Friday, August 13, 2010

Jo khayaalon pe pehre daale woh aankhen hain kahaan?

At a quarter past three in the morning on a rather rainy muggy Friday morning, when insomnia drives all longing for restful sleep from my rather expectedly sluggish mind, I cannot, inspite of trying hard, banish all thoughts from my mind, so it will be clear and I cud finally sleep.

But as easily as this was achieved once before, an empty mind and easy sleep remains rather out of reach tonight.

So, here I am, hoping that writing will be therapeutic and set my mind to rest or atleast tire it out sufficiently.

So little has happened in the past day that I am surprised that a novel I'm midway thru is effectively disturbing my mind enuff to prevent sleep and as I type this after two hours of tossing and turning in bed, I cant help but get a somewhat tenuous grasp on what it is exactly that is so troubling about this book.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, (this is an intentionally distorted title, its new revised edition is titled In the First Circle) or atleast the 1968 edition I have borrowed from A. is unlike any other novel I have read before. And since, the only other Russian novel I have ever read is War and Peace, I cant help but wonder if it is the specific conditions of that place that inspire such sprawling, devastatingly perceptive works of literature or if that is just a lucky fluke.

The book, the title of which suggests Dante's idea of the First Circle of Hell which was a relatively benign "zone" reserved for saintly folks who for some reason ended up in Hell but were kept away from the scary, hard-core fire and brimstone, is set in a special prison or sharashka in the Soviet Union of the 1950s where the prisoners are scientists, professors and engineers, all imprisoned on flimsy, mostly cooked up charges, forced to work on the megalomaniacal Stalin's crazy pet projects.

These prisoners are highly intelligent folk, whose intellect will now power the invention of new machines that will in turn empower Stalin's stooges a.k.a. Security Officers (glorified thugs, dimwitted but ruthless) to spy on and imprison ever-increasing numbers of the hapless populace. Apart from these privileged prisoners who are educated and somewhat well-read, we learn that the rest of the country and even the Party members are indoctrinated with Communist propaganda that consists mostly of distinctly anti-American platitudes and a truckload of not-so-clever lies.

Therefore, anyone who questions these State-sanctioned beliefs is immediately labelled anti-Soviet and jailed for ten to twenty-five years, except for the (un)lucky folks who're immediately shot. Ironically, a lot of these anti-Soviet terrorists are former Red Army soldiers who at the end of World War II were transferred promptly and efficiently from German POW camps to Gulags or labour camps with no regard for their wartime bravery and without any real court trials.

There are atleast fifty different characters in the first 300 pages of the book that I've encountered so far and some of them make more of an impression than others when the book's focus flits from one character to another, seemingly randomly in the beginning.

I'm beginning to see how they're all connected and how this style of narration (which I'd found incredible in My Name is Red) is fleshing out the characters, exposing their backstories, clearly etching their motivations and their internal conflicts while providing a terrifyingly sordid picture of the external threat, a bleak militarised communist state with a sinister yet obviously and dangerously insane leader.

Reading thru the book, my brain kept feeding me references like V for Vendetta, Das Leben der Anderen, 1984 and Animal Farm before I wud remember with a jolt that this novel is based on Solzhenitsyn's real-life experiences and the characters are based on real people he met in one of these intellectuals-only special prisons, where life is arguably easier than the cruel labour camps of Siberia, but where the prisoners are shackled by invisible chains reinforced by informers and spies, where these brilliant people cannot trust the canny cleverness of their equally brilliant compatriots.

I am not certain if I liked the experience of reading this novel. It overwhelms me like it has now, becoz I am terrified and repulsed by the world the author evokes and even more nauseated when I realise that this is not mere fiction. As the Washington Post reviewer on the back-cover says, there are no villains in this book, only a cold, detached system that effectively dehumanises every person it touches. Even Stalin comes across as a pitifully obsessed, happily self-imprisoned madman, terrifying tho' his actions are, moreso becoz they are oddly random (like Amon Goeth from Schindler's List times million), he is himself trapped in a prison of his own making behind bulletproof glass windows and gunmetal doors, a comfortable, safe cocoon where he confines himself on account of his morbid fear of dying.

Also, there are no true heroes. Everyone has made bad choices inspite of or perhaps becoz of their great intelligence or exasperating stupidity respectively but there is a chance, slim tho it is, of redemption, of freedom, for the spirit if not for the body. There are tragic love stories as well, considering many of these male prisoners left young wives behind, but the tragedy is not dramatic but quiet and therefore, more brutal.

When as a nine year old I first heard of socialism, I had thought it a noble idea, one that I had supported and argued for even, in a very memorable debate long ago. When I realised how it all had panned out in reality, I felt very disappointed in people who had let this great monument of the human mind crumble becoz of the flaws of human nature. Which is why this book becomes even harder to contemplate for me. It really is a hell that this book describes, I wud gladly pick the eternally downward bound boulder of Sisyphus over this claustrophobic prison(I do believe that is not supposed to be a tautology).

I am not close to the end of the book yet but I can predict that the end, like the course of the book, will be bleak and dreadful for some and filled with hope of the future for some others of these varied, numerous characters but then, what else can one expect from reality?

Therefore, I think I'll try my luck with dreams once again. Hopefully, these runaway thoughts that kept haunting my mind are now exorcised onto the blog.


Soin said...

i should try this book.i slept 15 hours straight and just woke

Tangled up in blue... said...

What did you read? A gigantic textbook? Those books put me to bed easily..but 15 hours?? seriously? :D

T. said...

I am taking this book once u're done with it, I already asked Adi. At the speed u're going ull be done by Monday. U've certainly built it up my expectations here. Btw u're not the only one with insomnia these days.

and u? u blame urself for thinking socialism was a good idea? don't beat urself up. so did millions of other ppl.

and besides stalin's communism is much removed from marx's teachings i believe u mean those when u say socialism, yes?

strange that someone thought such a book has no villains? have they made stalin sympathetic?

Tangled up in blue... said...

Actually I'll be done by tonight. And I'm sure your expectations will be met. ;)

And no, it does not make him sympathetic, just pathetic.

T. said...

Wish I could come over and take it right now. :-)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Wudnt you like to? Ok, I went to the crossword sale and lost track of time and I havent finished it. I guess you'll have to take it on Monday.

T. said...

i'm going tomorrow. See u monday. :-)

Pankaj said...

beautifully described. to even read your commentary makes me a little claustrophobic.

Tangled up in blue... said...

T., cya! :)

Pankaj, thank you. And you've inspired me to read Chekhov. :)

Nitisha said...

Okay, I have to read this book now, after that incisive review. It's going on my wishlist now. :)

Read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment yet? It's brilliant.

And I'm still stuck on page 15 of Anna Karenina, so :/.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Its a brilliant book! My best friend had the old old old edition and there's a new revised edition which is supposed to be better, more scathing I mean..

I havent read Crime and Punishment but I intend to read it sometime..hopefully soon. I really havent read much Russian stuff except for Gogol's short stories and War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, this book and now I'm reading Chekhov's short stories.

And wow, you manage to pack in some heavy duty reading, Nitisha!