One Day in a Cancer Ward

November 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

Solzhenitsyn’s writing is sublime. While much has been made about the ward being an analogy for the Soviet state it is the depictions of a ward; the patients and their illnesses that makes Cancer Ward so poignant. This slice of humanity interwoven with the political backdrop of Russia in the 50’s and the Purge, brilliantly captures the pathos of a long-suffering people. And this is no ordinary hospital ward, but one brimming with cancer in all its grotesque forms. An ailment that has a particular hold over us: unlike other diseases cancer does not originate from without, but from within. A lump of tissue, for which we are genetically predetermined, with one sole purpose: the death of its host at all costs. Even death to itself. The parallels between the tyrannical state and cancer are unmistakable. Kostoglotov’s impotence as the result of hormone therapy mirrors the forlornness of a people who have accepted the exchange of one form of repression for another. Having been discharged from the hospital he revels in his momentary freedom from both the tumour and his exile. But as evening draws he realizes that what was done to him, and millions of others, cannot be undone; that there is no way to mend the past.

“The most confusing thing about the imprisoned animals was that even supposing Oleg took their side and had the power, he would still not want to break into the cages and liberate them. This was because, deprived of their home surroundings, they had lost the idea of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly to set them free.”

That there can be no return to normality:

“…even before you drift into the indifference of old age, you will come to bless this day, the day you did not commit yourself to share my life …”

In contrast One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an unequivocal story of life in the gulags. That’s not to say that it lacks depth or is incapable of stirring emotions. Quite the opposite: the simplicity of the narrative renders the cruelty, misery, barbarity, and suffering particularly potent. The world of the prisoners is one lost in a time continuum where life revolves around ignoring ones hunger, the abysmal cold, and a complete lack of self; where one day flows in to the next, and there is no end in sight. I remember reading the account of one gulag survivor who described the debilitating despair that would overcome him, not because of the cold or hunger, but because he knew that if he were to die in the camps he would just be one more body interred in the cold soil. No letters would be sent to his relatives. He would cease to exist. In fact it would have been like he had never existed at all. It is this debasement of humanity; Shukhov’s entire identity reduced to one number: S854, that makes One Day such a powerful work and a horrifying account of Stalin’s Russia.

While many of us accept the insignificance of our lives and the blips on the face of this planet that we represent, we find meaning in love, work, and yes even death (to quote Viktor Frankl) even if that meaning is evident only to us and our loved ones. It is this meaning that we contemplate on our death beds. But to have that last vestige of self wrenched from us and supplanted by an insignificant number is enough to freeze the heart with despair. Yet this was the reality and fate of millions.

Cancer Ward & One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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