Remission from Fear
BARELY A MONTH after the launching of The First Circle (TIME cover, Sept. 27), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward has been published in an English translation. As a special kind of literary import, it stands partially obscured by the excess political baggage that has accompanied it. The kinds of labels inevitably suggested by the advance publicity are gross and distracting: savage exposé of Stalinism; revealing political microcosm; old cold-war propaganda. The reader is thus challenged to slip past the luggage and the labels into the heart of the book.
Flashbacks. It isn't easy. For one thing, some of the labels are at least partly true. Cancer makes for strange ward-fellows. The inmates of Solzhenitsyn's ward include men and women from the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union —peasants, ex-prisoners, exiles, bureaucrats, students. When confronted with death, they express jagged—and politically damning—insights into the everyday enormities of life as it had been under Joseph Stalin. Perhaps most shocking are the flashbacks of a powerful party functionary, now suffering from cancer of the throat, who recalls denouncing a friend to the secret police so that he might acquire the other half of their shared apartment.
Solzhenitsyn's relentless narrative, moreover, takes place early in Khrushchev's regime, when the Soviet Union was first beginning to admit, and partially mitigate, the crudest of Stalin's repressions. For metaphorically inclined readers, it is justifiable to observe that Oleg Kostoglotov, the author's rough-hewn hero, has his relief from cancer (as Solzhenitsyn himself did) in 1955, precisely when the U.S.S.R. was having its first remission of the disease of mass exile and imprisonment.
Unliterary Acquaintance. Even with symbolism and cold-war politics set aside, the book presents some special difficulties, especially for American readers. No country has had more secondhand exposure to sickroom scenarios than the U.S. It is not, as one might expect, recollections of The Magic Mountain or nostalgia for Arrow smith that lends a slight feeling of familiarity to some of Cancer Ward's harrowing episodes. It is an unliterary acquaintance with those romans-fleuves of the air waves, TV's medical melodramas. Most Americans have seen it all already—the devoted old doctor who sees the symptoms of a dread disease but neglects it until TOO LATE because of the press of work; the rich and prideful patient who is cut down to size by the egalitarian properties of pain; even Kostoglotov's brief, touching hanky-panky in a corridor with a pretty nurse named Zoya.
Too long marred by a translator whose own writing level sometimes seems just about up to television-script standards, Cancer Ward is not so fine a book as The First Circle. But it adds measurably to Solzhenitsyn's most remarkable creation: the many-sided, often autobiographical composite character who was first seen as Ivan Denisovich, then as Gleb Nerzhin (in The First Circle) and now as Kostoglotov.
Saints and Revolutionaries. For American readers it has been misleadingly easy to view Solzhenitsyn (with a touch of complacency) merely as a champion of democratic values in the Communist world, a courageous attacker of evils peculiar to Stalinism. But he is much more. Stripped of all illusions by years of war, prison, exile, poverty and sickness, the Solzhenitsyn figure uncompromisingly asserts that modern man can arm himself against the fear of death only with life itself. He must do so by reducing life to complete simplicity, seeing it with unblinking honesty but loving and prizing it nevertheless. If Solzhenitsyn is against cruelty, hypocrisy and loss of freedom, he is also against the distracting things that freedom—with its consequent financial inequality—engenders. Snobbery, status seeking, selfimportance, the acquisition of consumer goods, materialism—everything, in short, that tends to repress the natural piety of men.
Like those of pure revolutionaries, saints and some hippies, Solzhenitsyn's views are not political, except where they concern (as they inevitably do) a hostile, worldly society. Like saints and pure revolutionaries, but unlike most hippies, Solzhenitsyn's heroes have spent a lifetime learning the absolute value of simplicity.