instantiate themselves into their friends’ lives – not boisterously or rudely – but by virtue of their very innocence, naïvité, and reason. They are surprising because they are so different from the social behaviors of the society they live within.  They draw people to them without necessarily trying and by simply being themselves, so to speak. And both characters are wonderful.

There are a number of phrases and descriptions that, though not lengthy, are full of masterful wordsmithing.  The first paragraph(s) of chapter 13, for example, are descriptions of winter – without describing winter.  Nabokov somehow describes the scene as if viewed through Luzhin’s eyes, maybe. And the writing is actual simple and not convoluted, but it is beautiful because it shows Nabokov really really really experiences the scene and can tell us perfectly his experience.  He describes a boy, a storefront, a frozen pond, a dog – all of this with such deft ease.  This is the Nabokov we’ve been hearing about; the one that’s a world-class author.

Late in the novel, Luzhin is trying to hide a notebook.  His wife retires to bed and Luzhin walks around the house searching for a “safe-place.”

Everywhere was insecure.  The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of that rapacious vacuum cleaner.  It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing:  the other things are jealous and inhospitable, holding on firmly to their places and not allowing a homeless object, escaping pursuit, into a single cranny.

Now, I do not know if you have ever sought for a “safe-place” or a secure place to put something, but yes, this is precisely what it is like.  And Nabokov describes this scene so perfectly.  And there’s this touch of autistic understanding in Luzhin’s attempt to hide the notebook.  I like how the difficulty of hiding an object is not the fault of Luzhin or the object – but that of other objects. Thanks for this, Nabokov!

The novel is a tragedy. The ending is sudden and done in a few paragraphs. It can seem like a ludicrous ending to some readers.  However, I think reading the whole novel in terms of a life lived within a chess game – the ending makes sense.  The ending also is congruent with the same, small Luzhin who years ago went to his room disgustedly.  It matches, too, the Luzhin who “proposes” to his girlfriend by stating it must be so.  Because Luzhin, above all, is a grandmaster of chess, life for him is chess. And he sees all the incidents and circumstances as if they are on some kosmic chessboard.  The Defense is, in his mind, the correct move.  The fallout from that is almost inconsequential. Dear Luzhin…..

4 stars

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov; Vintage

This is the third, and best, novel by Vladimir Nabokov that I have read.  It was finally published in English in 1959.  My edition is the Vintage International 1989 edition.  I have to mention the cover . . . .  before reading and through most of my reading, I thought the pink stuff on the cover was just some flower petals.  I never looked too closely at it.  However, I looked at it today and was creeped out – it’s a blurry photograph pinked out of people screaming or whatever. Distorted faces. It’s disturbing and I don’t like it at all.  I think it is supposed to represent the people who visit the main character in jail.

I do not really like Nabokov. I find that he is an arrogant writer.  I tend to think he was a scoundrel.  Also, I tend to like realism more than surrealism or existentialism.  So, Kafka and Nabokov et al. never appeal to me.  Nevertheless, for some ridiculous reason, I keep reading Nabokov hoping to find a novel I will like. I abhor Lolita and I found Despair to be miserable.  Invitation to a Beheading is actually quite good comparatively.

One of the things that I dislike about Nabokov’s novels is that there are chapters where nothing happens or it gets too obtuse for me to care about what happens.  There are chapters in the middle of this novel that plod along and reality seems to drip away like some Dali painting or something.  The existential questions that hang around in Despair are a little more articulated and contextual here in this novel, though.

I really like the name of the main character; I give Nabokov credit for using an unusual name.  But the fact that Nabokov uses first name and then last initial makes it really seem like he’s copying Kafka or something. I don’t know – my distaste for Nabokov tends to color even the times I praise him.  Anyway, Cincinnatus C. is the main character in this novel and he’s actually the only character in any Nabokov that I even liked a small bit.

The novel takes place in the three weeks Cincinnatus spends in jail between his sentencing and his execution.  His crime(s) are not stated directly, much like Kafka novels.  Sure there are some suggestions, but generally, I interpreted his crime as his being an authentic (existentialist) person.  Throughout the novel, there are sections where Cincinnatus describes his past or the present in terms of his difference from those around him.  Not in detail and specific, but as if he is fundamentally more real than they are.  The other characters (named and unnamed) are parodies and inauthentic.

Overall, Cincinnatus has had a rather miserable life.  Apparently, for most of it he hid his “real-ness” and pretended to be just like the society that he lives in. But, there were times they caught glimpses of him and recognized he was different.  For example, his wife Marthe was really only a slut and cheated on Cincinnatus constantly – and this is even how she manages to visit him in jail.  Now that he has been sentenced to death, he no longer pretends and almost fully welcomes his difference.  He struggles to work with other people on their level – within their false system – but he only meets with frustration.  Most of the people torment him psychologically. For example, his executioner is a real bastard toward Cincinnatus – but the prison director approves and praises the executioner.  They toy with Cincinnatus’ hope and his requests.  The only person that seems to have any genuine care for Cincinnatus is the director’s daughter, Emmie, who is just a young child. What is Nabokov’s obsession with little girls?

