Title: In the First Circle
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Original edition
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Paberback: 741 pages
Genre: Russian Literature
The thrilling cold war masterwork by the nobel prize winner, published in full for the first time
Moscow, Christmas Eve, 1949.The Soviet secret police intercept a call made to the American embassy by a Russian diplomat who promises to deliver secrets about the nascent Soviet Atomic Bomb program. On that same day, a brilliant mathematician is locked away inside a Moscow prison that houses the country’s brightest minds. He and his fellow prisoners are charged with using their abilities to sleuth out the caller’s identity, and they must choose whether to aid Joseph Stalin’s repressive state—or refuse and accept transfer to the Siberian Gulag camps . . . and almost certain death.
First written between 1955 and 1958, In the First Circle is Solzhenitsyn’s fiction masterpiece. In order to pass through Soviet censors, many essential scenes—including nine full chapters—were cut or altered before it was published in a hastily translated English edition in 1968. Now with the help of the author’s most trusted translator, Harry T. Willetts, here for the first time is the complete, definitive English edition of Solzhenitsyn’s powerful and magnificent classic.
It will come as no surprise to some that I am extremely passionate about Russian Literature nor will it surprise many to learn I believe Solzhenitsyn to be one of the greats in Russian Literature. It is my firm belief that only Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn could have written a modern day classic piece of Russian Literature of this stature. An author imprisoned twice for his writings, then exiled from the country he dearly loved, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn captures beautifully post WWII Russia in his masterpiece In the First Circle.
This review will be long, so let me quickly, with apologies to the departed Solzhenitsyn, summarize the book. On the surface this is a spy novel. In the beginning the reader learns someone has leaked to the West that Russia is working on an Atomic bomb and it is the political and scientific prisoners (zeks), pulled from various Gulags, who are brought to the Marafino sharashka or Ministry of State Special Prison No. 1, who are to help the government in determining who made the treasonous phone call. How simple, almost trite sounding, yet do not be tricked into believing this is just another spy novel. Solzhenitsyn not only paid his dues in such places as he writes about, he was also an extraordinarily deep thinker and so are the majority of his 59 central characters, each of which tells part of the story.
In The First Circle is a novel of rich prose, astonishingly clear and precise details, as well as numerous discussions and debates stemming from theology, philosophy, psychology, political science, and of course literature, almost all of which were banned topics at the time. Each character is related to another, not by heredity, but by circumstance, and in this book, there is no such thing as six degrees of separation. One may wonder, with a book filled with so many characters, is it possible to form an attachment to any? Of course! Even Stalin is shown at times as weak and almost pitiable. However my heart was in the Marafino sharashka and my favourite passages and dialougues occur between mathematician Gleb Vikentievich Nerzin and linguist Lev Grigorievich Rubin.
Solzhenitsyn writes of a world he knows and does not care for and shows the glaring hypocrisy of the laws through his characters as well as the longing of what was and what could possibly be, yet hope is a dangerous thing, especially for a zek. He writes of everyday life through a suspenseful plot interspersed with deep debates, a humour only one from such a life could convey properly, and the everyday lives of the citizens from starving college students to the highest official in the land. It is impossible to convey the beauty of the writing which is captured on each of the 741 pages, just as it is impossible to put myself in the place of a zek’s wife, yet Solzhenitsyn does his best to make these circumstances real for the reader. I cannot praise In the First Circle enough and it is my hope that everyone reads this book.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) was born in Kislovodsk, Russia. He earned a degree in mathematics and physics from Rostov University and studied literature through a correspondence course from the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature. A captain in the Soviet Army during World War II, he was arrested in 1945 for criticizing Stalin and the Soviet government in private letters. He was sentenced to eight years of incarceration, to be followed by “perpetual” internal exile, but was cleared of all charges in 1957 as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s campaign of de-Stalinization. Solzhenitsyn vaulted from unknown schoolteacher to internationally famous writer in 1962 with the publication of his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which Khrushchev himself authorized. The writer’s increasingly vocal opposition to the regime resulted in another arrest, a charge of treason, and expulsion from the USSR in 1974. For eighteen years of his exile, he and his family lived in Vermont. In 1994 he returned to Russia, thus fulfilling his longstanding prediction. He died at his home in Moscow on August 3, 2008.
I received a complimentary copy of In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Harper Collins to review. Receiving a copy in no way reflected my review of aforementioned novel.