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Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Cancer Ward (original 1968; edition 2003)

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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2,388252,615 (4.08)119
Title:Cancer Ward
Authors:Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Info:Vintage (2003), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 576 pages
Collections:SMI - ZWI
Tags:Russia, read

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Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1968)

  1. 10
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (fundevogel)
  2. 00
    Galina (une histoire russe) by Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya (Eustrabirbeonne)
    Eustrabirbeonne: Galina and Solzhenitsyn are friends (she and Rostropovich gave him sanctuary at their house in the 1960s, when he was expelled from University). There is great dark humour at comparing the way each of them describes the reactions at Stalin's death : the hysterical surge of grief in Leningrad where Galina lived; the joy of the convicts at the gulag, when they learned that the "ogre"had died at last.… (more)

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The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Translated from Russian by Rebecca Frank, The Dial Press, Inc. New York 1968

This is the second book by Solzhenitsyn that I have read. I really enjoy his writing. The first book I read was about life in the prison camp, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn was born in southern Russia in 1918. Communism had taken power. The author fought in WWII. Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of rank and decorations for derogatory remarks about Stalin in letters that he had written. He was sentenced without trial to eight years of forced labor followed by exile. His first book, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich came from his experience in a Siberian labor camp. He served four years of his eight years in a research institute manned by prisoners as a mathematician. This led to the second novel, The First Circle. I haven’t read it yet. In 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released from a labor camp and entered “eternal” exile on the edge of the desert in Kazakhstan. He taught school. While in the labor camp, the author was operated on for a tumor but not told the nature of his ailment. He suffered extreme pain and recurring illness. He was treated in Tashkent for cancer and he recovered. Out of this experience came this book.

The story takes place in a hospital in a place similar to Tashkent, 1955. Stalin died in 1953. After this there was amnesty for prisoners (only petty criminals). In 1955 there was a startling event. The old members of the Supreme Court were dismissed. De-Stalinization had begun. This event is part of this story. Some other themes include “sincerity in literature”, the tragedy of biology when biologists were purged, the expediters of the black market system, Another major theme is the women in Russia. Women did men’s work. Most of the country’s doctors were women. Russia had lost twenty million men in the war. There was a shortage of men. Women were doomed to loneliness. Vera, one of the doctors in the story, talks about this shortage and how the men that are available prefer to marry women much younger than their own cohorts.

I also enjoyed this story for the medical aspect. This looks at the early treatment of cancer and while it is not necessarily accurate, I think it did an excellent job of representing medical care in the fifties. The treatments were harsher than they are now (they still are harsh). Radiation was done until there was serious side effects and a necessity to stop. There is reference to herbal treatments; birth tree mushroom and issyk-kul root. A person with cancer will seek out these treatments because with the diagnosis of cancer, everything must be tried and people do feel safer with herbals and naturals even though their safety isn’t always anymore than the medicines. The hope and fears of the various men on the ward are accurately described. The characters are people from various nationalities and walks of life, The doctors are women and the nurse is studying to be a doctor. The orderly who cleans the ward is a woman, exile.

There were many great quotes and the author’s prose is wonderful. His descriptions bring the scenes to life.

“he was saying dangerous things, no only things one shouldn’t repeat to anyone, but things one shouldn’t even listen to.”

There is a great section on optimism. The Kadmins are exiled in the same place the main character is exiled. He describes their joy in life. They experienced joy in exile because in exile they could appreciate what you would not think to appreciate in plenty.

“It is not the standard of living that makes us happy, it is the way we feel, the way we look at life.”

“---man is always happy if he wants to be and no can stop him---”

“it took a misfortune for fresh air to blow into their life”

“--if we first cease to love animals, will we not cease to love people” (the significance of the Kadmins dog being shot by people in the village. The dog was like their children

“A man sprouts a tumor and dies--how, then, can a country live that has sprouted camps and exile?”

I rate this book; ★★★★★ ( )
  Kristelh | Aug 26, 2014 |
All the horrors of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union fall away when cancer enters one's life. Its impact on daily existence is much more immediate than any political system's. Cancer Ward explores how the disease transforms the lives of ten men on the oncology ward of a small hospital in Uzbekistan in 1955... but it is not a "medical drama". That is to say, its plot does not focus on the process of making diagnoses or rendering treatments, and there is no sense that the author is enamoured with the exoticism of medical hardware, or awed by the staff's knowledge and training. What this really is, is a story about the humbling and equalizing power of serious illness. The main characters comprise a mix of cultural, ethnic, and social-status backgrounds, representing all walks of Soviet life. They would have never come in contact with one another, but for their disease. Now, facing death (Vadim's melanoblastoma) or debilitation (Dyomka's amputation), they grow to know one another and depend on each other for support. There are no earth-shaking plot twists here, and no life-or-death high drama (i.e. no one-in-a-million surgeries, no risky experimental drugs with a slim chance of complete remission) instead, life is a boring grind of radiation treatments in front of a dull humming metal box. Despite the lack of "action", the novel is a showcase for Solzhenitsyn's skill in creating memorable characters and exploring what they do in these most difficult circumstances.

