Friday, December 18, 2009

In the First Circle discussion: Chapters 1 – 52

Marfino, the Sharashka
Picture source

“For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

-- From the Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alghieri, Canto 4, lines 40-42, translation by Allen Mandelbaum.

“Do you know, Lev Grigorievich, this rush of impressions, this change of scenery is making my head spin. I’ve lived fifty-two years, recovered twice from fatal illnesses, been married twice to rather pretty women, fathered sons, been published in seven languages, received academic prizes, and never have I been so blissfully happy as today! What a place! To think that tomorrow I won’t be driven into icy water! I’ll get forty grams of butter! There’ll be black bread on the tables! Books aren’t forbidden! You can shave yourself! Guards don’t beat zeks! [prisoners] What a great day! What radiant heights! Maybe I’m dead? Maybe I’m dreaming? I feel as though I am in heaven!”

“No, my dear sir, you are still in hell, only you’ve ascended to its highest and best circle—the first. You were asking what a sharashka is. You could say it was invented by Dante. He was at his wits’ end as to where to put the ancient sages. It was his Christian duty to consign those heathens to hell. But a Renaissance conscience couldn’t reconcile itself to lumping those luminaries in with the rest of the sinners and condemning them to physical torment. So Dante imagined a special place for them in hell.”

--In the First Circle, page 12

All quotes from In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn come from the recent uncensored version, translated by Harry T. Willetts,
Harper Perennial, 784 pp., $18.99
ISBN: 0061479012

The reviews I linked to in the resources post mention the reference to Dante’s first circle of hell where limbo sounds preferable to the rest of hell. Not mentioned in those reviews but permeating the work are the words Dante gives to those in the first circle, “we have no hope and yet we live in longing.” While the prison or sharashka is specifically called out, I have no doubt that Solzhenitsyn wants the reader to question who is in hell. His depiction of the Soviet system paints a landscape where almost everyone longs for something despite their lack of hope. As with Dante, there are deeper circles of hell possible and many characters feel they are standing on the precipice--there is always something worse possible. Even those in power are subject to the geography: “Yakanov was at the summit of what looked like power…and he did not want to live. His soul was so empty of hope that he had not the strength to stir hand or foot.” (page 170)

Solzhenitsyn details the dehumanizing features of the all-controlling state which penetrates into every aspect of life. While the prisoners have every detail of life dictated to them, in many respects they have more freedom and stability than the general population.

These chapters cover approximately the first half of the book. The first chapter (which can be found here) has Innokenty Volodin placing a call to the American Embassy in Moscow to warn them of atomic bomb secrets about to be passed from the West to a Soviet spy. The remainder of this half revolves around the special prison at Marfino, the prisoners toiling on projects for the state, and the officials responsible for those ventures. One of their projects will tie back to Volodin’s phone call. Solzhenitsyn’s style moves the story along in fits and starts, introducing new characters before pausing to provide their histories. Chapters may not make sense, or at least their context may not be fully appreciated, until understanding the background. Even with the “Cast of Characters” section in the book it can be taxing to keep up with the many names (although I’m thankful that section was provided).

While there are many things to highlight, I’ll focus on two striking things about the story so far. The first item is the sympathetic care Solzhenitsyn takes with all of his characters. He spends five chapters on Stalin, somehow balancing brutal acts while providing compassion (OK...almost) for the monster. The same treatment, provided for all the characters whether prisoners or officials, reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s lines from The Gulag Archipelago (quoted at the end of this post) in which he looks at the line between good and evil within all of us. He takes care to look at both aspects within all his characters. The second item is the humor throughout the book. The prisoners do not lose their sense of irony, mining the official doublespeak and absurd rules for jokes and mockery. In addition, the narrator slips irony and sly comments throughout. Far from a distraction, the levity makes the cruelty of the system stand out that much more.

I’ll take a quick look at three of the characters and some of their quotes:

Lev Rubin
Rubin believes “that in our complicated age Socialist truth sometimes forces its way forward by a torturous path.” (page 16--I love the irnoy of 'torturous') He emphasizes the “collective experience of mankind” despite the expense of the individual. (page 41) “Having lost all chance of private happiness long ago, Rubin had made mankind at large his family.” (page 244) He remains dedicated to the cause even though the state declared him dangerous and threw him in jail. He is willing to put up with hardships since he places himself in historical perspective.

