Thursday, October 2, 2008

Banned Book Week, Day 6: Read this and irritate a censor

How much political distance separates a world where the Secret Service can arrest you at a public event for wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt from one where you can be imprisoned for calling the head of state "Old Whiskers?"

For Day 6 of Banned Book Week, we're celebrating a novel whose author was imprisoned for writing a private letter with an insulting reference to the head of government, but was able to publish the novel about his experiences a few years after his release, when political fashions had changed. Unfortunately, less than a decade later, fashions changed again and the author was banished from his homeland as an enemy of the state.

The protagonist is known by his surname, Shukhov, and his worker identification, Щ-854; readers around the world know him by his given name and Russian patronymic. The novel is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.

The jangling stopped. Outside it was still as dark as when Shukhov had got up in the night to use the bucket--pitch black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.

For some reason they were slow unlocking the hut, and he couldn't hear the usual sound of the orderlies mounting the slop tub on poles to carry it out.

Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade--time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side. He could stitch covers somebody's mittens from a piece of old lining. Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk (save him hopping round barefoot, fishing them out of the heap after drying). Rush round the storerooms looking for odd jobs--sweeping up or running errands. Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up. You'd get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them. And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl you couldn't help licking it. Shukhov never for a moment forgot what his first foreman Kuzyomin had told him. An old camp-wolf, twelve years inside by 1943. One day round the camp-fire in a forest clearing he told the reinforcements from the front: "It's the law of the taiga here lads. But a man can live here, just like anywhere else. Know who pegs out first? The guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the sickbay, or squeals to godfather."

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