Monday, August 04, 2008
Thoughts on Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Sometime in 1974, I was lugging around this gigantic book with the weird name of "The Gulag Archipelago".
Fortunately, living in a small town on the Cumberland Plateau, the title was just a bit too strange and the author's name, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, too foreign, to cause any curious person to dare ask me what that book was about. Carrying that book around for the months it took me to read it, I could see so many folks just filing away information about me - that is a one strange boy, their eyes said.
I was strange. Still am, really.
But that book got etched into my mind. Ostensibly a chronicle of life in a prison camp in the former Soviet Union, it is so much more. It is a marvel of writing, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes darkly comic, wrapped in politics and madness, attempting to grasp the utter dehumanization of the individual and the society which was ingrained into the lives of not just a nation, but the world in general.
I learned that tyranny and terror were incredibly powerful tools which could warp the thoughts and actions, sometimes with colossal bluntness, sometimes with precise skill. Could anyone survive the systematic insanity the police state created?
Around the time of the book's publication, Solzhenitsyn's face was often in the news. His long beard made him look like a relic of the both the recent and the ancient past. His views, so often expressed through the prism of his political ponderings, were difficult to decipher. He wasn't willing to play the part the media had made for him, The Dissident. Eventually, he faded into the background.
I was sad to read of his death - he had lived in the U.S. in his own style of personal exile. He continued to write, but his books were hardly best-sellers anymore. The comments and the posting on Gawker, for example, are as obtuse and odd. While he might have been able to capture the effects of a world gone mad, the world never knew what to make of him.
His account of life and politics in the Gulag trilogy are among the great works of the last century. Reading the books will still challenge and startle and inspire. Perhaps that was the best he could have hoped for.