Book of da Week: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward

Alexander Solzhenitsyn Cancer Ward
The book which helped win Solzhenitsyn a Nobel Prize.

Time magazine called Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A literary event of the first magnitude… by Russian’s greatest living prose writer.” This is pretty much spot on. The author had one heck of a full on life. Born in 1918, during his life he endured World War II, imprisonment, illness, and exile from Russia. He died in 2008 having won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1970.

Cancer Ward was published in 1969 and deals with the lives of patients who are effectively stuck on a cancer ward in a hospital in Soviet Central Asia in 1955. This was two years after Joseph Stalin died, and the characters range from those who played a part in his regime, rebelled, or obliviously went along with it. Yes, the novel was banned instantaneously in Russia but slipped through to the rest of the world and made Solzhenitsyn a star.

Cancer Ward

The lead character (protagonist, if you will) is Oleg Kostoglotov and we join him and his fellow patients on Ward 13 in a hospital. Here the staff, and patients, endure the rigours of fighting a terrible illness whilst attempting to overcome the endless fears which such a condition throws at people.

Whilst the novel does deal with the issues cancer sufferers face and considers the hopes and fears they face, it also acts as a powerful allegory for the state of Soviet Russia. The beauty is a reader can head into the novel and take what they want from it – a polemical debate doesn’t need to be had if you want to pick up the thing and marvel at a book which portrays themes of: “beauty, of tragedy, of what is unkillable in the human spirit.”

As a result we have a wonderful cast of characters, such as the patients Kostoglotov, Rusanov, Dymoka, Vadim, Asya, Shulubin, and Ahmadjan who ruminate with each other about what fate has thrown at them. Kostoglotov, although not always the central character, has been exiled and generally voices his concerns about the future of his country and how he has been cursed with an appalling illness.

It’s not a cheery read, let’s put it like that, but it’s immensely thought provoking and it would be an understatement to call is merely a “classic”. It’s a novel, as with many of Solzhenitsyn’s works, which changed the world. Irrespective of this it’s simply an incredible book written by a genius, and one which can offer anyone who is feeling down-and-out an inspiring lift towards, at the very least, emotional well-being.

Censorship Issues

In the somewhat tattered 1972 print we have, it’s absolutely crammed with forewords, addendums, appendixes, and interviews about censorship and the author’s struggles to get the novel published in (what is now) Russia. The situation was so fraught Solzhenitsyn was expelled from his home country in 1974, and he wouldn’t return for 20 years.

As Vladmir Petrov writes in the afterword:

“Although Solzhenitsyn and his book were received enthusiastically in leftist circles in Europe as a manifestation of a decisive break by the Soviet leadership with the inglorious deeds of Stalin, the principal charge levelled against Solzhenitsyn was that he supplied grist to the anti-Soviet propaganda mill, a charge similar to that made in 1958 against Boris Pasternak for Doctor Zhivago.”

Thusly, Solzhenitsyn had a nightmare of a time trying to get the book published. A Russian edition was published in Europe in 1968, and unauthorised English edition was published later in the same year. A year later, Solzhenitsyn was booted out of the Russian Writer’s Union for his troubles, and would soon endure a long slog in exile for his troubles. Some people, eh?

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