Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first translation of Russian literature I ever read. Skipping lunch, I hoarded my allowance to acquire the rest of Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre in English, at a dismal chain bookstore in an aging suburban shopping mall. The bearded, long-haired clerk, a Trot stranded among the Harlequins, tried to disabuse me of my anti-Communist convictions. Aleksandr Isayevich's disdain for materialism was what most attracted me in adolescence. Looking back -- and one can't do that, unfortunately, without choking on the anachronistic vagaries of his Slavophilia, touched upon in the New York Times obituary -- I know I'll have to go back and reread him. The older English translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita captured me back then, too, and again later, in the much finer Latvian translation by the poet Ojārs Vācietis... but rereading it not so long ago, I was struck by how many levels in that novel opened only upon living here, or after catching the merest fading shadow of the collapsed imperium. To be transported to "Matryona's House" from middle class American suburbia by literary magic was wondrous. It must read so very differently in a hovel in the hamlet of Slutišķi, called "Latvia's Siberia" because used as a Siberian backdrop in a soap opera... or in any nearby backwater, filtered through the dark, dense foliage of the stories here, innumerable individual histoires, lives direct or overheard, the tangible sense of tragedy hovering over abandoned farmsteads and unmarked graves, the trenches of the First World War still visible in the forest -- the place colored by the reading, the reading to be colored by place. To listen to those who suffered is often to hear
Gradually it became clear to me that the line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes, and not between parties -- it runs through the heart of each and every one of us, and through all human hearts. This line is not stationary. It shifts and moves with the passing of the years. Even in hearts enveloped in evil, it maintains a small bridgehead of good. And even the most virtuous heart harbors an uprooted corner of evil.
R.I.P., Aleksandr Isayevich.
The photograph of Solzhenitsyn as an inmate is from a biographical sketch at Vēsture sauc.