Saturday, October 27, 2012

Preparing for Frankenstorm with Solzhenitsyn

Hurricane Sandy, the late-season storm that already has taken 43 souls in the Caribbean, is heading here. The radio stations are full of advice and warnings about what some forecasters are calling "Frankenstorm," because the cyclone is expected to meet a winter storm sometime close to Halloween.

I don't know if what happen in New Jersey though I feel certain we will lose power for several hours, if not days. That happens a lot in our old town with its ancient trees that tend to fall right on power lines. Our power grid is pretty fragile. My next-door neighbor is putting gas in his  generator.

We are so self-absorbed; deaths in Cuba and Haiti don't seem to matter much to us Americans. Our TV and radio are full of reports about how Americans are preparing by filling up our gas tanks and stocking up on milk and bread.

As part of my own preparation, yesterday after teaching I went into the book room and borrowed Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I figure if we are going to be sitting around in candlelight, I might as well have something good to read.

I also figure this novel about Soviet gulags will give me some perspective on what will likely be temporary inconveniences for my middle-class family. I never have read Solzhenitsyn and keep meaning to. The book, first published in 1962, is set in the Soviet labor camps of the 1950s. It describes a solitary day in the life of an ordinary prisoner and was an unprecedented account of Stalinist repression.

Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970s, knew the gulag system first hand, having been imprisoned eight years for criticizing in letters to friends the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin. Imagine living in such a time and place. He became a Christian while imprisoned. He reflected that the first step toward the gulag was the loss in the understanding of the Divine.

Early this morning, before heading out to fill up our SUV's gas tank and make sure we have enough food on hand, I read the novel's first chapter.  The writing is dark, and beautiful.

"It was freezing cold, with a fog that caught your breath. Two large searchlights were crisscrossing over the compound from the watchtowers at the far corners. The lights on the perimeter and the lights inside the camp were on full force. There were so many of them that they blotted out the stars."

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