August 2002

Jessa Crispin

hundred books

Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Not knowing much about communist Russia, I was at a disadvantage reading Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Our Russian chapter in 11th grade World History class went a few Czars, some sort of revolution, Stalin killed a bunch of people, communism is bad, the end. When I read that Cancer Ward is a metaphor for Soviet culture, I knew I would be missing some layers here.

On the level I did read it, I found it stunning. The text was sparse and elegant, much more 19th century than 20th. He managed to convey the claustrophobia of the hospital without stifling the reader. And in the one scene that slid into I-will-use-this-character-to-espouse-my-views-on-communism, he manages to make it brief and less heavy handed than it could have been.

The story is of a group of men being treated for cancer and the women doctors treating them in the barely post-Stalin years. An array of characters are introduced to portray each a different segment of Soviet society, but they delicately hover over being stereotypes. There’s the political exile Oleg; the government agent Rusanov; the unquestioning Ludmila, treating her patients with poisons as deadly as the cancer; the student who only wants sex and rock and roll, Asya; and the generation of women who lost their male equivalents to wars, as seen through Zoya and Vega.

Each of Solzhenitsyn’s characters must find their way through this new society, either blindly behind it or raving against it or barely noticing its existence.

I admit that reading it in the summer was not the best timing, and I compensated by turning up the air conditioner and reading it in a hot bath most nights. It is a very gray book, as represented by the winter and the hospital walls. No one here is truly healed. Death is merely delayed for some. Not exactly a beach read. I can’t recommend this book enough, even if I hope you wait until winter to tackle it.