Aleksi suffers rectal cancer, and looks back on a life of quiet sufferring under the totalitarian system. An intellectual who kept his criticisms to himself, either to avoid "rocking the boat", to benefit his career, or to protect his family from adverse consequences, Aleksi now contemplates how the system never did change for the better, despite his hopes. He considers the bleak future, with its promise of continued oppression for his children, stretching out indefinitely, and wonders how things might have been different if he had found the courage to say something. Anything. Could he have made a difference, or is he just torturing himself? Who could ever know? The point is, this is the sort of tough appraisal of one's life which cancer forces on people.

Another character, Yefrem, has an unnamed, but fatal diagnosis. After a long career as a hard-edged pragmatic upper-level bureaucrat, he wonders what it was all for. Three decades spent pouring over production quotas, fixing industrial equipment rotation schedules, answering to overseers in endless committee meetings... how did this become the stuff of his brief walk on planet Earth? With a few months left, he picks up Tolstoy and begins to read.

Meanwhile, Friedrich- ever loyal to the Party, refuses to let cancer invalidate his past. In a way, this is his own way of defying his diagnosis: refusing to let it change his mind, however much it is changing his body.

Please don't think Cancer Ward is continually ponderous and gloomy; there are some lighter moments. Main character Oleg rebels against his stomach cancer the best way he knows how: with a life-affirming effort to bed beautiful nurse Zoya... and later, to do the same with the more sophisticated Dr. Vera Kornilyevna! For her part, Vera is a complex character who raises some important questions about maintaining an appropriate professional distance from patients.

Ever politically-minded, Solzhenitzen uses these men as vehicles to explore aspects of Soviet life, but he never allows the commentary to overpower his handling of the characters (contrast to Ayn Rand!). Cancer Ward is considered semi-autobiographical, in that it draws heavily from Solzhenitsyn's own experiences with cancer in his forties, which kept him incapacitated for almost a year during a period of imprisonment on political charges. The novel is at its best when showing how cancer recasts one's priorities, particularly the last several chapters, which follow Oleg after his discharge from the hospital. It is here that Solzhenitsen so artistically renders the world transformed through the eyes of patient who has battled for his life. The ideas of "simple pleasures" or a sense of wonder at the world around us do not seem trite or cliche; they are embraced with a deeply-felt sense of gratitude. The gift of being allowed to exist one more day is not taken for granted by somebody who very nearly had it taken away. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 3, 2013 |
I can't believe I got halfway through and then didn't finish. It's not even a bad book, the opposite really. I just lost steam. I was engaged enough while reading, but had no desire to pick the book up again after setting it down for the night. I hope to come back to this and finish it before the end of the year.
  cait815 | Apr 1, 2013 |
After 30 plus reviews, I doubt anyone is interested in the 31 plus more... but I have to say the imagery of Solzhenitsyn is sharp as a tack. How he describes the hospital beds as groaning in protest, and describing a hospital staff member's eyes as brown as coffee with two fingers of cream. The oppression of Russia in the 1950's reminds me eerily of what American is fast becoming today: if your views/opinions are unpopular with the status quo, you are punished in one way or the other... food for thought. ( )
  brillow51 | Oct 23, 2012 |
This is simply stunning. Possibly not the greatest, but certainly the most powerful novel ever written. Compared to this War and Peace is just entertainment, The Plague is just a shallow morality story, and Ulysses just a minor exercise in introspection. All these are 'great' novels, but you can't imagine them bringing down a government (but don't forget Zola...). That is not to say that Solzhenitsyn did, but he certainly intended to. You would have had to be there to appreciate what his 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' did to the romantic myth of Soviet Communism. But if that was a Katusha rocket, 'Cancer Ward' was a hydrogen bomb, for those that took the time to see it. Or to put it in another context, Solzhenitsyn bears as much (to my mind) responsibility as Reagan or Gorbachov or Lech Welesca for bringing the Soviet Empire to an end.

But the power of this novel transcends these events (who remembers Lech these days?), and even Solzhenitsyn. But Solzhenitsyn, tapping perhaps into some of the most profound suffering of any man alive, wrote a story - tore it out of his own life - that ultimately faces the question 'what is it to be alive'. And perhaps the imminence of death - for he was in that Cancer Ward, is the key to the ability of this novel to rip the ground out from underneath you, and leave you standing on, just nothing except perhaps (if you can at least pretend to believe) some shred of personal decency and integrity. But Solzhenitsyn gives you no assurance on that, none at all. Which means that this is not a comfortable or easy book, which is why I talk about its power rather than it's greatness. Oddly enough I find that this book works even better if you start with Ivan Denisovich; it's the context, what he comes from, and what he returns to. What we have come from, what we may return to. ( )
  nandadevi | Jun 8, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Aleksandr Solzhenitsynprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bethell, NicholasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Burg, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Раковый корпус носил и номер тринадцать.
On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13.
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This work is the Cancer Ward, and should not be combined with
The Gulag Archipelago

The German edition "Krebsstation" was issued in two books and should not be combined with the single work listed.

The Finnish edition "Syöpäosasto" was issued in Keltainen Kirjasto in two volumes; the separate volumes should not be combined with the single work.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374511993, Paperback)

Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin's death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. The experiences of the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, closely reflect the author's own: Solzhenitsyn himself became a patient in a cancer ward in the mid-1950s, on his release from a labor camp, and later recovered. Translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:56:13 -0400)

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'Cancer Ward' describes the lives of people condemned on health grounds to internment or death. It provides a psychological insight into the intensified experience of people under varying degrees of pressure and deprivation.

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