I really liked the parts of the writing where Cincinnatus is divided into two Cincinnatus.  What I mean is, the actual Cincinnatus, who is in jail and who interacts with those around him and then the other Cincinnatus, who represents (in imagination) the “real” Cincinnatus.  All of this is like riding a subway or a bus and gritting your teeth when teenagers are being obnoxious, all the while you are imagining yourself standing up and punching them in the head.  Or when you are in a business meeting and it’s very droll and tedious and you act fascinated, but in your imagination you are pretending a giant alien insect is devouring your fellow businessmen.  I think Nabokov could have played these parts out a little bit more, because he does a good job with this.  And then, of course, this ends up being the key to the novel – the ending of how Cincinnatus is executed – or not.

There is all the typical Nabokov symbolism in the novel. Colors, butterflies/moths, and tattoos.  But even with all of this, I only give this novel three stars. I think people who like existentialism would enjoy this novel.  Also, people who really adore Kafka’s works will like this one.  For me, it’s the best of the three I read, but it’s just not that great. Worth a read, if you’ve nothing else to read.

3 stars

Oblomov

Oblomov

Oblomov by Goncharov; Penguin Classics

Before I even think of commenting on the book, I have to say that the Penguin Classics cover here is decidedly not one of my favorites.  I think it was chosen to suggest the character Oblomov.  In reality, it’s a portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin done by the famous painter Ilia Efimovich Repin.  And I do not think that it suggests the character of Oblomov at all.  I suppose the portrait is fine as it is, but I hate that Penguin used it as the cover image. This goes against all the images I conjured in my head regarding Oblomov.

Oblomov was published in 1859.  The author, Ivan Goncharov, deserves a ranking beside Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Having read a lot of Russian classics this year, I have to say that this novel was by far my favorite.  I love this novel. Oddly, I feel this is the least known of the typical litany of Russian classics.  Why this is, I have no idea.

Very few readers will be able to handle this novel.  I say this for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s a very slow novel to read. When the main character takes a hundred pages to get up out of bed – you know it’s going to be a long novel.  But there is also another reason why it is a slow novel to read – one cannot read it every day.  Or, at least, I could not.  Sometimes, life is too busy and kinetic to read this novel and if I tried to do so, I disliked my reading experience.  This is all very ironic once you read the novel.   A second reason that a reader may be put off of this novel is that contemporary society seems to have created minds thirsting for hyperactive, extreme, torrid emotional affairs that zoom past.  Compared to the frantic-ness of everything nowadays, Oblomov might seem tedious.  A third reason is that the time period that the novel takes place in is not one that most people can imagine, much less truly feel inside of them.  Sure, facts and statistics and history books seem to explain this time period, but that is not the same as having sympathy and empathy for the time period.

This novel is about (and not limited to):   love, philosophy of life, the gradual passing of the Russian upper-class, the difference between the European metropolitan and the rural Russian, loyalty, patience, and stubbornness.  Also, there’s a bit of pseudo-autobiographical stuff running through the novel by the subtle and insightful Goncharov. The book is simply divided into four parts.  The main cast of characters is relatively easy to remember and follow.  There is symbolism and plenty of traditional Russian settings, artefacts, and sayings.

As I was reading, I was jotting down page numbers for quotes that I liked.  By page 268, I had at least a dozen quotes. Someday, somewhere, I will probably re-read the quotes and smile and nod and make a sage-looking face.  Goncharov is one of the wisest, most intuitive writers I’ve read.

Readers will probably find the first part of the novel amusing and comical.  The second and third parts they may find tedious and here is where they might begin to misunderstand the character Oblomov.  Finally, the last thirty pages or so present the tragedy, vindication, and uniqueness of the character. Whenever I think of misunderstood characters, I shall think of Oblomov.  He’s not the typical tragic character – he, more or less, gets what he wants in life.  But most people begrudge him this throughout his life.  He has enemies, but somehow through Fate or Grace, he escapes their clutches.  Once one is truly Oblomov’s friend, one cannot ever cease being his friend and being loyal even to the end, no matter what.   The end of the novel is spectacular.

There are some minor things I am interested in:  for example, Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar uses the word “pathetic” a bit.  I wonder what the Russian word is and why the translators chose “pathetic.” I am sure that it is a good word choice – I am not being critical – but it’s not pathetic in the usual sense.  It seems to include a hefty dose of pathos and melodrama to it.  Such a minor thing, but something I am interested in.

