19 December 2007

Generous and much needed "experiment in literary investigation"

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 : An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Harper Collins, 1974

Gulag--a Russian acronym for the network of camps where prisoners languish without recourse to law or justice, where women are gang-raped by thieves, and where innocent people are starved, beaten, tortured, killed, disappeared. Though Solzhenitsyn's experience of the Gulag took place under Soviet rule, the phenomenon does not seem to be uniquely Communist but is symptomatic of totalitarianism in general. This is why this "experiment in literary investigation" is so relevant right here, right now. The potential for something like Gulag in the age of the eternal "war on terror" is terrifying. (And as the author notes, many of the evils committed in Gulag depended upon the perpetrator believing that what he did was not only necessary, but actually moral.)

Yet Solzhenitsyn's indefatigable sense of humor and generosity of spirit keep this book (at 615 pages, the first volume of three) from being a work of torture in itself. Instead, he mocks the pretensions of the Soviet penal code and revels in the small joys (i.e., sleep, reading, comradery) he experienced in Gulag. In fact, at times, Solzhenitsyn conveys the sense that Gulag was a potentially redemptive experienced for those who made it through, since it winnowed away the chaff of life from the wheat and revealed the nobility we may find in our darkest, deepest hour.

(This review was originally written April 26, 2006 and it refers to the first of the three volume series. Subsequent volumes await my attention.)

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