Crying for Ivan

So, after my sojourn into the world of a German book club, we regathered for our January meeting with me suffering from a bout of jet-lag. I finished our first pick, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in a hazy 24 hour period after getting off the plane. Ordinarily reading under such conditions would be a hindrance but with this complex tale it may have been a help…

It is almost impossible to know where to begin with this postmodern novella, such is its chaotic nature. It’s a week since I finished it and I still think of it with confusion and disorientation. The plot as I understand it is about a woman, Oedipa Mass, who may or may not have unearthed a vast global conspiracy between two mail distribution networks after being named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s estate after his death. If this sounds utterly bizarre, you’d be right. This is merely a jumping-off point for a series of loosely linked subplots, mostly involving alcohol, hard drugs and soaked in paranoia.

The point I guess is the reader is completely unsure if he is reading the truth, a fabrication, or simply the ramblings of a drunk, hallucinating mind. The cast of characters runs long, and all are eccentric to say the least – the one that sticks in the memory is Oedipa’s therapist, who we are told undertook his internship in a Jewish concentration camp, inducing madness into his patients. All of this leads to Oedipa believing she has discovered evidence of a shadowy underground postal service called the Trystero. Or it is a hoax designed by her ex. Or a figment of her imagination.

If you’ve got this far you are probably scratching your head, and I don’t blame you, it’s that kind of book. As a postmodern text it also contains a number of cultural references that may go unnoticed which adds to the frustration. I’d recommend this book without hesitation mind – I’ve certainly never read anything like it. It’s very challenging and probably requires a number of readings to peel back the layers, but I feel that taking on the task will give rich rewards.

Back on terra firma, our second choice was a brutal portrayal of a single day in a 1950s Russian gulag. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an extraordinary account based on the real experiences of the author, who was sentenced to eight years hard labour after World War 2 for supposed ‘political’ crimes after criticising Stalin in his writings.

That the book was published at all was a major surprise, because never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed. It was a huge success and sold out immediately on publication – it must have been a huge shock to read for a repressed society at the time.

The plot as it is focuses on 24 hours in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The matter-of -fact authoritative oppression of the prisoners winds through the narrative on every page, as does the sheer bitterness of the cold winter and the desperate attempts to keep warm. The longing for small pleasures such as a piece of bread or a cigarette really encapsulate the desperate conditions these men lived and worked under. Our protagonist hides a small piece of bread in his mattress and this small crumb of comfort, if you will, sustains him through a back-breaking day of hard labour. The men snatch brief moments of free time whenever they can and savour every moment when they aren’t under the watchful gaze of the guards. Time really is precious here.

Despite the harsh conditions Solzhenitsyn injects the prose with a dry wit and an optimistic outlook which comes across as very inspiring. His dismissall of the regime as ‘one man works, the other watches’ is not only amusing but a sharp analysis of the almost nonsensical bureaucracy and hierarchy of the coommunist system. Indeed, a similar line springs to mind when seeing the hordes of construction workers seemingly doing nothing on building sites most days.

There is no positive conclusion or final judgement and I guess that’s the point – every day a relentless struggle, finding comfort when you can, and counting the days as the drift slowly by.