- Translated from Russian by Harry T. Willetts
Read from September 17th to December 7th 2018
My rating: 4/ 5 stars
This is not the first time I encounter the sad, Kafkian world of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for I have already accompanied Ivan Denisovich during one of his regular days and I’ve taken a long, painful walk in the Gulag Archipelago. Only that the hell depicted there has been upgraded in the novel In the First Circle. Here, the mighty communist society, which couldn’t but acknowledge some zeks’ scientific skills has relocated them in the “sharashka”, the prison research institute that is, to be put to work at the development of a phone encryption device that could identify any voice on earth. Because they have food and cigarettes to discretion, some books and some space to walk, for a prisoner coming from Gulag it may seem paradise, but in reality they only reached the first circle of Inferno. A circle inside the last one, the rim of the funnel which is the Iron Curtain.
In the Foreword of the book, Edward E. Erickson recalls that In the First Circle was composed from 1955 to 1958, when the author was in his thirties, barely released from the Gulag and exiled in Kazakhstan, where he had found work as a schoolteacher. He tried to publish his manuscript for the first time in 1964, erasing nine chapters in order to pass the censorship, but because the KGB had confiscated the unshortened copy from a friend, the publishing was indefinitely delayed by the authorities. Finally, he sent the same censored version abroad, where it appeared in 1968 under the title The First Circle. Only ten years later the author will restore the original version and the preposition “in” will be added to the title to change the focus from the place to the people in it.
Erickson also observes that the novel illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s literary credo: to follow “the canons of the realistic tradition of Russia’s nineteenth-century masters of fiction, starting with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. (…) Despite starting with actual people, events, and locations, Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag writings—the fiction and The Gulag Archipelago—succeeds in creating a literary world that is as distinctly his own as are the signature literary worlds created by such authors as Dostoevsky, Dickens, Kafka, and Faulkner”.
Therefore, In the First Circle is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own time in the “sharashka”, between 1947-1950, years compressed into four days – from December 24th to 27th 1949. The ninety-six chapters are narrated by many narrators (Stalin being one of them), offering a point of view that was called by the author himself polyphonic, since the characters take turns in telling their stories in which I would call a free indirect style.
Even though it is difficult to say which character dominates the story, five among them will stay with the reader long after finishing the book: Gleb Nerzhin – the author’s alter ego, who discovers people are many but few, since “ “The People” did not mean all those who speak your language, nor yet the chosen few branded with the fiery mark of genius” but those who managed to “polish” their soul “so as to become a human being”; Lev Rubin – the inflexible Marxist who even in prison dreams of Civic temples in which solemn ceremonies be performed to “to raise the moral level of the population, high though it already was, and to enhance the significance of anniversaries and family occasions”; Dmitri Sologdin – the steadfast opponent of the Stalinist regime, who invented a cryptic language as a form of protest (for example, he calls the Revolution the “New Time of Troubles”); Innokenty Volodin – the high official gone bad from the point of view of the regime, who sees in the instruction “KEEP PERMANENTLY”, stamped on his prison file, “something mystical…, something that looked beyond the human race and the planet Earth”; and of course Joseph Stalin – “…the Father of the Peoples of East and West”, “the Leader of All Progressive Mankind”, “the Wise Leader”, “the Coryphaeus of Sciences”, etc., etc., etc., who, in an alchemic process not unlike Midas’s, “turned all that he touched to lead”.
Of course, Joseph Stalin’s personality menacingly shadows every twist of the narrative, sometimes appearing in all its sinister splendor, like a hideous, enormous wood idol everybody fears but fakes the love for:
The man’s name was declaimed by all the newspapers of the terrestrial globe, mouthed by thousands of announcers in hundreds of languages, thundered by public speakers in their exordia and perorations, piped by the thin voices of Young Pioneers, intoned in prayers for his health by bishops. This man’s name burned on the parched lips of prisoners of war and the swollen gums of convicts. It had replaced the previous names of a multitude of cities and squares, streets and avenues, palaces, universities, schools, sanatoriums, mountain ranges, ship canals, factories, mines, state farms, collective farms, warships, icebreakers, fishing boats, cooperative cobblers’ shops, nurseries—and a group of Moscow journalists had even suggested renaming the Volga and the moon after him.
