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Cancer Ward (1968)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Russian Literature (25)
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No current Talk conversations about this book.
An absolute masterpiece.
Having only read Ivan Denisovich, Candle in the Wind, and Matryona's House prior to this, I knew Solzhenitsyn as a masterful crafter of the short-form. How fulfilling to find that his strength there is only compounded here in over 500 pages as he weaves together a perfect convergence of characters and themes and commentary and allegories.
On the surface, it's an engaging tapestry of personal stories, of the varied lives that cross paths in a Russia hospital post-Stalin. Every character was fully fleshed out, distinct with their fears and desires and opinions.
In much the same way that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was not actually just about that one day, or just about Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward delves into the myriad provoking scars that are so particular to early 20th century Russia. Yet the themes are universal and depressingly relatable: our need for connection and survival, our thirst for knowledge, our flaws and vanities. He humanises the political, showing how the villains and criminals become interchangeable with the heroes and innocents, just depending on what day it was.
But no matter what day it is, this book will remain an incredible feat. I'm still boggled by its immense artistry and the multitudes that it contains.
Aside: Chapter 14 of Part Two is a perfect chapter and a perfect short-story pay-off.
A tragic look into a cancer ward in the former Soviet Union. Like much of the health care in that regime, it was substandard and mostly deadly. I have a friend in Ukraine that says you only go to hospitals to die. You definitely "get" that from this work. Like everything else in Solzhenitsyn's corpus, it exposes Communism for what it was--evil.
My Book Club read this book in April of 2020, a book chosen well before the Pandemic. While perhaps not the easiest book to get through while being isolated at home due to fear of contagion, we were all very glad to have read all 536 pages. Meeting took place on Zoom , of course. We had a most interesting lively discussion about Russian history and philosophy and it ended up being a diversion from current affairs.
As's story with underlying sadness arising from the situation of most of the characters...they aren't going to make it. An adequate translation I suppose. But it does reinforce the long Russian Novel stereotype. If you are bi-polar, there are times when you should not start this book.
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The Novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Cancer Ward, August 1914, The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
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Wikipedia in English (1)
"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.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)891.7344 — Literature Literature of other languages Literature of east Indo-European and Celtic languages Russian and East Slavic languages Russian fiction USSR 1917–1991 Late 20th century 1917–1991
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Cancer Ward is set in the mid 1950's in the era of the "Thaw" that was initiated and short lived following the death of Stalin in 1953. It is to some degree informed by the author's own experience as a cancer patient following eight years in a labor camp and in the midst of what turned out to be three years' internal exile. It is a powerful meditation on what it means to be truly human and features an eclectic cast of characters, medical staff as well as patients, and Solzhenitsyn portrays his characters with a skill and sympathy (where warranted) that make this a beautiful and moving novel.
The main protagonist is one Oleg Kostoglotov, who bears some resemblance to Solzhenitsyn, in that he was a soldier in the Soviet army during World War II, was arrested and sentenced to the labor camps for the crime of criticizing Stalin, was sentenced to "perpetual exile" in a remote part of the Soviet Union, contracted cancer and was treated in the cancer ward of a hospital somewhere in Central Asia. Kostoglotov struggles against his disease and struggles against his treatment which includes hormone injections that result in a loss of virility, though he becomes well enough to get a discharge that allows him to return to his place of exile.
His "opponent" is one Rusanov, a lifetime party hack, who works in Personnel where he carries on the ideological struggle for socialism by combing through the records of the firm's employees, snooping on them and writing them up for discipline, termination or arrest. He is a convinced Communist but he loves his privileges and the bourgeois pleasures of his lifestyle, his home, his car, and his upwardly mobile family. It's hard to read the passages in which Rusanov considers informing on his fellow patients without calling to mind Clint Eastwood's line from the film "The Enforcers" - "Personnel, that's for assholes".
The ward is home to nine patients at a time with a waiting list that is never eliminated. Some of them are "goners", some are cured at least to the extent that they can be discharged with instructions to return for a follow-up checkup. Some are treated with a combination of X-rays and injections. Some go under the knife to get a tumor cut out or a limb removed. Some patients are located in the hallway outside the ward as there isn't any space to accommodate them and they are too sick to be sent home. The staff for the most part is professional and hard working, but there are still the doctors who do next to nothing and whose limited skill and motivation adds to the workload of their more competent and conscientious colleagues. Nor are the doctors protected by their knowledge and skill from being brought down by the same disease they spend their lives diagnosing and treating. The head of the radiology section, Dr. Donstsova, contracts cancer likely from overexposure to radiation in the course of her duties. (The doctors have occasion to do paperwork at tables set up in the X-Ray rooms as there's no other place to get work done.)
Among the most moving portraits is that of patient Shulubin whose story is poignantly told in the chapter entitled Idols of the Market Place. His story is, in a way a summing up, of the repression under the Stalin regime from 1930 right to down to the time of the novel's events.
I commend Cancer Ward to any serious reader. It is a beautiful yet somber reflection on the human condition and on the suffocation of the spirit by the Soviet experiment in remaking mankind. ( )