TWO BOOKS FOR MY LIFE
The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1962)
When my father died last year, I did not know how to mourn him. We had not seen one another for more than a decade and I felt that I had long since worked through his absence. Yet I wanted to mark his passing even if – or perhaps because – I did not take part in the funeral.
Browsing the bookshelves at home, I came across two novels I had last read some twenty-years ago: Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942) and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Published during the Second World War and its aftermath, a formative time in my father’s life, both novels focus on male protagonists to raise questions about empathy and what it means to be human.
The Stranger, a peculiar existentialist tale about the absurdity of life set in Algeria, tells the story of a detached first-person narrator, Meursault. In the first part of the book, Meursault murders ‘an Arab’ – a figure whose humanity plays no role in the development of the novel’s plot and philosophical musings. The second part follows Meursault into prison and through a trial that ends with his being sentenced to death. In contrast, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is concerned with survival in the dehumanizing and life threatening conditions of a Soviet prisoner camp. Told in the third-person, it follows the story of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, from the moment he wakes up to yet another cold and brutal day in the camp, to the time he goes to sleep that night.
I remember what it felt like reading these books as a teenager. Then, I was fascinated by the greatness of the issues they address, trying to understand their take on power, justice, agency and the meaning of life – even as I struggled to make sense of Camus’ coolly analytical protagonist and the hopeless suffering portrayed in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag story. I did not think these novels were connected to me or my family history.
When rereading the books in the summer of 2011, they struck a more familiar, familial chord. I suddenly noticed their shrewd representation of men who (struggle not to) come undone.
And so, begins Meursault’s description of the murder,
with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy.
Sentence by sentence, shot by shot, we follow the protagonist’s paradoxical self-undoing. For if Meursault fired the first deadly shot in a sweaty, unfocused haze, his realization of the severity of the deed does not change the course of his actions. ‘But I fired four shots more into the inert body,’ he continues, clear in the knowledge that ‘each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing’.
While Meursault self-destructs, understanding that the murder will lead to his own execution, Shukhov constructs a sense of purpose to stay alive. Part way through yet another day in the labour camp, he finds himself called to work on an old building. The physical task at hand gives him a new sense of focus:
And Shukhov no longer had eyes for the distant view, the glare of the sun on snow, the laborers struggling back from their warm hiding places to finish digging holes started that morning, or to strengthen the wire mesh for concrete, or put up trusses in the workshops. Shukhov saw only the wall in front of him. … Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it.
As Shukhov finds a temporary purpose to his life, the repetition of his name serves as a fragile reminder of his humanity. The metaphor of the wall captures well both Shukhov’s physical entrapment in the brutal conditions of the labour camp, and the mental strategy by which he seeks to survive his ordeal.
Outwardly The Stranger and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich have little to do with my father – I should note that he was neither a murderer not had he ever been imprisoned. But the above passages remind me of his stubborn determination to carry on with mistakes and his compulsion to build walls, real and imagined.
Fiction and historical evidence suggest that these are common traits especially in men who experienced as children the devastation of the Second World War. It can be difficult, however, to apply such historical knowledge to one’s own family. For instance, having attended school in Germany during the 1980s where I learned about the Holocaust and the lingering effects of Germany’s Nazi past, I used to think that my father’s unwillingness to discuss the war years was evidence that he too had been an active member of the Nazi party. It took me a surprisingly long time before I understood the date of his birth and grasped that he was only eleven years old by the time the war ended. I now realize that this confusion was caused by the fact that my father was trying to hide what he considered the shameful secrets that had marked his childhood in the 1930s and early 1940s: he was illegitimate – a fact that was no longer obvious as his parents had eventually married when my father was seven – and, perhaps even more alarmingly for a child brought up during the Nazi regime in a conservative, staunchly Catholic village in southern Germany, that his own father was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of a ‘stranger’ from North Africa or the Middle East.
My father would in due course marry a ‘stranger’, my mother, a refugee from East Prussia whose own family history has secrets associated with World War II. While my mother assimilated completely into village life and refused to discuss her past, I learned from my grandmother the story of the family’s wintry flight toward the Baltic Sea, hemmed in by Nazi soldiers and pursued by the Russian army. My grandmother, her children, parents and eleven brothers and sisters survived the trek, but her husband, Gustav Kirstein, went missing, thought to have disappeared in Russia in circumstance that remain obscure. One evening when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, an official sounding man from the Red Cross rang and asked to speak to my mother. Listening to what he had to say, my mother went very pale. ‘They think they found my father’, she eventually said. ‘He’s living in Russia’. Ultimately, this claim, which caused considerable upset in our household, turned out to be false, and the mystery of maternal grandfather’s fate remains unresolved.
Over the years, I have read many works of fiction that deal with family secrets and the experiences of war. The Stranger and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich address different questions, but their oddly pronounced resonances with my family history remind me of Virginia Woolf’s astute observation in A Room of One’s Own that sometimes fiction ‘is likely to contain more truth than fact’. If the novels appeal to me for the way they speak to the affective aftermaths of my parents’ formative childhoods during the Second World War, I recommend them here for their evocative prose – which I read in translation – and the glimpses they offer at the subjectivities of men who feel that they lead precarious lives.