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QUARTERLY ESSAY 41 The Happy Life

 

Correspondence

Robert Lagerberg

As a regular teacher of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I have misgivings about David Malouf’s reading of this book, particularly his conclusion: “Unlikely as it may seem, Shukhov is our perfect example of the happy man. And we understand his state, and believe him when he tells us he is happy, because we have lived through this day with him.”

Shukhov is offered by Malouf as the embodiment of a type, the downtrodden person who is nonetheless able to derive a certain amount of happiness from his meagre lot, when not ravaged by more extreme pain or tragedy, and when blessed by the smallest bounties. His “happiness” is relative, and results from small mercies – surviving another day, risking but escaping solitary confinement, scraping a few extra bowls of food (if the vile swill he eats can be called that), and taking part in a productive and warming work session on the construction site, albeit in freezing conditions and wearing the most rudimentary clothing and footwear. 

There are several reasons to avoid a simplistic reading of this kind. Solzhenitsyn himself never really expected his book to be published under the Soviet regime. Taking advantage of Khrushchev’s 1961 criticism of Stalin, he decided, albeit nervously, to submit his manuscript to the journal Novyj mir. Through no small amount of luck, it finally found its way to an editor and thence to Khrushchev himself, who recommended that it be published, saying: “[I]t is a life-affirming work. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that it expresses the Party spirit.” Undoubtedly the book would not have been published if its hero had been portrayed as in any way subversive. Shukhov is earthy, but smart and even kind; he is a peasant and – undoubtedly deliberately – a non-intellectual in contrast to the cultivated main character of Dostoievski’s towering work of Russian prison life, The House of the Dead. Shukhov survives the Gulag so well precisely because he does not ask himself the difficult questions. With its explosive subject matter, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had to give a dispassionate description of the day itself, with some semblance of a positive statement at its conclusion, in order to be published. 

Malouf’s reading ignores this most basic form of irony – the portrayal of dire conditions without overt commentary – to claim with a straight face that the hero has found happiness … almost. The latter word is key, of course: “The day had gone by without a single cloud – almost a happy day.” Certainly, it would be hard to reconcile the author of the astringent Gulag Archipelago, with its graphic descriptions of Stalin’s labour camps, with the author of this “happy day.” I think that Solzhenitsyn himself would have been surprised to learn that he had provided Malouf with a “perfect example of the happy man.”

One should bear in mind all that is not mentioned explicitly about the camps, but which this book conjured up in the minds of its readers: the false or petty convictions, the long and arbitrary sentences, the terrifyingly awful journeys to the camps, the cruelty and death there, the appalling physical conditions – freezing winters and scorching summers with inadequate clothing and terrible food – the stench, lice, the danger from hardened criminals, particularly at night, the fate of women and even babies … 

Malouf also ignores an important point made by the punctuation of the original text: the two short final paragraphs of the book are separated from the preceding material by a line break. This break between “almost a happy day” and the final paragraph signifies, in my view, one of the largest intakes of breath in the history of literature, as it precedes a vast silent scream, the visceral comprehension of hell on earth that results from the act of remembering – the other “half” of the book. Even assuming one day of relative happiness, the addition of 3652 more such days scarcely bodes well. My reading of the book is, therefore, of two very unequal “halves”: the first 99.9 per cent as Shukhov slowly “awakens” to recall his day, even to acknowledge, at its close, that it was, to paraphrase, “not all that bad”; and the final 0.1 per cent, in the form of the last paragraph, when it is realised that the good fortune and almost superhuman effort required to guide him safely through this day is dwarfed in every way by the scale of ten years, or, as in the case of one of the inmates – surely one of the most moving passages of the book – who “had been in prison … as long as the Soviet state had existed … and … as soon as he finished one tenner they’d pinned another on him.”

The relative happiness of Shukhov’s one day is crushed by the terrifying weight of the closing paragraph, and the persisting note is one of deep despair.

 

Robert Lagerberg is a senior lecturer in Russian at the University of Melbourne.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 41, The Happy Life . To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 42, Fair Share.


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