None of this really shares why this is such an awesome book.  Actually, most of what I wrote so far might be seen as complaint.  It’s pre-emptive complaining – because I can imagine readers really disliking this book, and somehow, this book resonates so much with me, that I cannot bear the criticism. I want to defend Oblomov and Goncharov.  Why?  Because unlike so many mass-produced and trope-filled novels, this book handles the major problems of life with insight and wisdom.  This one gets to the depth of life and makes the reader quit his haste and learn about another way to live that isn’t manipulating others, clawing at the stock market, or flitting to every social event.  This novel is a magnificent tragedy and absolutely not a tragedy whatsoever.  After reading it, I am curious to see if other readers will praise Oblomov, ridicule him, or mourn him.  That’s the kind of novel this is. And every bit of it takes patience and a quiet room to read.

I will someday die a little bit happier – because I will know that I read the best novel. . . . .

5 stars

The Master and the Margarita

The Master and the Margarita

The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; Penguin Classics

I finally finished this extremely well-known novel.  The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is easily one of the most read and discussed novels since it’s publication in Russian (1967 & 1973) and English (1967).   Interpretations of the novel have been made for graphic novels, stage, film, and various other formats.  There are icons and symbols – to include little statues, postcards, stamps, and all sorts of other artefacts that celebrate or commemorate this novel.

To say Bulgakov struggled a bit in writing the novel is true, but sounds somewhat unfair.  Bulgakov struggles continued from 1929 – 1940.  In that time period, he burnt a manuscript, moved, and made at least four versions.  This was not an easy novel for Bulgakov to write.  Some of that shows through, I think.  I understand that this is a translated version, but I do feel there are sections where the writing grows thicker and jagged.

Overall, the novel is divided into two parts over (in my copy) 400 pages.  There are bunches of endnotes that explain dozens of references that Bulgakov slips into his novel, if the reader is so inclined to learn the details.  I admit that I did this sparingly.  It’s difficult to want to do this in a fiction novel – I feel it interrupts the storyline too much to read a quick entry from an endnote/glossary.

Since the Margarita does not show up as a character until the second part, I feel the title The Master and the Margarita is only one of a number of titles this novel could have been named.  Frankly, I would have named the novel The Ordeal of Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev.

Anyway, it would be ridiculous to attempt any real plot summary in this review.  Suffice to say, the devil and his entourage shows up in Moscow and upends the place for about four days.  The neat thing is that the devil neither announces his presence nor hides it.  One of the things that I think Bulgakov did an excellent job with is the way he writes the antics of the devil’s lackeys.  It is downright chilling and creepy how easily the devil plays on people’s vices or how easily he leads them toward conclusions that are obviously wrong – but are what they wish to conclude. These parts of the novel are gripping and insightful.

Sure, there are depths of satire and humor here as well.  But it’s almost a darker humor than most Americans in 2012, for example, would be used to.  Still, there are some quite amusing moments.  Without a doubt, there are, too, some very creative scenes – the Ball that Woland forces Margarita to play hostess at is intense and creative.  But the magic show at the Variety Theatre is definitely one of those must-read/must-know chunks of world literature.

For my tastes, though, this is not my favorite Russian classic.  I really liked the opening sections of the novel – with Berlioz and Ivan at Patriarch’s Ponds.  The chapters there and following are awesome.  As I said, I loved the Variety Theatre show.  But I lost a lot of attention and care with the sections dealing with Margarita and (more or less) anything after Chapter 25.  Margarita (self-sacrificing? devoted? courageous?) is still not a likeable character (to me) and I had a difficult time caring about her and the Master’s relationship. The last chunk of the novel is where the reader is supposed to start piecing together how thorough Woland has been, the morals of the entire storyline, and the connections between the manuscript of the master and the thoughts and dreams of Ivan Nikolayevich.   However, it lost a lot of steam for me – got a bit too slow, or uninteresting, or something. I really do think it’s because I am not a Russian in 1940.    Sometimes, Woland seems lazy and maybe gets more credit than his due – his lackeys seem to cause more havoc than he does.  Woland is a brooding sort of devil.  Overall, four stars for the majority of the book.

4 stars

Despair

Despair

Despair by V. Nabokov; Vintage International

Despair was first published (in Russian) in 1936, Nabokov edited and revised it for the English translation in 1965.  This is the second Nabokov novel that I have read, the first was Lolita; although, I do own Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading.  I absolutely despise Lolita and am not sure that Despair is any better of a novel.  I do want to read The Defense.  I do not honestly know how much more Nabokov I can take – if The Defense is no good, I swear off of the author forever.

I know that by saying anything against Nabokov, it is almost as if I am making myself into some sort of literature-pariah and that I chance no one taking seriously anything that I further say.  Make no mistake, I understand Nabokov’s literature – I understand his writing, the allegories, themes, color, lyricism, etc.  I just do not like it.  I find his writing to be tedious, interruptive, stupid, and immoral.  Without a doubt, the feeling I get from reading Nabokov’s writing is that he is unbearably arrogant and obnoxious.

