As one who can truthfully say she enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Nobel Prize-winner Solzhenitsyn’s soul shattering Cancer Ward and Gulag Archipelago, I looked forward to immersing myself in this posthumously published collection of short stories. In his earlier novels, the author’s eloquence and craft took the grimmest images of government oppression and turned them into shimmering examples of human courage and satires of the darkest sort. I looked forward to more!
Happily, there are lightning flashes of Solzhenitsyn’s genius in these stories, waiting to be mined by the patient reader. But between those vivid little packages of emotional luminosity lies a wasteland of tedium. This puzzled me. Can we fault the translation? Or perhaps a lack of careful editing? Where has the eloquence gone? The writing often feels pedantic, flat. What we are most aware of is the author’s repetition of his core message: the failings of the Soviet Union and its ultimate demise. In one story, “The New Generation,” we follow a professor who promotes a lackluster student, only to find himself, years later, interrogated and threatened by this same young man. In “Nastenka” we meet two women with the same name and experience the changes in their lives as a result of the Revolution. Somehow these characters never grip us with the tenacity and tender intimacies of Ivan Denisovitch in his degrading work camp or Oleg Kostolokov as a cancer patient, modeled after Solzhenitsyn himself. We continue to shake our heads at the follies of the same corrupt government that expelled the author from his country, but there’s little new here except the format, an arrangement of “binary” stories – two stories linked by subject or characters under a single title. Design isn’t enough to save the book … or the reader.