Book World: 'In the First Circle' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010


By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

Translated from the Russian by Harry T. Willetts

Harper Perennial. Paperback, 741 pp. $18.99

The appearance in English of this new version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's best novel, mistranslated as "The First Circle" when it appeared in Britain and America more than 40 years ago, is an exciting literary event that is destined to be little noticed or appreciated in our Twitterized times. This is a sad but unavoidable fact. A long, demanding novel set in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, happily now just an artifact of the distant past, is most unlikely to find a large audience today. Nevertheless, I put it down with an exhilarating hope that this splendid new version, wonderfully translated by the late Harry T. Willetts, will help keep alive one of the most important horror stories of the horrific 20th century. Okay, I'm a romantic optimist. But this is a great and important book, whose qualities are finally fully available to English-speaking readers.

"In the First Circle," containing 96 chapters, is about a fifth longer than the original English translation, and it is a vastly better novel, though the earlier one was hailed as a masterpiece and contributed significantly to the Nobel Prize for Literature that Solzhenitsyn won in 1970.

On its surface the novel is a roman à clef based on Solzhenitsyn's experiences in a sharashka, or special prison camp, where he was held from 1947 to 1950. Sharashkas were used to compel talented Soviet citizens to develop advanced technologies, including jet aircraft and exotic metals. The inventors did their inventing while prisoners of the state. Many of the novel's characters were drawn from life -- fellow "zeks," or prisoners, whom Solzhenitsyn befriended. Two of the characters are obviously based on Solzhenitsyn himself. And one, Joseph Stalin, is an historical monster whose twisted mind becomes fodder for Solzhenitsyn's rich imagination.

The "first circle" is, of course, a reference to Dante's outermost neighborhood of hell, rather pleasant and rational compared to what comes later. For the zeks inside this sharashka, conditions are relatively idyllic: plenty to eat, warm and comfortable beds, occasional visits from family. But there is no freedom, and the place is run by mindless Soviet bureaucrats whose whimsical tyranny reflects the style of their ultimate boss, Stalin himself.

The sharashka that Solzhenitsyn knew firsthand was ordered to create a way to identify human voices by the sound waves they produced -- in other words, a technology that would enable the secret police to use recorded voices and telephone calls to find enemies of the Communist Party. The plot of this sprawling book turns on a recorded phone call placed by an impulsive young Soviet diplomat who risks his career, even his life, to do a good deed.

But what good deed?

In the version published in the late 1960s, Innokenty Volodin calls the home of his doctor. The distinguished medical practitioner is scheduled to meet the next day with French colleagues and give them a new medicine he helped invent. But Volodin tells the doctor's slow-witted wife over the phone, "He must not give the foreigners anything!" It was a warning that, in the paranoid atmosphere of the time, the doctor faced arrest and destruction if he followed through on his collegial intentions.

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