A masterpiece. After reading this tremendous novel I am convinced there are truly two levels of great writers or authors of fiction. Put in one sack the ones you care for, the ones you like best. I've personally read authors of all types of literature, popular, classic, high-brow, and what have you. I have found authors I loved of all these types. But I had only found one who went beyond them all, and that was Cervantes and his Don Quixote. Now, I meet Solzhenitsyn. Only these two authors stand out in my heart as the best of the really best. Both authors, now that I come to think of it, have things in common. Both represent the state of mind of their respective native countries. Both aim to the soul of their respective peoples. Perhaps “aim” is not the right word, because they don't really aim. It's just that their stories dig so deep and reach so wide as to the human soul of their fellow citizens that, if one looks beyond the surface, one can see the soul of humanity. Really, this is what we can see. It's humanity, with all it's vulnerability and complexity, with its fears and expectations. It's humanity that we see staring at us in the face. Raw. Personal. We are made to face it. How hard we look is up to us. But if we stay our eyes enough time, if we dig behind the funniness of don Quixote and Sancho, or behind the almost tangible pain of Solzhenitsyn's characters in the cancer ward, we will see it: the human soul, naked. Why do we hurt each other? Why evil at all? What is the need for it? Why evil at all?
A book of fiction of 500 odd pages like this one, without a clear story line, not a detective or a suspense story, not a romantic novel, will hardly become a best-seller, but too bad for the people who look only for light and trivial stories, those to whom the Simpsons are their moral compass and intellectual horizon. But if you are afraid that this might be a high-brow, abstract and dry read, put that thought behind you, immediately. This is an absorbing book. It has many characters living close together in a cancer clinic, sharing the same kind of fears, facing ultimate truth: the proximity to death., all with different stories to share. But here they are all made equal, in the true sense, by the sheer power of nature, genetics, or just fate. Not by a decision from the Politburo, from Stalin or one of his lackeys. This is real equality. Do they like it? Heck, no. But why not, my dear Soviet fellows? This is truly the kind of equality, historical and otherwise, that you were looking forward to? Death to all. To the rich and powerful, the strong and the weak. Death faces you all. Don't you love it? Well, you can't get out of here, anyway. You need to be cured, all equally; you all have cancer, you know. It's a micro-cosmos of the whole Soviet society, only in this single ward. There's more than enough to be interested in as we read on. People representative of all the echelons of the Communist society of the USSR come together to portray to us their society at large. No, don't be afraid, it's not a political book, an ideological rant of any type. It could be looked at that way, but not as that way only. If the book applies to many readings is because society is multi-dimensional as well. What may be the purpose in life to some, may also be the one thing to avoid to others. Take politics, for instance. In this crooked Communist regime if you have the know-how, say the right words, press the right buttons, and know how to adapt to changes as soon as they are upon you, you got a chance to live long and above the others; if not, you will hardly be able to stay away from those political predators who do know: sooner than later they will look at you as their next victim, which is totally understandable because the evil creature, the regime, is always looking to devour more sons, like Saturn. Eat or be eaten. It's only natural that you should want to be of the former and not the latter. But there is no accusing finger in Solzhenitsyn, not irony, no hatred, no futile attempt to be vindictive. Like Jesus Himself. Who can be called good? Nobody, trully, but God Himself. We all fall short. So Solzhenitsyn, humble a man as there can be, and honest and meek, shows how we all make victims of ourselves. Here's an extract of a dialogue where two men, victim and victimizer, explain this important point:
“At least you haven't had to stoop so low -you should appreciate that! You people were arrested, but we were herded into meetings to “expose” you. They executed people like you, but they made us stand up and applaud the verdicts as they were announced. And not just applaud, they made us demand the firing squad, demand it! Do you remember what they used to write in the papers? “As one man the whole Soviet nation arose in indignation on hearing of the unprecedented , heinous crimes of...” Do you know what that “as one man” meant for us? We were individual human beings, and then suddenly we were “as one man”!
At one point in the book one of the main characters asks everyone around him in the ward what is life about, in the sense of what is the meaning of life. He is the first one to ask himself this self-revealing question, perhaps because he is the one who has less to lose (the others are not ready yet to ask it). Everyone has a particular opinion, or no opinion at all, that reveals what that character is about, actually, not life. But what is life for? That remains a mystery to our cancer-ridden hero. But we know that sooner or later everyone in the ward will have to ask himself, just like our hero, that same question. All of them in the cancer ward have met their nemesis. All are at the end of their own roads. A vertical rock of insurmountable height has stopped our jolly ride in life. Only some of us have not seen it, or do not want to see it. We look behind, wanting to think the road has just changed its course. In fact everybody around, from the doctors and nurses to our own dear family members try to convince us to quit any pessimistic thoughts, to show us that we are in the path of recovery and that we will be released soon, as soon as we finish the treatments they have devised for us. But it's fairy tales; they cannot deceive anybody except those who want to be deceived. Another comparison to Communist societies.
If one was forced to summarize the story in this book, I would say: The story is the attempt to explain the two last lines of the book, “An evil man threw tobacco in the macaque-rhesus's eyes. [and the macaque went blind] Just like that.”
The macaque in the zoo, blinded by some incredibly evil child, is the core of the story -although it only appears at the very end. A story with no anwser, at least not an easy one: how to explain evil when we are all victims, even the ones who are responsible for our miseries, victims and victimizers. What is the sense of doing that to a poor macaque in a prison-like zoo? Why such evil? Just why?