By Elena Romero.
Literature, and the ideas with which it fills our minds, is the most important legacy human civilisation has to offer.
Growing up, I, like most of us, heard numerous stories from my parents. What is unique about the stories I heard, is that most of them are from my parent’s experiences during the Salvadorian civil war. Despite not experiencing the war myself, the stories of survival and sacrifice I was raised on have significantly affected the views I have of the world. A recent surge in understanding and appreciation of my parent’s stories is due to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work: “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”. I find it extremely appropriate to talk about this book at today’s event, given that this year’s theme is “Literature of Liberation”. Solzhenitsyn’s novella powerfully conveys the importance of retaining your identity within the restraints of institutions, and sadly its message still relevant today 50 years after its original publication.
“One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”, as the title suggests, covers one full day in a gulag work camp from the moment Ivan Denisovich Shukhov wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. In all honesty, my first impression of the book was that it was a tedious read. Solzhenitsyn describes every aspect of this man’s imprisonment; I found myself thinking that I was going insane from just reading about one day of this man’s life in such detail. To live this life for eight years would be unbearable. Eight years, and somehow the protagonist had kept sane and continued to survive in this harsh environment.
This feat is made more impressive as Shukov has kept his identity in the face of an institution led by Stalin, which is determined to eradicate any sort of individuality or defiance. This is most evident in the use of numbers, instead of names to keep track of the prisoners ( or zeks ) in the camp. Shukov and the other zeks are only referred to by their prisoner, file or regiment numbers. Taking away of their names disregards any hierarchy, family or moral prestige the zeks might have. To add to their humiliation, the prisoners are forced to take care of their numbers themselves. The treatment of the guards towards the zeks, and the set up of the camp has the prisoners scrounging and bribing for even the smallest scraps of food, displays that every effort is made to destroy their dignity and humanity. Yet all of these aspects of Shukov’s life are referred to in a very casual manner as this has now become the norm for him, as has the way the he has managed to survive. The zeks refuse to exchange their names for numbers and continue to refer to each other’s previous social ranks and history. It is suggested that Shukov has even managed to earn respect in his brigade as he is referred to by his formal first name and patronymic only. The maintenance of eating rituals, initiative displayed by Shukov in the mess hall and his celebration of the small triumphs of his day show that even after years, the camp has not managed to control every aspect of his self.
Solzhenitsyn, the author, once stated, “ The one and only substitute for experience which we have not ourselves had is art and literature.” After finishing One Day, I wholeheartedly agree. My parents were involved in the guerrilla movement to overthrow El Salvador’s corrupt military dictatorship during the country’s civil war. This struggle took twelve years, and during this time they were living in the most basic conditions in the jungle. For the duration of this time there was almost no contact with the outside world, and no knowledge of their loved ones or of their future. Somehow, despite living in these conditions for such an extended period of time, my parents still managed to retain their humanity and conviction. The enormity of this achievement was further reinforced after I received a taste of Shukovs struggle in Solzhenitsyn’s novel.
One Day is usually described as an outstanding book because it is “a Soviet novel of life in Stalin’s forced labor camps”, or because it “exposes the true nature of totalitarian communism.” The truth is, the book is not so much about the politics of the era, as it is about human nature and the dangers of the institutions it creates. The purpose of these systems is to force human behaviour to surrender itself and act like animals or mindless machines as this is what gives man-made institutions their strength. The dangers of this type of behaviour are revealed in George Orwell’s novel from the other side of the Iron Curtain: Animal Farm. This allegorical novel describes the events leading up to the Stalin era, and can also be used as a parable for the character Shukov’s life. The animals on Manor Farm revolt to establish a equal and fair system on their lives. However, as the novel progresses life on Animal Farm comes full circle and the animals are once again trying to survive under harsh and unfair conditions as the new system they established transforms into the institution they overthrew at the beginning of the novel . The animals follow their leaders unquestionably and surrender their rights, and as a result themselves, easily. In Animal Farm none of the characters question their leaders or what is happening until it is too late.
Award winning author Andrew O’Hagen promotes the idea that if we are civilised, we question the media, speak truth to the power and interrogate corporations. One of the main triumphs in One Day is Shukov’s ability to continue to question and examine the flaws in the system, and so in his own way undermines it. I can see the importance of this when reminded of my parents’ experiences. At the end of the 12 years of civil war, my parents were able to see that the movement for which they and others had sacrificed so much for had changed and become corrupt like the regime before it. Knowing the danger, they still spoke out and questioned the actions of those in power, before fleeing as refugees to Australia where they continue to speak out to this day. They did not lose their identities to the institution like the victims of Animal Farm, they retained their humanity like Shukov despite the environment.
Solzhenitsyn’s book reminds us of the importance of holding onto our humanity and to continue to see ourselves as individuals part of a larger society. His piece of literature has enabled the experiences of others to survive and to add to the ideas that stories fill our minds with. And so, as this festival commences I encourage you all to keep your minds open, question everything you hear and to never take your humanity for granted.