Monday, August 04, 2008

This Is Not A Tribute To Aleksandr Solzhenytsin

The reports of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death were obviously the big news of the day. I had tried a few times, unsuccessfully, to read him in the past. I tried reading his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at least twice and suspended it even before I was halfway through. Too much for me to handle I guess. This might have been a compliment to his writing. The cold—the way it is cold—in that book left me too uncomfortable. Perhaps, living in north India made it difficult for me to imagine that kind of cold but the real power of the pages that I did manage to read was in the description of the grinding manual labour, the hopeless schemes to get close to the fire, the conspiracy to hide a piece of bread. All this demanded too much from me.
I also started reading his The Gulag Archipelago once. I left it because I thought I needed to train my brain muscles by reading the smaller one first. That never happened of course. But I did start reading it. I am reproducing some lines out of what I read from the opening chapter, "Arrest":

But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacement in our universes, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life's experience, can gasp out only: "Me? What for?"

And this is a question which, though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state to another.

We have been happily borne—or perhaps have dragged our weary way—down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us. In addition, we have failed to notice an enormous number of closely fitted, well-disguised doors and gates in these fences. All those gates were prepared for us, every last one! And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.

That's all there is to it! You are arrested!

And you'll find nothing better to respond with than a lamblike bleat: "Me? What for?"

The grim passages recounting utter helplessness and dislocation demanded discipline, and resolve, I was incapable of rallying. I left this one and pursued—and not perused—One Day.

I once browsed through his Cancer Ward in the Russian section of the A. C. Joshi librabry in Panjab University. I had read a reference in some other book of the moral dilemma one of the characters faces. I picked up the mangled copy—mangled not because it was a popular book; just neglect and insensitivity—and read through some paragraphs. The patients there had some very sharp discussions going on. But then there's so much you can read between stacks, even if the sick are making some telling comments about damaged bodies and souls.
I have pulled out the two novels I had bought long time back from a second-hand bookdealer. The sombreness that accompanies his death might have an effect on my efforts next time I get down to read him.

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