Stalin’s grip is so forceful and definitive that there was never a victim known to have escaped it. Here is Professor Chelnov, former corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences, former director of a mathematical institute, who goes from sharashka to sharashka to solve any urgent mathematical problem arisen. He had never been tried or convicted, so he would never be released. His guilt? “He had once called the Wise Father a slimy reptile, and for that was now spending his eighteenth year inside without having been sentenced and without hope.”
Here is Drysin, whose apartment had been coveted by some neighbours who denounced him for “anti-Soviet agitation,” in which he would have been engaged by listening to an illegal German radio which he didn’t in fact have but he might have, given that he was a radio engineer…. During the eight years of prison, his two children died and his wife became an old, despondent woman who wrote him desperate letters which were considered inappropriate by the major on duty, who strongly advised Drysin to send her “a cheerful reply”.
And here is Potapov, who in 1941 wasn’t let to join the army because he was building a power station, but when he heard that the other one, Dnieper Station had been blown up, he voluntarily went to repair it, even though it was situated in a war field. He was taken prisoner and endured the horrors of the labor camps, but when the Germans learnt who he was, they brought him to the station and asked him to draw the diagram of the switch mechanism for the generator and he did so because the diagram had been already published, so it was not a secret anymore. Nevertheless, he will be condemned at ten years of prison for “betraying the secret of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station”, although he had refused to restore it for the Germans and had been sent back to the labor camp; moreover, when the Soviets assaulted Berlin in 1945, he, barely escaped from hell, had “mounted on a tank, wearing the same old cracked and wired-up spectacles, machine gun in hand” fighting with them till the end:
The Soviet court did not include this in the charges against him and so gave him only ten years. Engineer Markushev, on the other hand, did sign such an undertaking and did go to work for the Germans, and the court sentenced him to ten years also. There you see Stalin’s hand! That purblind equation of friend and foe which made him unique in human history!
The end of the novel will highlight once again this farcical contrast between appearance and essence that was the main trait of the communist society (not only the Soviet one), in the image of an ambitious journalist, who had often seen, on the Moscow streets, trucks with the inscription “Myaso Viande Fleisch Meat” and who, not knowing they are used in fact to carry prisoners, sees an opportunity to praise the regime for the impeccable organization of the food supplies.
I cannot finish my review without two reminders. The first one, meant for us all, is that nothing escapes untarnished under a totalitarian regime, not even literature (or any other art), so any job related with it, say for example a librarian, is implicitly a lie, since “(y)ou have to trash good books and praise bad ones. You have to mislead undeveloped minds.”
Consequently, the description of the books to be found in “sharashka” library is not very different from the books to be found in any library of this sort of society:
The other books in the heap were “artistic literature”... One was a bestseller called Far from Moscow, which everybody outside was avidly reading. (…) It was about the use of convict labor on building sites. But the camps were not given their proper names; the builders were not called zeks; nothing was said about short rations or punishment cells. The zeks became Komsomols, well dressed, well shod, and bursting with enthusiasm. An experienced reader sensed immediately that the author knew, had seen, had touched the truth, that he might well have been an operations officer in a camp himself, but that he was a barefaced liar.Another of the books was the Selected Works of the famous Galakhov. (…) Galakhov had written passable love stories but had long ago slipped into the approved manner, writing as though his readers were not normal people but imbeciles who could be kept happy with meretricious trash. Anything deeply troubling was missing from these books. Except for the war, their authors would have been left with nothing to write except hymns of praise. The war had given them access to feelings that all could understand. But even so they concocted unreal personal problems, like that of the Komsomol who derails munitions trains by the dozen behind enemy lines but agonizes day and night because he is not paying his dues and so may not be a genuine Komsomol. (…)Another of the books on the locker was American Short Stories by progressive writers... (…) every story inevitably contained something very nasty about America. This poisonous collection, taken together, gave such a nightmarish picture of their country that you could only wonder why the Americans hadn’t all fled or hanged themselves long ago.
The second reminder is mainly for the readers from ex-communist countries and it is closely related to Solzhenitsyn’s words to his countrymen when he was forced into exile: “Live Not by Lies!”. And to do so, every time you colour the past communist days with your lost youth nostalgia recalling them as beautiful, just read (and re-read) a Solzhenitsyn book.