It’s time to dust off the old blog again, my dears. Welcome back to me!
It’s been a funny and infinitely rewarding reading winter for me. I read three books in translation, all in a row: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, followed by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and rounded off with the more contemporary Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master. I jumped from there, at my husband’s insistence, to the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, and yesterday I found myself compelled to pick up a book that my son checked out from the library because it’s too damn intriguing not to, Brian Falkner’s Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo.
So let’s begin with Solzhenitsyn. This was my first exposure to the great man, oddly enough, not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which Patricia Blake called “one of the masterworks of 20th-century fiction.” Like One Day, Cancer Ward is semi-autobiographical, following some of Solzhenitsyn’s own saga of exile and cancer treatment in Tashkent. It is set in the spring of 1955, during the “thaw” of post-Stalinist thought. It is one of his least political novels, and, according to Blake, Solzhenitsyn himself insisted that it was merely a book about cancer, though this beggars belief when one considers that the novel was only able to be published as samizdat, then subsequently banned in the Soviet Union. This is not to mention the many references and details and character arcs that would be hard to read as less than symbolic. And according to the wikipedia entry on the novel (alas, citing a JSTOR article that I cannot access), “Solzhenitsyn writes in an appendix to Cancer Ward that the ‘evil man’ who threw tobacco in the macaque’s eyes at the zoo represents Stalin, and the monkey the political prisoner. The other zoo animals also have significance, the tiger reminiscent of Stalin and the squirrel running itself to death the proletariat.” Others have picked up on the weather and the medical practices in the novel as symbols of the regime, as well. One of the main characters, Oleg Kostoglotov, ponders, “A man dies from a tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and exiles?”
A few lines of inquiry would make reading this novel much more rewarding. For one, I would like to brush up on my Soviet history to better understand what the dissolution of the Supreme Court means to the characters, for example, or the harsh realities of life in exile, or just the oppression in everyday life under Stalin. And I think it would be interesting to explore the relationship between Tolstoy and Cancer Ward, since there are mentions of Anna Karenina and the short story “What Men Live By,” which are major clues to the themes of the novel.
My choice to read this novel turned out to be particularly prescient; it was a random used-bookstore find, bearing an old, nondescript brown leather cover, and I decided to carry it along with me for a two-week trip to Budapest. While I was there, learning about the atrocities committed by the Arrow Cross Party and then the Hungarian Communist Party under Matyas Rakosi, an ardent Stalinist who was responsible for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians and the deaths of thousands more, I was shocked to see Rakosi’s name in Cancer Ward, giving a speech that the hospital patients listen to on the radio one day. I was struck by the interconnectivity of our world and of history; this was not to be the last of these realizations.
I found the last few chapters of Cancer Ward to be particularly captivating, as we follow Kostoglotov in the days following his release from the hospital. The writing is the most lyrical of the novel, which can be quite spare and bleak at other points (although, sadly, I cannot tell you the edition or the translator of the edition that I read, as I left my copy in the hotel in Budapest; I hope it has found a good home), and the images of Kostoglotov salivating at the smell of street food or searching for the blossoms of the apricot tree have stuck with me.
Well, I had intended to give just a brief synopsis of my reading winter, but now I see that there’s just too much to be contained in a single post. Stay tuned, dear readers. I won’t leave you for so long this time.
I’ll leave you with just the second of my winter reading coincidences. I also brought The Hunchback of Notre Dame with me to read in Budapest, figuring I’d need at least two books to read for a two-week trip (as it turned out, there was so much to see and do in that marvelous city that I didn’t have nearly as much time to read as I expected). And what should my wondering eyes behold but another reference to Hungarian history, about which I previously knew literally nothing, only to have not one but two historical names cross my path in both of the books I brought with me to read, one book from France in 1831 and the other from Soviet Russia 1966. One of the crime bosses in Hunchback is named Mathias Hunyadi Spicali, the self-proclaimed duke of Egypt and Bohemia, and he is named for Matthias Hunyadi, or Matthias Corvinus, the medieval king of Hungary, under whom a golden age blossomed in his kingdom. Pierre Gringoire also mentions the noble Hungarian king when he is begging for his life from King Louis XI.
Until next time, my friends!