This book is minute-by-minute account of one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia in 1943 – from reveille (the harsh tapping of a hammer on stone) to a scuffle over a pathetic breakfast, to line-ups and strip-searches, jostling and morbid joking, stealing time, stealing bread, to warming up by hard toil in the Siberian snow. His life has become a single arduous task: to stay alive on a thin diet of groats, a mysterious substance called “hot skilly” and very little else, all the while engaged in the back-breaking work of constructing settlements in the Siberian wild.
“Here, lads, we live by the law of the taiga.Â But even here people manage to live.Â D’you know who are the ones the camps finish off?Â Those who lick other men’s left-overs, those who set store by the doctors, and those who peach on their mates.”
The eponymous protagonist Shukhov, like his camp-mates, has little time for introspection: his most vibrant thoughts are dedicated to his next crust of bread, a filched mouthful of sausage. Fights erupt often, and the translator attacks the rich Russian idiom that peppers the coarse camp dialogue with great gusto: “Rat!Â Shit!Â Twirp! Cow’s twat! Son of a poxy bitch!”
The book closes with Shukhov drifting off to sleep. The reader closes the book; tomorrow, the day after, and for every day of his twenty-five year sentence Shukhov will relive it.