An excellent and important piece of work. The unflinching descriptions of the petty squabbles and competitiveness between the prison camp inmates are especially heart-wrenching: in a system like this, survival is
, in fact, survival of the craftiest and fittest, suggesting that humans are capable of creating much more horrible environments than natural existence (which always involves mutual aid) could ever allow. The "State of Nature" is eminently, and horrifically, a human product - which is an extremely important argument to make. This is also reflected in the fact that camp life appears to "flatten" people out, and yet they still retain their own personal quirks, features, and characteristics. It is only the absolute scum that will rise to the top, because the system is designed to allow this, as it keeps the prisoners at each other's throats - but the latent point here is that not everyone is like this
, and not everyone is degraded into a "primordial" bestial state, which suggests there is more to humanity than this.
I also liked that the novella avoids overt moralizing and crude dismissals of the Soviet regime. This may, in part, be (unconscious) self-censorship by Solzhenitsyn, but it nevertheless lends a much greater air of authenticity to the novel. In the camp, it's all about survival; the regime is patently unjust, but you don't think of that - it's the day-to-day reality that matters, not revenge, and it's also this day-to-day reality that holds the potential for dissent, for survival, for the very persistence of human dignity
that Shukhov embodies, rather than idealistic oppositionism. And yet, the book is constantly pervaded by a sense of irony: it is never clear whether Shukhov has really "taken on" the mantle of camp survival as his only goal, or whether this is just an ironic movement by the author to make us see the essential absurdity and injustice of life in Soviet prison camps. Either way, it works well: it shows both sides of humanity, both "Heaven" and "Hell", both altruism and selfishness, very often in the same people (as Shukhov alludes to in the conversation with his Baptist camp-neighbor towards the end).
Where the book ultimately falls short is a more holistic consideration of the social and economic effects the prison camps had on the "free" population - they were building things for the "free" workers, but were they fully aware of this? And why (not)? Was it fear or apathy? Was it systemically induced or intrinsic? Of course, part of the point is that camp existence itself discouraged such explorations and interactions, but it still makes the book slightly too voyeuristic, too "urgent", less literary than journalistic. In the same vein, the main character (and some others) appears to be rather white-washed - there is little depth to characterization, as if it were all slightly "rushed", little complexity. Again, camp life may "do" this to people, but Solzhenitsyn managed to avoid complete erasure of human difference within the main thematic cluster of altruism; it seems slightly unsatisfactory that he doesn't do the same with people's internal emotions, conflicts of motivations, etc. Perhaps the book is too short; again, the sense of urgency pervades, and I think it works better if it's read as a novella or short story, rather than a novel. This, in turn, contributes to it giving the impression of more of a fictionalized documentary work, rather than a literary masterpiece per se