I have read Russians – the classic group of them (no need to list them) – and I think they are the greatest of writers. Nabokov does not deserve, in my opinion, to be counted among them.  I never can see what readers find in his work. I am beginning to suspect that actually no one really likes his work, they just feel it is their duty to nod their heads and agree with everyone else.  I cannot be one of those people – I dislike Nabokov’s writing and reserve the right to do so in the future.

Reading Despair was a chore. It was a bore – I hated the narrator-character immensely.  Actually, there wasn’t a single character I liked at all. The writing (supposedly that of the main character) was wretched and all over the place (presumably to designate his state of mind or WHATEVER…) but through it all, once again, seeped Nabokov’s wretched arrogance.

So, why did the main character plot and carry out his own murder? Was it for the insurance money? The thrill of it all? Because he fancied himself part of the great mystery-drama that he was writing?  Frankly, I just don’t care.  I am sure in stuffy classrooms across the globe students attempt to plum possible responses to these questions for their mid-term papers.  However, I just don’t care why the character did it.

Maybe there was no actual murder and such. Maybe it was all part of the story-within-a-story. Again, I really don’t give a rip.  Just like the idea that the main character has a double who looks like him – but only to him. Everyone else fails to see the resemblance. Was there a resemblance or wasn’t there? And just why does the main character think there is one? And, most importantly, does anyone care? Not I, surely.

I was uninterested in the tribulations of a self-congratulatory author (main character), the arrogance of Nabokov’s writing, the attempts at vaguely replaying Crime & Punishment, the pseudo-mental anguish of the main character.  Nabokov, you waste my time – I despair of reading any more of your works.

2 stars

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by A. Solzhenitsyn; Signet

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and was first published in 1962.  The novel takes place in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, describing a single day of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  The author, Solzhenitsyn was himself imprisoned in the Gulag camps between 1945 and 1953.  The edition I read is the Signet Classics 2008 and it is this cover that is my favorite among all the editions.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in the Gulag labor camp.  He is a member of the twenty-four man squad called the 104th.  Formerly, he was a farmer and soldier who was arrested falsely on the charge of being a spy.  On the day the novel takes place, Shukhov is already a veteran of these labor camps and is in the process of serving a ten-year sentence.

The story begins at 5:00am when the prisoners are awoken for a long day of hard labor.  The reader learns about the process of the labor camp through the thoughts and actions of Shukhov.  When this book was first published, it was a shocking revelation of the corruption and abuses in the Soviet system. However, reading it in 2012, it’s pretty much exactly what one would expect from the book.  The book ends somewhere close to 11:00pm, with Shukhov fallen asleep in his barracks bunk.

In the book, we learn about the society within a society that forms in prison.  The reader is given to understand the level of corruption that occurs from the highest level, to the lowest level in the penal system.  The prisoners are constantly harassed and monitored, so that they have no free time, no rest, and no escape.  The guards who run the prison are corrupt and harsh, but they are, in essence, stuck in their own prison – since they have no real desire to work at the Gulag in the cold, either.

Daily, after being frisked, corralled, and searched, the squads march to a new location in the freezing bitter cold where they begin their day of work.  The work is designed to be inefficient and tedious.  The materials and tools needed to accomplish any sort of productive work are lacking.  Food is dolled out in scarce, weak portions.  None of the prisoners have proper garments, nutrition, or equipment.

This particular day is a relatively good one for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  He falls asleep at the end of the day fairly content with the events of his day.  Throughout the day, we follow his efforts to survive in the subculture that is his squad and the larger culture that is the entire prison.  The devil is in the details for his survival – how many ounces of bread is he allotted? How can he best ration his bread, clothing, tobacco, and rags?  Who can be barter with?  Who can be trusted and who is hazardous for his survival?   Basically, the day is a good one because Shukhov is able to stay warmer than others by a few degrees, get a few extra ounces of bread, and have an extra cigarette or two.  These, for him, are major wins, though looking from the outside in, they do not seem that important.  In the Gulag, it is all about daily survival – and most of that means being smart and careful.  Arrogance, stubborness, and foolishness are all pitfalls that usually spell the end of prisoners before their term is up.  However, in order to gain such little bonuses, it requires great cunning and effort on the prisoners’ part – is it worth it?

Toward the end of the book, another prisoner puts a question to Shukhov – has Shukhov so adapted to prison life that he actually does not wish to be free anymore? Was hoping for his release to freedom anything but a boring hindrance? Is it better to focus on daily survival?  Shukhov’s contented sleep at the end seems to almost signify that he has been truly broken, since it seems that his complete acceptance of the prison life means that he would not escape or choose to be released even if he was given that option.  That, it seems, is the real terror of the labor camps – not the physical strains and struggles.

4 stars

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