Thursday, 4 March 2010
ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN’s CANCER WARD
Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been called the only Russian classic by many, repudiated by none. His works come out of the depths the soul, from the bone marrow, to buoyantly fight every human indignity, tyranny and oppression of freedom. If his epoch making novel, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ was a massive historic account of the Soviet secret Police, and a shattering account of the Soviet Penal system, his earlier semi autobiographical work, ‘Cancer Ward’ is the celebrated novel of life in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s Purge, when millions were killed, thrown into labor camps or exiled.
Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918, served for eleven years in a concentration camp for speaking against the tyranny of Stalin – an experience which provided the raw material for his magnum opus, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’. He was a cancer patient in the mid – 1950’s, from which sprung forth the cataclysmic parable of ‘Cancer Ward.’
As Soren Kierkegaard observed that the union of a great artist and a great theme constitutes ‘the fortunate in the historical process, the divine conjunction of its forces, the high tide of historic time.’ The union of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the theme of the concentration camps produced the masterpiece of the twentieth century, while the unfreedom suffered by the artists of the Stalinist Soviet Era produced what Albert Camus deemed impossible, the compulsion of the human imagination to participate in the agony and the murders of millions that has been the distinguishing feature of 20th century.
‘Cancer Ward’ can be read purely as a literary work, without the reader ever knowing the circumstances in which it was written, without recognizing the larger picture that the book rounds up, of the excruciatingly totalitarian regime under which Russian writers, intellectuals and artists worked, and were finally silenced if they raised their voices against oppression. It is the enclosed world of the damned. The Purge by Stalin was a systematic removal of all dissenting voices, which left the rest of the citizens, deathly silent. Solzhenitsyn metaphorized cancer to the lack of freedom in the Russia of his times. But it is the sheer magic of Solzhenitsyn’s writing that catches the reader by the throat in a vice like grip. There is not a single question about life that remains unanswered, not a single human situation that remains unfulfilled. What unfolds is the tragic – comedy of life. There is a timeless quality of ‘Cancer Ward’ is that the allegory has the agility of reality to cover up its tracks of metaphor.
The story unfolds in a Cancer Hospital in Uzbekistan in 1955 in the Stalinist Soviet union. The three months that the main character Kostoglotov spends in the men’s ward of a cancer hospital forms the background of the story. Each patient in the ward has a tumor at different parts of his body, the tumor itself symbolizing the malady that has gripped the society. It explores the moral responsibility – symbolized by the patients’ malignant tumors – of those unfortunate men and women implicated in the suffering of their fellow citizens during Stalin’s Great Purge. The patients in the men’s ward are also a cross section of the existing Russia which has numbed the citizens with the oppressive nature of a totalitarian society. There is Rusanov, the government employee, ‘the insider’ who believes that no other means could be employed to rule a country other than complete subjugation. In his pontific manner, he reiterates that a civilized society can only survive through a rule by the gun, allowing no dissent, no individual freedom to its citizens, though there is a clear demarcation between the freedom of the ruled and freedom of those who rule. The voices against the system are brought out, at times through ruminations by the main characters as well as through conversations between them. It is a literary diagnosis of a problem.
‘Cancer Ward’ is also the story of men who are tortured by the vicissitudes of the disease and of the women who treat them. The doctors are almost entirely made up of women, for the male population has been reduced to a minority, the tangent after effects of the Second World War and the ensuing Communist Regime which further brought down the axe on all unsuspecting males, either through exiling them or herding a vast number of humanity into concentration camps, where people endured inhuman conditions. Especially touching is the teenage lovers caught up in the frenzy of cancer and the prospect of death around the corner, but like all young lovers, they believe in the potency of love over death. The young girl suffering from breast cancer and about to undergo mastectomy pleads to her teen lover to savor the beauty of her breasts before the knife of the surgeon carves it out of her body.
The rulers took liberties for granted. A telling scene is where Rusanov’s wife empties garbage right in the middle of the road, even while Kostoglotov yelps back at them in impotent rage.
Shulubin tells Kostoglotov:
"At least you lied less, do you understand. At least you changed less. . . You were jailed. But we were forced to stand and applaud the sentences that had been pronounced. Not just to applaud, but to demand execution, to demand it."
Towards the end of the novel, Kostoglotov, like Solzhenitsyn himself was forced into exile under Article 58 which dealt with the so called counter revolutionaries, realizes that the damage done to him and Russia was too great and that there will be no healing no normal life even after Stalin has gone.
Kostoglotov undergoes two potential romances in the hospital, one with Zoya, the nurse, the attraction mainly physical, and a more serous one with Vera Gangart, a doctor who is bent on saving his life, even to the extent of using hormone therapy on him which would render him impotent for life. Vera Gangart whom Kostoglotov fondly calls Vega, a name given to her by her fiancée who was killed in the Second World War, and who has never married. He imagines that he might ask Vega to be his wife. His feelings for Vega are strong and seem to be reciprocated.
In the last chapter, when he is discharged from the hospital, Kostoglotov wanders about the city. He visits the zoo, where he witnesses the Macaque Rhesus monkey who has been blinded by an evil man who threw tobacco dust into the animal’s eyes. Kostoglotov proceeds write to his young friend at the cancer ward.
‘Even supposing I took their side and had the power, I would still not want to break into the cage and liberate them…Deprived of their home surroundings they had lost the power of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly set free.’ Telling lines these. Solzhenitsyn’s work is a broad and all encompassing literary diagnosis of the diseased system, a tumor that grows under tyranny.
In the end he decides to against going to see either woman. His cancer treatment has left him impotent just as imprisonment and exile have taken the life out of him. He feels that he has nothing to offer a woman and decides to face life alone.
He writes to Vega:
You may disagree, but I have a prediction to make: even before you drift into the indifference of old age, you will come to bless this day, the day you did not commit yourself to share my life ... Now that I am going away ... I can tell you quite frankly: even when we were having the most intellectual conversations and I honestly thought and believed everything I said, I still wanted all the time, all the time, to pick you up and kiss you on the lips.
So try to work that out.
And now, without your permission, I kiss them.
‘ A literary event of the first magnitude…by Russia’s greatest living prose writer’ TIME
Read Solzhenitsyn' works and be mesmerised by the power of great literature. read in this century or the coming centuries, these works and words will remain etched on the pages of history, as human situations does not change though time drops down from every sphere of life.