Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - The Oak and The Calf

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - The Oak and The Calf
Rating - 8.1

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn holds the honour of being the author to break the news to the world of Russia's treatment of its people. Before him, the Western world - and, disturbingly, a large portion of Russia - had only a faint idea of the true depth of lies, deceit, exploitation and murder that were being committed under the rule of the Communist government. The Oak and the Calf is his memoir of the difficulties faced in being published in Russia, at a time when even typewriters were controlled by the government and publishing without attack by the censors was unheard of. It is a clear, lucid portrayal of Solzhenitsyn's decades long battle to write.

The book is split into four sections, of which the first two and the last two form separate wholes. The first half of the novel recounts his difficulties in first becoming published, then details the difficulties in making Russia and the world aware of Russia's mistakes; the second half focuses on Solzhenitsyn's battles with the KGB to ensure that he was able to publish his more incriminating works within Russia, while avoiding imprisonment, exile or death.

Solzhenitsyn spent the first twenty years of his adult life first at the Russian front in World War II, and then in a labour camp, where he was sentenced after criticising Stalin in personal correspondence. After that, he contracted cancer; he spent time recovering in a hospital at Tashkent. During this time, he would compose prose in his mind - there were no opportunities to write down and store text. He relates that he would spend a week of each month while in the labor camp, going over what he had written in his mind until he remembered it perfectly. He composed his thoughts, wrote prose, plotted novels. From a young age, he wanted to be a writer. Thanks to his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn gained the source material with which to write.

When Solzhenitsyn was in his forties, he was finally able to publish his work. At home now, living with his second wife (his first abandoned him when he went to the labour camps), Solzhenitsyn could write, but the realities of publishing in Russia were slim.

He had two options. The first, samizdat, an underground network of writers and readers. The second was to be published in one of Russia's literary magazines, but the requirements of publication included the necessity of government censure and approval. Solzhenitsyn, in his own words, 'lightened' a novel of his, Shch-854. Thanks to the confidence of magazine Novy Mir's editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, the novel was published under the name, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this book, Solzhenitsyn said what had never been said before - he accurately and honestly described life in the labor camps. What was once taboo was out in the open. It was a sensation, and his name was made.

Instantly, Solzhenitsyn was one of the most dangerous men in Russia. What was the government to do? If they imprisoned him again, or killed him, the outcry would be horrific. But if they allowed him to publish further, then... They were in a terrible place, but so was Solzhenitsyn. His publisher, Novy Mir, faced increasing pressure to silence their new author, and on top of that Tvardovsky began to get wet feet. Still, Solzhenitsyn wrote and tried to publish.

Imagine what we have here. An outstanding novelist is forced to shrink away and hide in the dark. His first published work has caused a sensation in his home country (and, later, abroad), and for that he faces prison, exile or death. And yet, for all that, he continues to write. He scatters his literature throughout the samizdat network, entrusting his terrible, accusative words to friends and strangers. He smuggles his work across the border, to a safe in the West, which is to be opened upon his death. From the very moment One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is released, Solzhenitsyn must live as a man who can be seized at any time. In one chilling paragraph, Solzhenitsyn outlines what he was prepared to do if they took his children: 'They did not know that we had thought of this and made a superhuman decision: our children were no dearer to us than the memory of the millions done to death, and nothing could make us stop that book.' Can we in the West imagine such consequences for writing? Can we possibly understand what Solzhenitsyn dealt with every day?

While attempting to publish further works, how often Solzhenitsyn hears these words: 'Circumstances could not be less favorable to publication than they are at present. It would probably be impossible, and it would certainly be dangerous, to try bringing it out this year.' Years go by, with little of his work appearing in Russian. His relationship with Tvardovsky forms the bulk of the first half, it is a sad, unequal affair. Tvardovsky is a man of talent, but not talent on the level of Solzhenitsyn. He is more timid, less skilled, and nowhere near as bold. And yet, thanks to Solzhenitsyn's loyalty, they remain together for ten years, up to and including the time when Solzhenitsyn win the Nobel.

The second half of the novel focuses on the struggle Solzhenitsyn undertook for the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, which the author considers his most powerful and damning book. We learn of the machinations involved in dealings with the KGB, as well as the convoluted, intricate schemes Solzhenitsyn and his allies used to transmit, hide and recover pieces of his work.

We are more removed from this half of the novel, perhaps because we cannot rely on the emotional connection that the friendship between Tvardovsky and Solzhenitsyn provided in the first half. This does not weaken the text, it remains a compelling account of struggle in the face of insurmountable odds.

One thing that Solzhenitsyn never explicitly states - but which runs through the entire piece - is that he has a strong feeling of patriotism towards Russia. Not the USSR Russia, but the grand fatherland, the vanished grandeur of his home. Many times, he could have fled to the West to publish at his leisure. Many times, he could have published his vast unpublished works in America and elsewhere. But he stayed with Russia for as long as possible, attempting always to publish first in his home country before anywhere else. He was the cancer from the inside. He needed to show Russia that she was sick; foreigners came second.

A compelling aspect of Solzhenitsyn's work is that he does not indulge in grandiloquent passages of destiny. Nor does he invoke some triumphant mandate of heaven that requires him to write. No, Solzhenitsyn simply states, many times, that what he needs to do with his life is write what he has seen, what he knows, what he thinks. Does a doctor brag of his ability to diagnose illness? No, and nor does Solzhenitsyn when he identifies Russia's vast sickness. Perhaps his talents were the only ones capable of correctly examining the illness, perhaps his skill was the only one capable of showing Russia - and the world - how to heal, but Solzhenitsyn does not seek to glorify himself. He writes, for he is but a humble author. Would that we all possessed such a pen.



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