Besides the political and historical importance of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it’s also a wonderful bit of literary legerdemain. From the opening passage of the book, Solzhenitsyn invests the story with such gloom and malice that the reader’s overwhelming sense is that today is going to be a very nasty day, indeed. The protagonist awakens at darkthirty “by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail.” He’s lying on a sawdust mattress, with frost two inches thick on the windowpanes, and barrack orderlies are moving a barrel of excrement through nightmarish yellow light. Not to mention the fact that Denisovich is simply not feeling well. He’s feverish with pains all over his body. Plus, he’s starving and cannot escape the sting of freezing cold weather, with its bitter snowdrifts and white cobwebs of frost. Like all the other prisoners, Denisovich spends his day jockeying for morsels of food, cadging cigarette butts, and avoiding unexpected searches and seizures. And whenever an opportune moment presents itself, he exploits its survival value like a desperate animal gnawing on a withered bone: he sews a half a loaf of bread into his mattress, he smuggles a bit of hacksaw blade in his gloves. And just when the reader can’t take another moment of this dismal, bleak and horrifyingly depressing day, Denisovich returns to his squad’s barrack, clambers up his bunk, and plops wearily down on his sawdust mattress with a filthy blanket — and falls asleep fully content! “A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.” Extraordinary. By ending the story on such an upbeat note, Solzhenitsyn throws into sharp relief the utter insanity and brutality of the Soviet Gulag system.
Solzhenitsyn’s literary bait & switch