Day four of Blogtober and today I’m moving along the allegorical theme with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s hyper-realistic allegory of the Soviet Union. I first read this beginning August 2nd 2008, when I was seventeen and on a family holiday in France. Coincidentally the day before he died (I read about it in a French newspaper). At the time I was learning a little Russian, learning about the history of Russia from Tsars to Bolsheviks at school and generally keeping a theme of banned political allegories in my reading.
Cancer Ward deals with life in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death and questions whether, with his passing, life may begin to improve. Different characters on the oncology ward represent different people in society under Stalin; the Bolsheviks, the incarcerated, the bureaucrats, with cancer rooting itself in them like Stalinism rooted itself in society.
It sounds fairly grim, and it is. Bearing in mind that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent significant time in a Kazakhstan gulag (fictionally documented in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and rightfully raged against the state until he died (he is, to this day, one of my favourite authors in terms of his honesty and anger). There’s nothing flattering about the way cancer ravages the characters (they are, after all, in a poorly resourced and unkempt hospital) in the same way that there is nothing flattering about the way in which the Soviet state and the people who acted within it are presented.
It’s one of those brutal novels that I can’t help but rave about because it’s both a labour of love for good storytelling and truth about the world.