Gleb Nerzhin
Gleb is not looking for unlimited freedom but moral self-limitation, practiced by both the individual and the government. Gleb wants to live now, not in Rubin’s historical perspective. He has found peace while in prison: “You just had to keep reminding yourself that prison was not just a curse—it was also a blessing.” (page 179) “In this place he had gained an understanding of people and of events not to be had elsewhere, least of all in the sheltered comfort of a quiet family home.” (page 201) Gleb wonders “how long must we suffer” (page 251), the ‘we’ being the entire country as well as he and his wife. When going to visit his wife he realizes “Stalin had robbed him and Nadya of their children” (page 250), not through physically taking them away but by preventing them from having any because of his incarceration. Solzhenitsyn spends plenty of time with Nadya as well, showing how difficult being the wife of a political prisoner can be.

Gleb turns down two offers of “redemption” (or at least more freedom) in this section. The first is a transfer to work on an encoding project. He turns it down because he wants to meditate and make sense of life, which he knows he can do at his current project. This first rejection seems to have a selfish component on Gleb’s part, preferring his known hell that still provides something he wants over an unknown situation. He realizes by rejecting this opportunity he will probably be transfered to a worse prison at some point. The second chance, in the wonderful chapter titled “Top-Secret Conversation”, is when Rubin asks Gleb to help him with his phonoscopy (visual voice mapping) project. Like the previous offer, this gives Gleb no joy but for different reasons. Gleb turns from selfish concerns to a principled stand against helping an immoral system. “Socialism promises only equality and a full belly, and that only by means of coercion. … You’ll find equality and full bellies in any good pigsty!” (page 339) Knowing that the project will only assist in entrapping innocent people, he bitterly turns on his friend Rubin in the ensuing discussion. “Justice is the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe! … We were born with a sense of justice in our souls; we can’t and don’t want to live without it!”(page 340) [Gleb’s faith in the United Nations provides one of the funniest lines of the book so far, although I’m pretty sure it was unintended]

Innokenty Volodin
Volodin makes the frantic call to the American embassy in the first chapter, but only appears again in this section as a character in someone else’s background. While his reasons aren’t given as to why he made the call, there are hints given in the first chapter and the backstory. “If we live in a state of constant fear, can we remain human?” (page 3) “When everything is a lie, Klara dear, you get tired early. Very early, twice as quickly” Innokenty Volodin tells his sitern-in-law. (page 306) Volodin also provides another meaning to the circle symbolism:

He looked at her with suffering eyes. Holding a broken stick like a pencil, he drew a circle on the damp ground. “You see this circle? That’s our country. That’s the first circle. Now here’s the second.” A circle with a larger diameter. “That is mankind at large. You would think that the first forms part of the second, wouldn’t you? Not in the least! There are barriers of prejudice. Not to mention barbed wire and machine guns. To break through, physically or spiritually, is well-nigh impossible. Which means that mankind, as such, does not exist. There are only fatherlands, everyone’s fatherland alien to everyone else’s….” (page 314)

The prisoners continually muse on some variation of the question of how to remain human while in prison. Gleb wonders that “perhaps prison is most horrible when there is no horror? When the horror consists in the gray routine never varying from week to week?” (page 251) While there are many examples comparing those in prison with those in the outside world, one prisoner highlights the difference in an unexpected speech. While being whisked through Moscow at night, the prisoner Bobynin muses that the free people he sees don’t appreciate what they have. When being interrogated by the Minister of State Security, his defiance drips through every word: “You took my freedom from me long ago, and you can’t give it back because you have no freedom yourself... The man from whom you’ve taken everything is no longer in your power; he is free again.” (page 94)

Literature plays a role in the book with many literary references and allusions. One prisoner explicitly lays out the image of Goethe’s Faust reaching sheer bliss through a misunderstanding. Does happiness really exist or is it an illusion? If real, can happiness be obtained? Unasked, but alluded to, is the question of redemption through ceaseless toil, a standard line of the Soviet state as well as the concluding part of the story. There are many other literary references with Russian authors figuring prominently, but at the heart (at least for the characters) resides Pushkin. I hope to have more on these references in the post for the second half.

“These grey men who ensure safety in our land, and happiness. In 1977, our country stopped counting suicides. They called them ‘self-murders.’ But it has nothing to do with murder. It knows no bloodlust, no heated passion. It knows only death, the death of all hope.”

--from the movie The Lives of Others

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

--from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago

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